Japanese Family Titles in Anime

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Since my post on Japanese honorifics seems to have become pretty popular, I am going to post my notes on family titles. Once again, this is for the benefit of people who watch anime with subtitles but do not know Japanese, and who want to be able to pick up nuances that the subtitles leave out. (In dubbed versions these are totally lost.) This stuff will probably seem pretty elementary to long-time fans.

English, of course, has a number of family titles: words like “Mom”, “Dad”, “Grandma” etc. Japanese has many more of these, with numerous variations which can tell you quite a bit about the characters who use them. I won’t try to cover every possible title, but will focus on the most common ones heard in anime.

Basic Family Titles

These are the titles that you hear most often:

  • otou-san Used to address one’s father.
  • papa Used to address one’s father–mostly by girls.
  • okaa-san One’s mother.
  • mama One’s mother–mostly by girls.
  • onii-san Older brother. (Sometimes used to address older male cousins.)
  • onee-san Older sister (or older female cousin.)
  • <first name> (sometimes with -chan) One’s children, younger siblings, younger cousins, or other junior family members.
  • <first name> (sometimes with -san) One’s spouse.
  • anata (Old fashioned.) Used by women to address their husbands–often translated as “Dear” or “Darling”.
  • obaa-chan Grandmother.
  • ojii-chan Grandfather.
  • oba-san Aunt.
  • oji-san Uncle.

Common Variations

Most of these can be varied by omitting the honorific o- prefix or changing the ending honorific. For example you might call your older brother any of the following:

  • onii-san Polite and respectful.
  • onii-chan Polite and affectionate.
  • nii-san Informal but still respectful.
  • nii-chan Informal and affectionate.
  • onii-sama Way too formal. Oujo characters sometimes use this since they speak with exaggerated politeness.

This tells us something about how the speaker feels about the other person, but it tells us more about how formal or affectionate the family as a whole is. Families whose members call each other “-sama” are scary.

Grandparents are always addressed using “-chan”.

Like most titles these can be used as honorifics for disambiguation. For example, if you have two older brothers in the room you could distinguish them by calling them “Hajime-onii-san” and “Jirou-onii-san”.

The Twin Problem

We know that younger family members are addressed by name, and older members by title. So what about twins? The answer is that everyone must keep track of which twin was born first, and that one is treated as the older sibling.

I would think this might cause resentment, but if so it is never obvious. At one point in Lucky Star Tsukasa wonders what life would be like if she had been born first. She imagines that this means that she and Kagami would have swapped personalities, and decides that she is happier without the responsibility of being the onee-chan. This implies that her identity is so tied up with her position in the family hierarchy that the thought of changing it is frightening.

The Youngest Child Rule

Parents often make a point of using the family titles that the youngest child should use. For example, if you are the youngest child, your mother might call herself “okaa-san” and refer to your father as “otou-san” and to your older brother as “onii-chan”. This is one way that children learn what titles they should use.

For similar reasons elementary school teachers usually refer to themselves as “sensei” when addressing the class.

Archaic Family Titles

The following titles are not used in everyday life, but are heard in historical dramas. They may also be used by strange characters whose families have clung to old traditions.

  • chichiue Used to address one’s father. This is pronounced with 4 distinct syllables: “chi·chi·u·e”.
  • hahaue Used to address one’s mother.
  • aniue Older brother.
  • aneue Older sister.

“ue” is written with the kanji for “above” and serves as a very respectful honorific suffix.

Abnormal Titles

The following titles indicate something unusual in the relationship. They may be used for a step-sibling or for a sibling that you didn’t meet until he was full grown.

  • aniki Older brother. Also used by gangsters for more senior gang members.
  • aneki Older sister.
  • <first name>-nii Older brother.
  • <first name>-nee Older sister.

Talking About Your Family

When speaking to outsiders you are supposed to refer to members of your family humbly, without honorifics, just as you are not supposed to use an honorific when referring to yourself. Children have trouble with this rule; it seems unnatural to them to refer disrespectfully to an older family member. Adults and older teenagers are more likely to follow it.

  • chichi My father.
  • haha My mother.
  • ani My older brother.
  • ane My older sister.
  • ototo My younger brother.
  • imoto My younger sister.
  • kyoudai My sibling(s).
  • musuko My son.
  • musume My daughter.
  • kodomo My children.
  • jii-chan My grandfather.
  • baa-chan My grandmother.
  • tsuma My wife.
  • kanai My wife (old-fashioned.)
  • otto My husband.
  • shujin My husband (old fashioned.)
  • oba My aunt.
  • oji My uncle.
  • shoukei My older male cousin.
  • shoutei My younger male cousin.
  • shoukeitei My male cousin(s) of unspecified age
  • shoushi My older female cousin.
  • shoumai My younger female cousin.
  • shoushimai My female cousin(s).
  • itoko My cousin(s) (unspecified).
  • kazoku My family.

Talking About Other Families

Conversely, when speaking about someone else’s family you must use a respectful honorific.

  • otou-san Your father.
  • okaa-san Your mother.
  • onii-san Your older brother.
  • onee-san Your older sister.
  • ototo-san Your younger brother.
  • imoto-san Your younger sister.
  • musuko-san Your son.
  • musume-san Your daughter.
  • oko-san Your child/children.
  • oku-san Your wife.
  • goshujin Your husband.
  • danna Your husband (less formal.)
  • gokazoku Your family.

Family Titles for Total Strangers

Oddly enough it can be completely appropriate to use family titles to address someone you don’t know well. In fact this is useful when you don’t know the name of the person you are speaking to.

  • onii-san To address a teenage boy or young man.
  • onee-san Teenage girl or young woman.
  • oji-san Middle-aged man.
  • oba-san Middle-aged woman.
  • ojii-san Old man.
  • obaa-san Old woman.
  • imoto-chan Young girl.
  • musume Girl (sounds patronizing; you had better be old enough to be her parent.)

Small children will say “-chan” instead of “-san”. From anyone older this would be disrespectful.

If a girl calls an unrelated older girl “onee-sama” that implies a crush and sounds rather kinky.

Unmarried women in their twenties are sensitive about being called “oba-san”. It’s sort of like calling them “Ma’am” in English.

It is important to keep track of long vs. short syllables. You really don’t want to mix up “oba-san” and “obaa-san”.

Exceptions that Prove the Rule

When anime characters violate the above rules there is often an interesting reason for it.

In Ah! My Goddess! Megumi calls her older brother Keiichi “Kei-chan” as if he were her younger brother. Fans of the manga know the reason: their parents don’t believe in family titles and forbid their use. Their children call them “Keima-san” and “Takano-san”. If they were American parents Keima and Takano would probably name their children “Peace” and “Moonflower.”

In Cardcaptor Sakura Fujitaka addresses his children rather formally as “Sakura-san” and “Touya-kun”, much as a teacher might address his students. Fujitaka is in fact a teacher (a college professor) and he runs his household much like a school. This may be his way of coping with the challenges of single parenthood.