And you are…?

San, Sama and Other Suffixes


When I first came to Japan, I really couldn’t speak any Japanese. There were some words that I knew. Armed with potential, I went out into public. What I didn’t realize was that my thought process was hopelessly English.


One of the things that perplexed me was that I never heard the word for “you”, あなた (awe naw taw).I asked a Japanese friend about it. He had no idea what I was talking about.


One important point about Japanese is that you rarely, if possible, refer to a person directly. Look at the following example.



(Approximate pronunciation) knee hone GA ski dess KA


This means: Do you like Japan?


Looks ok, but the word “you” doesn’t appear in the Japanese sentence. If you translate it literally, you get this:


Japan is liked?


This is a typical Japanese sentence.The structure of the verb also makes the sentence sort of passive.Very indirect!


When there is a need to refer directly to someone, there are some rules to remember.


First, if that person has a title, use it. The most common would be 先生 (Sensei) or teacher. This title is not only used for teachers, but professionals such as doctors, and sushi chefs.


Other titles can also be job positions such as principle (of a school) or master (the owner of a small shop).


When referring to someone older than you or someone you don’t know, use their family name plus “san.” So someone with the family name, Tanaka, would be “Tanaka-san.”


“Sama” is an honorific suffix and is used only by staff members and clerks when talking to customers. In my experience, most interactions other than customer relations, use “san” not “sama.” People don’t often meet someone of high enough status to require the honorific language.


With acquaintances, you can just simply use their family name. If they are of higher status than you, such as a boss or older than you, you should use “san.”


With friends, you can use given names, but it’s not uncommon for people to refer to each other by family names. I have a friend whose wife still calls him by his family name!


For boys, who are younger than you, you can add “kun” (koon.) So young Tanaka would be “Tanaka-kun.”


For girls, it’s “chan.” If Takaka were a girl, she’d be “Tanaka-chan”, but only if you know her well. Otherwise she would be “Tanaka-san”, despite her age. However, you would never refer to a very small child or baby by “san”. In that case, the parent would probably tell you the first name of the baby.


Wow, so many rules! And I haven’t even gotten to the different words for “you!” Yes, so many. But remember these two rules and you’ll be ok:


If the person has a title, use it.


Use the family name with the suffix “san.”


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