Japanese Cultural Guide for Beginners: For those who wish to watch in Japanese and understand better.

First off this guide is for people who don’t know anything but the -san Honorific. I’ll be explaining the uses for each Honorific and why Japanese introduce themselves Last Name, First Name instead of First Name, Last Name like western cultures do.

 

Honorifics: Japanese people rarely call someone by their given name (first name for westerners) and if they do it’s often with an honorific attached to it. This section is going to cover the most demeaning to yourself honorifics to the least demeaning in that order. -san is in the middle. The example name I’ll be using is “John Smith”.

“Smith”-heike: Smith is your feudal king/emperor and you are expected to prostrate yourself when speaking to him/her. Standing is considered extremly rude as is looking them in the eye unless given permission.

“Smith”-sama: Smith is your lord/superior. This honorific is often used for people you admire or work for, but using it puts you at an extremely demeaning level. A company president would be called this if you were their secretary or worked under them.

“Smith”-dono: A term of respect towards your betters, often attributed to more wealthy people or clients in your shop/store. This is less demeaning than -sama is but not by much.

“Smith”-senpai: Smith is your elder in school or work. This is a term of respect, and while it isn’t necessary to use it is respectful. It can also be a term of address by itself.

“Smith”-san: Smith is someone who is either relatively unknown to you, or you are the same age/position in your school or work. It is the go to honorific and should be used for anyone you’ve just met.

“Smith”-kun/chan: A term used on either people who are younger than yourself or in a lower position in work. Also used for people who started working after you did at the same job. For example I joined Company A one year ago, John Smith just got hired. I would call him “Smith”-kun/chan. The reason -kun/chan is interchangeable is because one is more masculine and another is more feminine. It can be used for either gender, but as a foreigner you should use -kun for males and -chan for females until you understand the culture better. Knowing when to use one or the other is not something that can be explained easily from my experiences.

“Smith”: Smith is your close personal friend and has told you that you can call just call him/her “Smith”.

Note of Distinction: For -san and lower you may use their given name(first name) if they specifically tell you that it’s okay to use it. Do not just use “John” unless you are told it’s okay. It’s considered extremely rude.  Family members are usually given -san and lower unless their family is extremely formal with one another in which case -sama may be used to address the parents.

Irregular Honorifics: So far I can only think of -sensei as an irregular honorific. If I think of more I’ll add them to this list.

“Smith”-sensei: Smith is your teacher or doctor. Smith may also be an author or Mangaka (Manga author/artist). It is a term of respect and also can be used as a term of address by itself as well.

 

Family Terms: There are 8 familial terms one should understand from Japanese culture.

Important note: Every term below can have the “O” sound applied as a prefix which indicates that the term is used with more respect. Example: “O”tou-san= Honored father, literally.

Tou: Tou means father and while some children call their farther Papa, it isn’t the norm. Another term for father, most often used by male children is Oyaji. -sama may be applied, but is rarely used with just the Tou.

Kaa: Kaa means mother, and like above is sometimes called Mama.

Nee: Nee means elder sister. However this term may be used with someone who isn’t technically part of your family if you are rather close with the person. The honorifics -san and -chan may be used as well. In some rare cases you may find someone using a given name+nee to indicate you see them as an honorific. Example of this would be “Jane”-neesan or just “Jane”-nee.

Nii: Nii means elder brother and like Nee can be used in the exact same way. Important note: I’ve never heard anyone say “John”-niikun before. They would say “John”-niichan. Thus -kun is never used with Nii ever.

Otouto: Otouto means younger brother. However it is rarely used as a term of address except in introducing yourself as someone or another’s younger brother.

Imouto: Imouto means younger sister. The same rules apply for Imouto that Otouto has.

Jiji: Jiji means grandfather. When used as an honorific it becomes -jiji or -jiisan or -jiisama. These can be used for other elderly people that you are on very good terms with, if they give you the okay to do so.

Baba: Baba means grandmother. When used as an honorific it becomes -baasan or -baasama.The honorific -baba is a very rude term and shouldn’t ever be used when talking to the elderly.

Ba: Ba means aunt. When used as an honorific it becomes -basan or -basama. It can be used on people other than an aunt if you are on very friendly terms with them. For example your next door neighbor who you’ve known all your life growing up would be called “Smith”-basan. Careful note should be made of the distinctions between -baasan and -basan.

Ji: Ji means uncle. When used as an honorific it becomes  -jisan or -jisama. Same rules that apply to Ba apply to Ji. Again careful note should be made of the difference between -jiisan and -jisan.

 

Personal Pronouns: The many different forms of saying me in Japanese are often confusing to foreigners, but hopefully I’ll be able to clear the confusion a bit. I’ll start with the most formal and go down from there. Special Note: Female speakers can use masculine forms, but doing so often makes them sound Tomboyish, or less feminine at the very least.

Ware-ware: From what I know of this personal pronoun, it is something equivalent to the royal plural used in western cultures. For those not familiar with this custom, Royalty do not speak using singular pronouns and instead use a plural pronoun whenever speaking officially. For example a Queen or King would say ” We do not like green peas” and this would mean “I don’t like green peas”. However all this is just my personal introspection into this pronoun and I haven’t actually confirmed this with a native speaker.

Watakushi: This is a very formal form of the personal pronoun and is rarely used except by those who are much higher in standing than those they are talking to. It is demeaning to use this to random strangers and thus should never be used by foreigners, despite what any dictionary tells you this is not the best personal pronoun to use as a non native speaker.

Watashi: This is a more feminine pronoun and while it can be used by males they do so only in more formal situations most often. However it’s okay to do so without offending anyone if you don’t have anything to fall back on this is the perfect pronoun.

Boku: The more masculine equivalent of Watashi, it’s also a bit less formal and while it can be used by females it’s seen as a bit tomboyish. Like Watashi you won’t offend anyone using this with a stranger.

Ore: This is a very masculine pronoun and is rarely used by females who aren’t trying to be tomboyish. It is also very informal and if used in a formal situation can be offensive to those you are speaking to. Use this with caution.

Atashi: This is a cutesy way of speaking for females, I’ve never heard a male use this, and while it’s okay to use this in slightly formal situations it’s not advisable.  It’s slightly less formal than Watashi, but not nearly as informal as Ore.

 

I hope this guide helps people understand the Japanese culture a bit better and will not be as scared to watch shows from Japan in the language with subtitles added.

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