How to Refer to People in Japanese
An important form of Japanese courtesy is knowing how to refer to people. When meeting people in Japan, be sure to use the appropriate formal title. San is the most commonly used respectful title placed someone’s first or last name, regardless of their gender or marital status. Sama is a more formal respectful title — use it after the family names of your clients, customers, or those to whom respect is due.
san (a polite/neutral respectful title)
Sumisu-san (Mr. Smith)
Tanaka-san (Ms. Tanaka)
sama (formal respectful title)
Sumisu-sama (Mr. Smith)
Tanaka-sama (Ms. Tanaka)
Place a respectful title after the other people’s names, but not after your own name.
When addressing your superiors at work or school, place their job titles after their family name instead of using respectful titles. For example, if Mr. Brown is your teacher, address him as Buraun-sensei (sensei means teacher) instead of Buraun-sama)
The next most common way to refer to people is by using personal pronouns. In Japanese, the pronouns (you and they) are complicated by gender and formality. You’ll use slightly different variations of these words depending on who you are referring to and how well you know them. The personal pronouns in Japanese are
anata (you [singular])
anata-tachi (you [plural])
karera (they [M])
kanojora (they [F])
karera (they [M, F, or mixed group])
In Japanese conversations, pronouns are often dropped, and the use of anata especially is avoided. If anata can’t be dropped, it’s replaced by the person’s name. For example, instead of saying “Hey, Ken. Is this your book?” the Japanese say something like, “Hey, Ken. Is this Ken’s book?” It may sound strange to you, but it is perfectly fine and is preferred for Japanese.
What to call family and friends
It is also helpful to know the correct vocabulary term for referring to people based on their age, gender, or relationship to you. In Japanese, family terms also have a plain form and a polite form.
Use the plain form to refer to your own family members in front of others. Use the polite form to refer to someone else’s family members. For example, “my father” would be watashi no chichi and “Ms. Yamada’s father” would be Yamada-san no otōsan. And “My father met Ms. Yamada’s father” would be Watashi no chichi wa Yamada-san no otōsan ni aimashita.
Plain forms and polite forms are also called humble forms and respectful forms.
otoko no hito (man)
onna no hito (woman)
otoko no ko (boy)
onna no ko (girl)
kodomo/okosan (child [plain/polite])
chichi/otōsan (father [plain/polite])
haha/okāsan (mother [plain/polite])
musuko/musukosan (son [plain/polite])
musume/musumesan (daughter [plain/polite])
ani/onīsan (older brother [plain/polite])
otōto/otōtosan (younger brother [plain/polite])
ane/onēsan (older sister [plain/polite])
imōto/imōtosan (younger sister [plain/polite])
In conversations, shujin is often used instead of otto to refer to one’s own husband, and kanai is often used instead of tsuma to refer to one’s own wife. However, when wives are talking to their husbands, they often address them with anata, which literally means “you,” but actually means something like “honey” or “dear” in English.
When addressing your older family members (other than your spouse), use the polite form. When addressing your younger family members or your spouse, use their first name or nickname. You really have to understand the difference between “addressing” and “referring to” to get this right.
“Addressing” is when you’re talking to the person and calling him or her, mostly to get attention. “Referring” is when you aren’t talking to the person, but talking about him or her to someone else.