Otaku Culture

A Look at: Japanese Honorifics

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One big part of being a fan of Japanese pop culture is hearing and perhaps at one point in your life, understanding the Japanese honorifics. Honorifics, for those of you who are still fresh to the Japanese fan craze, are titles that we use to address people.

For instance, we use Mr., Ms., Mrs., Sir, Ma’am as a few of the honorifics. They create not just a ranking in our society but also a gender oriented understanding. Japan also has one of these systems, however, it is a bit more extensive, and it is one that you’ll come into contact with quite often in anime and manga.

So first and foremost, let’s get the bigger chunk of info out of the way, and bring up the standard Japanese honorifics. Courtesy of TvTropes.com, here is a breakdown of the most popular honorifics that you’re bound to see and hear in manga and anime.

Senpai/ Sempai

“Usually translated as “upperclassman” in stories set in high school or college, but it more precisely means “mentor” or “senior”, depending on context; it is also used in workplaces, clubs, organizations etc. for employees/members with seniority in relevance to the speaker. Due to differences between romanization systems, it can be spelled in Western languages as either “senpai” {Kunrei} or “sempai” {Hepburn}. (Both spellings are technically correct; the former is a closer transliteration of the Japanese spelling, but the latter better reflects the actual pronunciation.) Senpai/sempai can be attached to the end of someone’s name or be used on its own.”


“The inverse of -senpai/-sempai, meaning someone of a lower class year or lower seniority than the speaker. It’s not strictly speaking an honorific since it’s not normally attached to a name, and it’s considered rude to use to a person’s face.”


“Literally means “one who has come before”. Usually heard in English referring to martial arts masters. Also applies to doctors, teachers, and masters of any profession or art. It is also standard for professional writers who are classed as teachers. In short, the rule of thumb runs thus: doctors, teachers, lawyers, writers and scientists who got their doctorates are called “sensei” automatically; with the others it’s debatable. In recent years this has become an all-purpose suck-up word, and is now more often used sarcastically than as a genuinely respectful term. This has brought complaints of Dude, Where’s My Respect? from real masters and artists. Those who routinely read the liner notes of manga will notice that this is still used as a term of respect for – and between – prominent manga artists (e.g. “Akamatsu-sensei” for Ken Akamatsu).”


“Similar to -sensei, but limited to certain traditional Japanese arts and crafts, including martial arts. When used as a stand-alone word, it’s usually translated as “master”. It also denotes extreme respect from the speaker to their target; this is lampshaded in Naruto and Mobile Fighter G Gundam.”


“Used when addressing an academic whose expertise is VERY high. Technically this means “Doctor”, but in practice it’s actually reserved for even higher ranks and is more or less equivalent to addressing someone as “Professor”. On the other hand there’s little hard and fast rules in this area and the correct usage depends more on the personal preferences of the addressee.”

Niisan/ Neesan

“Literally refers to one’s older brother or sister, respectively, but can also be used to refer to a relative within your generation that is older than you (e.g. an older cousin) or a slightly older close friend that you consider to be like a brother or sister, similar to -senpai. note  To directly address your brother or sister, add O- to the beginning (it denotes respect), but if you don’t feel particularly respectful, feel free to omit it. Siblings trying to be cute will sometimes refer to their older counterparts as Onii-chan or Onee-chan. An alternate way of being very casual, typically seen more in fiction than reality, is to drop the san and address the subject as “<name>-nii” or “<name>-nee”.”

Jisan/ Basan

“Literally refers to one’s uncle or aunt respectively, but also used to refer to middle-aged adults with whom the speaker is already acquainted. Changing it to -jichan or -bachan denotes familiarity and is like saying Aunty. Not seen as insulting unless the person is sensitive about their age. (A woman under 30 is likely to be insulted, though.) Be careful with how long you draw out the i and a sounds, lest this suffix become…”

Jiisan/ Baasan

“Literally refers to one’s grandfather and grandmother, but also used to refer to much older adults with whom the speaker is already acquainted. Changing it to -jiichan or -baachan is like saying Gramps or Granny. Not seen as insulting unless the person is sensitive about their age.”


“One level below -kun on the formality ladder. It’s an affectionate masculine diminutive, how one might address a particularly young niece or nephew. Roughly equivalent to addressing someone with a nickname like “squirt” or in a friendly tone calling them “twerp”, or to express mild irritation/annoyance.”


“A very generic and very polite suffix used in formal writing and speech to refer to someone whom the speaker or writer has never met but know about through writing and hearsay. Most often used by news presenters and writers of legal documents. If there is only one person addressed as shi in a document, it is permissible to use “shi” as a standalone pronoun.”

If you want to learn more about each honorific head on over to TvTropes.com

Chances are the one that will make you giggle is the senpai/sempai honorific. In more recent years, among many anime and manga fans, the term “notice me senpai” has become rather popular.

For those who may not know that much about it, it is basically mimicking the desire of a lower underclassmen who wants their upperclassmen to notice them. In this instance, they usually have a crush on them, in some other cases it is just more of a glorified feeling of idolization.

They see them as perfect, perhaps the way many of us see celebrities and famous people that we idolize. When we are in the presence of these people we hope that “our senpai will notice us.” But now, like many other internet memes, it has a life of its own, and has become a spoof of its former self.

It shows just how influential and powerful the Japanese culture continues to be on many cultures around the world.