What Does Senpai Actually Mean? – A Short Guide to Japanese Honorifics

San, Chan, and Sensei–We're covering it all in this Crunchyroll Seminar!

If you watch anime, you’ve probably noticed that character’s often add a suffix to other character’s names, like “Hinata-kun,” “Komaeda-san,” or “Chiaki-chan.” These are called honorifics and they indicate quite a lot about the speaker and referred individual’s relationship! We’re going to go over some of the most commonly used honorifics in this piece, so let’s get started! CLASS IS IN SESSION.

K-ON! Yui, Mio, and Ritsu

Yui from K-ON! addressing her friend Mio with an affectionate honorific.

First, we’ll cover the most commonly used honorifics, starting with -san.

SanThe most common honorific and is a title of respect used between peers. “Mr.”, “Ms.”, and “Mrs.” are probably the closest things to -san in English. -San can be used in both formal and informal situations and can be applied to any gender.

KunA rather versatile honorific that has a few different uses:

  • Used by those of senior status when referring to someone of junior status (of any gender)

  • Used to refer to male children, male teenagers, or among male friends

  • Used to refer to a close male friend

ChanA diminutive honorific that implies that the one being referred to is cute or endearing. It is used by a speaker to refer to babies, young children, and it is often used among female friends to refer to one another. Using -chan to refer to a superior is considered to be really rude, so be careful!

TanAn even cuter diminutive. Often used to refer to moe anthropomorphisms.

Re:Zero -starting life in another world- Emilia

Emilia of Re:ZERO isn't familiar with Subaru's usage of -tan. 

Next, we’ll cover some honorifics you may have heard thrown around in anime before, especially in school series, sensei, senpai, and kouhai! These titles are very important to the social hierarchy in Japan, not only for school, but in a variety of professional settings. This section was adapted from an episode of our very own Anime Academy!

Sensei–Translates to “person born before another” and is most often used when speaking to a teacher, much like we use “professor” in the West. Sensei is also used to indicate respect toward highly educated professionals such as doctors and lawyers or individuals who are highly accomplished in their field. It is often added to manga creators' names as well!

Senpai–Roughly translates to “senior colleague” and generally refers to people who are closer to the speaker, usually upperclassmen and peers who have been in an organization longer. The title comes with a great deal of social responsibility since senpai are expected to act as role models and help those beneath them learn and grow.

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun's Mikoshiba, being a bad senpai.

KouhaiRoughly translates to “junior colleague” and is usually used to refer to underclassmen and new members of any group that are still in training. It’s the role of kouhai to learn from their sensei and look to their senpai for support and advice.

To learn more about the honorifics senpai, kouhai, and sensei, check out a related episode of Anime Academy below:

Last, let’s go over two edge-case honorifics that come up when you want to show extreme respect to someone.

SamaA very respectful honorific added to the name of people of a higher rank. Also often used to refer to one’s guests or customers, someone who the speaker respects, or a being of divine status.

DonoA respectful honorific that roughly translates to “lord” or “master.” Slightly less reverent than -sama. It isn’t commonly used in modern daily conversation, so it comes across as old-fashioned.



And that's all for this lesson! Are there any anime or Japan-related terms you would like to learn about? Let us know in the comments below!


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