When you first start learning Japanese, it is easy to get confused about how to address people correctly. The first form of address many learners come across is ‘san’. San is such a useful general purpose address that at first that it becomes easy to forget that there are plenty of others.
Keep studying and soon you will soon come across sama, then kun and chan, may even hear tan.
The different uses of all of these addresses can be quite difficult for learners, so here we’ll look at some of the common uses.
Being polite: san and sama
Whether to use san or sama can be quite tricky at first. 様 (Sama) is usually added to the end of particularly esteemed people’s names. The good news is that, most of the time, you will only have to use sama to talk directly to customers. Either add sama to the end of someone’s name or refer to them as 客様 (Kyaku-sama) if you don’t know their name.
You should be careful not to overuse sama. In one particularly embarrassing experience, after spending my weekend getting my phone, Internet and my apartment sorted out in my first week in Japan, I had become so used to be addressed as ‘Kyaku-sama’ that I introduced myself at my school as ‘Coslett-sama’. The awkward silence immediately told me how wrong this was.
This would be weird in English too as I basically introduced myself as ‘the honorable Mr. Coslett’. While this was a minor mistake, adding sama to your name can be considered shockingly rude in certain cases. 俺様 (ore-sama), for example, creates a pronoun so rude that people will stare at you like you just came out of a cartoon if you use it. Admittedly, this is probably because most have probably never heard this used except by the villains in anime!
Talking about people’s careers: the general san
One of the most interesting uses of san is that it can be added to a job description as a general way to describe someone who does that job. Don’t know your bookseller’s name? You can simply call that person 本屋さん (Honya-san. ‘Mr. Bookstore’) to refer to that person or their business.
コックさん (Kokku-san. Mr. Cook) and even 外人さん (Gaijin-san. Mr. Foreigner) are some common uses of this grammar point that you will hear.
Getting closer: Chans, tans and kuns
While both san and sama are gender-neutral. Some of the more affectionate phrases are usually attached to one sex or the other. As a general rule, chan is attached to female names as a form of affection. For men’s names, kun is more often used.
As ‘chan’ means that someone feels fond of something, a lot of really cute things are chan. The ever-popular Hello Kitty character, for example, is usually referred to as Kitty-chan. You will often hear people using it when they talk about animals and pets such as 犬ちゃんはかわいそうな (inu-chan ha kawaisou na- Poor Mr. Dog).
For the really super cute you may even hear ‘tan’ which is a sweet version of chan. As a general rule, this cuter sounding version is mostly used by very young kids such as in お兄たん (oniitan – my big brother), as tan is a lot easier for little mouths to say.
This is not the only use, however, as it can be used for older people to emphasize how young they are. Examples of this use can be found in the popular manga Binchoutan or as the nickname for one of the pop band NMB48’s popular members (Known as ななたん – Nanatan).
While chan is usually considered slightly feminine, a lot of men have happily attach chan or even tan to their names. The famous entertainer Kaba-chan or even Arnold Schwarzenegger (Known as shuwa-chan in Japan) are some examples of this. In this case, it is designed to give an affectionate or cute image even if the person you feel affectionate about is a hulking Austrian strongman!
The romantic addresses
Most of the time, it is ok for women to add chan to the end of their boyfriend’s name and vice-versa. A 2009 survey asked couples about how they would like to be addressed and discovered that the top answer for men was simply their name. If this seems a bit impersonal, this answer was closely followed by their name+ kun/chan or an affectionate nickname.
On the other hand, women overwhelming preferred hearing their name+chan or a nickname. Interestingly, name+san was an overwhelming loser for both sexes and name+sama was considered so impersonal that it didn’t even feature.
Luckily the Japanese are generally quite accepting of mistakes. Even my huge error was quickly forgotten. However if you listen closely, you may hear your audience mutter something about 呼び捨て (Yobisute) which is a Japanese code word for someone inappropriately dropping the required address. If you hear them mutter this term, then you have just enough time to apologize and use an appropriate term to save face.