What Does San Mean in Japanese?

If you have lived in Japan or have been around the Japanese, you would notice how often San comes up. San is a Japanese honorific. It is very often used by the Japanese when addressing each other or having a conversation.

In this article, we will tell you what San means in Japanese, and maybe after reading, you’ll be able to have a good rapport with your Japanese colleagues and handle polite expressions properly.

About Japanese honorifics

In the Japanese language, honorifics are prefixes and suffixes used when referring to others in a conversation. It is more like a title that conveys courtesy, esteem, or respect for someone’s position or rank. It is also used to give academic titles like lawyers and doctors.

While prefixes are attached to many nouns, suffixes are used to end the names of people. Suffixes are also age-specific and are used to indicate the relationship level of the addresser and the addressed. Most times, these suffixes are accompanied by other Japanese honorific speeches like Keigo.

Some of the commonly used Japanese honorifics include; sama, San, Kun, dono and chan.

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What is San?

If you’re wondering what “san” is and how to use it, San is a Japanese honorific categorized as a prefix. It is a gender-neutral suffix used at the end of a person’s name. Of all the Japanese honorifics, San is the most commonplace.

It is used as a title of respect by people of the same age, who are often considered equals and those above. So when you use it, it means you are addressing someone either of your age range or older than you both in age and rank.

San is a close equivalent of the titles “Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms. in English. However, it is almost universally added to the person’s name. To do this, you would have to add San after you have mentioned the person’s name.

San is universal. This universality makes it possible for you to use it in either a formal or informal context. What’s more, since it is the most common of honorifics, you can use it to convert common nouns into proper ones.

For instance, if you were to address a bookseller, you could say honya-san, which means “bookstore-san”. One thing about the Japanese people is how particular they are about politeness. It is part of their standard etiquette and manners.

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San may seem like an easy word, but it can be challenging to use, especially when you have no prior knowledge or information about the person you are addressing. Most times, it is hard to differentiate between San and other honorifics.

They are pretty similar. This makes it hard to use them. Since there is only a subtle difference between San and other honorifics, most non-Japanese speakers who are learning the language don’t know when to use Japanese honorifics, and they get confused.

It gets more complicated when you have to access the person you are addressing to perceive if they’re superior or inferior. To put this in perspective, just like other honorifics, San has a very subtle expression. This brings us to learning when to use San while speaking Japanese.

Using San when speaking Japanese

The Japanese language is one of the most interesting languages to learn. Most Japanese words sound so nice that you sometimes find yourself repeating them for the melody. While learning Japanese, you must know how to use ‘san’.

You know how you use the term “Mr.” to address someone in a formal setting and keep things professional; this is what San means in Japanese. You should know that although San is used in formal cases, it can be used in informal settings.

The following examples will give you a template on how to use San. Before we begin, remember that as much as San is age-specific, it is gender-neutral. It is used to address both male and female genders.

You can also use it with a surname and a first name. Also, you can use San as an attachment to occupations and titles. The following examples will show you how to use San;

Surnames

  • Tanaka-san – Mr. Tanaka
  • Yamada-san – Mr. Yamada

One exciting thing about this style of titling is that you can address a family the same way. For instance, if you are to address the wife of Mr Yamada in Japanese, it remains “Yamada-san”, and the same goes for his unmarried daughter.

First name

  • Yoko-san – Miss. Yoko
  • Mayumi-san – Miss. Mayumi

Title

  • Oisha-san – Doctor
  • Bengoshi-san – lawyer
  • Shichou-san – Mayor
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Occupation 

  • honya-san – bookseller
  • Sakanaya-san – fishmonger.

Why Japanese add San to names

In Japan, politeness and good manners are a lifestyle. So it is important that when you’re addressing someone that you use a title. Calling someone by just their name is considered rude and disrespectful.

So if you don’t want to come off as disrespectful or exhibit bad manners, ensure you use San when addressing someone. There are other Japanese etiquettes that you should learn too if you’re planning to visit Japan.

Difference between San, chan, Kun, and sama

San, chan, Kun, and sama are all Japanese honorifics. While San is commonly used to address people generally, others address specific titles or levels.

For chan, the Japanese use this honorific to address a younger person. Someone who hasn’t reached a mature age. Technically a child. You can add -chan to their first names when addressing someone below 20 in Japan. This is usually used by an adult when addressing a child.

Kun is used to addressing someone of a lower rank by a higher position. For instance, in your workplace, you can address someone of a lower status using -Kun. Kun is also used when referring to men in general. In this instance, Kun has an emotional attachment.

Sama is used to address someone of a higher rank. It is a more respectful way to do so. You can use -sama when addressing customers, guests, and divine entities. You can also use it when addressing someone you admire.

When to use San and When not to

As a non-native Japanese speaker learning Japanese, you may already have come across the rules on when to use San and when not to. For those who don’t already know, the following rules will help you understand when to use “San.”

  • Use San when addressing those older than you in age and rank/station, or use their titles.

In Japan, you are expected to address an older person using -San. But if you have a specific relationship with that person, you should then address them by their specific titles. For instance, if you were to address your teacher, using -San after their last name would be considered disrespectful.

You should instead use the specific title used for addressing a teacher in Japan. Teacher in Japanese is “sensei”. So if you are to address Mr. Taro Tanaka as your teacher in Japan, it will be “Tanaka-sensei” instead of “Tanaka-san”. The latter is seen as a sign of disrespect in Japan. Try to remember this.

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Though native Japanese language teachers often tell their students to address them by their first names, Japanese people always instinctively add -sensei to their names. Say Taro will be “Taro-sensei“.

The same goes for your work environment. Assuming you were to address someone at your workstation with a higher rank than you do, you should only address them by their titles. In this case, you are not expected to add their names.

Let’s say you want to address the division head of the company where you work; you would address them by their title. In Japanese, the division head is “kachou”. If his name is Taro Yamada, you are not to call him by his name. Instead, you are to address him as kachou.

  • San should be used on default.

San should be used to address people you meet for the first time. It would be best always to use San to address people until they become very close to us. It is advisable to do so still until you are told otherwise.

If you’re speaking to a Japanese, remember to address them by their surname +san, except they prefer to be addressed by their first name. When you do this, don’t forget to add -San to it.

For instance, when you’re meeting Taro Tanaka, you should address him as Tanaka-san. If he says you should call him by his first name because you have become friends, you are to call him “Taro-san” until he tells you not to.

Conclusion 

San is the most common honorific in the Japanese language. So it is okay to use it when you’re not so sure which honorific to use. Using san can be tricky but once you know when to use it and when not to, you’ll not have so much trouble addressing people.

Now that you know what San means and how to use it, you can now confidently address people in Japanese.