About You and Name Suffixes

In Lesson 4 of my Japanese Verbs anata is introduced as meaning "you." Actually, this word anata and any other word for "you" (there are several) are not used in Japanese near as often as you is in English, especially when talking to an individual. Once a person's name is known, it is usually used in place of "you" (as a native English speaker would consider it) when speaking to that person, which may sound a bit childish until you get used to it. For example, an English speaker usually wouldn't turn to his friend Bob and ask, "What does Bob want to eat for lunch?" but in Japanese that is exactly what you do.

Additionally, names are usually not used alone. "Name suffixes" are attached depending on the person and situation. The ones you will hear the most are san, sama, chan, and kun. Generally speaking, san is the "default" suffix for a person when none of the others are suitable. You will most likely want to use san with neighbors and business associates that you see regularly but perhaps not every day. San denotes friendliness and perhaps even familiarity while still including at least a touch of respectful distance.

Sama is an "honorific" suffix which is attached to the names of superiors or people you want to show special respect to, real or pretended. Customers who go into new car dealerships will have the luxury of hearing sama added to their names — for a while, at any rate. After the sale is made, time passes, and the car is brought in for routine checks or service, the customer will find that he or she is no longer a "sama," but is now a "san." This is normal and good, however, because san shows that a closer, more familiar (and, hopefully, a more trusting) relationship has been created between customer and service provider.

Among close friends and family members chan is usually heard. Parents add chan to their children's names, and children add it to the words for father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, older brother or sister (but not younger), aunt, uncle, etc. Customarily, within families chan is added to the first names of those younger than yourself and to the names of cousins, but to the title of those older. Also, names are often shortened before adding chan. For example, a girl named Emiko would probably be called Emiko-chan or Emi-chan by older family members, cousins, and playmates, as well as classmates and co-workers (in familiar settings, never in front of superiors, customers or clients) later in life. A boy named Hiroki might go by Hiro-chan unless he's going by Hiroki-kun or Hiro-kun. For those older, these are commonly used:

  • otou-chan (dad)
  • okaa-chan (mom)
  • ojii-chan (grandpa)
  • obaa-chan (grandma)
  • onii-chan (elder brother, older neighbor boy)
  • onee-chan (elder sister, older neighbor girl)
  • oji-chan (uncle, adult male neighbor, friend's father)
  • oba-chan (aunt, adult female neighbor, friend's mother)

Chan is also used with the names of pets, and even sometimes with special possessions and things like dolls, toys, bicycles, cars, etc.

Among male friends kun is used as the name suffix, unless an individual prefers chan. Teachers add kun to the names of male children students, chan to female students. When they are older, in middle or high school, girls are changed to san while males retain kun. Bosses add these to the names of subordinates sometimes. Family customs, company size and type, and personal preferences all come into play when choosing these suffixes.

As a safe rule, use san with colleagues' names and older girls, kun with boys, and chan with younger girls. You most likely won't use sama unless you meet a company president or owner. Even then, their title, such as shachou (company president) will normally be used instead of a generic suffix. Being observant and attentive will be the best guide for mastering name suffixes for the people you work with or know. And, you can always ask.

Now, let's get back to you. Again, "you" normally wouldn't be used when speaking to an individual when his or her name is known. If I wanted to ask my student Hiroki if he did his homework, the literal translation of the English sentence "Hiroki, did you do your homework?" would be: "Hiroki, anata wa anata no shukudai o shimashita ka", where anata is used for "you." This Japanese would be understood, of course, but would also sound very stiff, formal, and very odd. A native Japanese speaker would never use this kind of construction. The natural Japanese would be: "Hiroki-kun wa shukudai o shimashita ka," where the name of the person is used in place of the subject you. So, even though I use anata in example sentences in Japanese Verbs and elsewhere, it is really not used that much in daily conversational Japanese.

It's when speaking to groups that "you" becomes useful. Anatatachi could be used, but it conveys a certain distance, even displeasure: a teacher reprimanding a class might use this. So, the one left would be kimitachi, which shows familiarity, even some affection, toward the group concerned. There may be a certain feeling of "being talked down to" when kimi or kimitachi is used, but as long as the situation and the relationship between speaker and listener(s) warrants it and makes it sound natural, there's no problem. When I first came to Japan and was only several years older than my students, I really didn't feel comfortable using kimitachi, but now that I'm old enough to be their father it feels very natural and fitting. I would not use this with a class of people my age or older, however. I would probably use mina-san (everyone), which is the best choice when talking to large, mixed groups.

Japan, for better or worse, puts a lot of emphasis on a "vertical society" — knowing whether or not a person is above (me-ue) or below (me-shita) yourself. Much more could be said concerning all the various words and "levels" used when addressing others, but this should suffice for most students of Japanese for the first year or so.

© Tim R. Matheson

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