After discussing the other common suffixes san, kun, and chan, in today’s free Japanese lesson I am going to cover the meaning and usage of the Japanese honorific title sama (さま). Whenever it is added to a person’s name in daily life, anime, or manga, what does sama mean?
Sama (様) is the most formal and polite Japanese honorific and means “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms”, or “Miss” in English. It is primarily used when addressing guests, visitors, customers, or addressees in letters. Sometimes it is also used with family members, but this is more common in anime than in real life.
Since using the correct honorific is so crucial in Japanese I’m going to tell you exactly when you should and should not use sama (さま) down below. You will also find an in-depth explanation of the meaning of sama and learn the reason why the Japanese invented and say the suffix.
The Meaning of Sama (様, さま)
Among all the common Japanese honorifics sama (様, さま) is the politest, most respectful, and most formal one. In English, it usually translates as “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss”, or “Ms” (source), which are unfortunately the same translations as for the most common polite suffix san. Its meaning is different, though.
If you compare the two honorific titles, sama (様, さま) implies way more respect towards the other person. So if you want to convey the real meaning of sama in English a better translation would be something along the lines of “Dear respected Madam“, “Dear respected Sir“, or “Dear respected customer/guest“.
Since it expresses utmost respect and the superiority or higher status of the other person, it is most commonly used in business situations and the service industry where hospitality is indispensable.
In anime, however, sama (様, さま) is also sometimes used in casual situations when characters talk or refer to their family members. So you might hear them say Okaa-sama (お母様, mother) or Onii-sama (お兄様, brother) which means “Dear respected mother” or “Dear respected (older) brother“.
Another implicit meaning that the Japanese word sama (様, さま) includes is admiration. Usually for someone but sometimes also for something. That is why the honorific title is sometimes attached to the name of very talented or famous people that are looked up to (source) and other things or beings of worship.
I know some people, for example, who use the honorific sama for their pets or instruments, but more about that in the next section.
When & How to Use “Sama” in Japanese?
Sama (様, さま) is most commonly used in the customer and service industry where guests and clients have a high status and outstanding hospitality is expected. It is usually used after a person’s last or full name. In daily life, it is mostly used with divine deities and sometimes with admired people.
1. Using Sama in Formal & Business Situations
When you work in the customer or service industry or any other type of business where exceptional hospitality is expected, you should address your guests or customers by their last or full name plus sama (様, さま).
That’s why in Japanese hotels and especially renowned ryokans you will always hear them call you by your name and sama or Okyaku-sama (お客様), which is the Japanese word for “guest”, “visitor”, or “customer”. As you can see it already includes the respectful suffix sama.
At an event or conference, a group of people or members of the audience are also usually referred to by using the polite and respectful Mina-sama (皆様). Mina means “everyone” and by adding the honorific suffix you turn it into its politer version which translates as “ladies and gentleman” and means “Dear respected ladies and gentleman“.
In the office, however, when talking to your own boss or a senior at work it is better to use the common polite suffix san (さん). While you have to be respectful to your superiors and address them politely, sama adds an extra layer of formality and distance that just doesn’t feel appropriate in this situation.
The only exceptions to this rule are emails and letters. In written Japanese sama (様, さま) is the most commonly used honorific title following the addressee’s name. No matter if you are writing a client, guest, or your superiors. Although it can be okay to use san in emails with your seniors and coworkers.
And let’s not forget the usage of sama in the set phrase Otsukare-sama (お疲れ様) which means “thank you for your hard work” or “thank you for your good job“.
2. Using Sama in Informal & Daily Situations
In informal situations sama (様, さま) is used when referring to Japanese deities aka Shinto kami and Jesus Christ, for example. The Japanese word for god is kami (神) and you usually call them respectfully Kami-sama (神様) or Okami-sama (大神様).
It can also be used with someone or something you or the public consider a divine entity or something that is worth worshipping.
That’s why the honorific suffix sama is also commonly used with the royal family (except for the Emperor you have to use Heika), famous people or celebrities, a master or prodigy of a craft or art, or just someone you personally admire and look up to.
When Leonardo DiCaprio was really popular, for example, he was called Leo-sama (source). Probably because a lot of people found him very attractive. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, gained the cute suffix chan (ちゃん).
So this is one’s personal preference and therefore all up to you. If you are into classical music you could call Beethoven, Beethoven-sama. If you are into sports, you could refer to your favorite athlete by adding sama to their name. Tiger Woods-sama, Ali-sama, Ronaldo-sama, Serena-sama, etc.
I sometimes call my favorite musician Chiaki-sama (千秋様) or just Okami-sama (オオカミ様) since he is my own personal Jesus..I mean god of music. He also tends to refer to instruments with Gakki-sama (楽器様). Gakki is the Japanese word for “musical instrument”.
Another Japanese musician I really like has a cute dachshund named Lemon, but in his Instagram stories, he usually refers to him as Oinu-sama (お犬様). So feel free to use it for your pet or favorite animal, too!
You might also use sama (様, さま) when referring to or talking about your parents or siblings. It expresses utmost respect towards them. However, while you might hear this in anime, in real life the polite honorific title san and the more affection honorific suffix chan are rather used.
What is the Difference Between Sama and San?
San (さん) and sama (様, さま) are both honorific suffixes that are used to address someone politely. However, sama is more respectful and more polite than san. Therefore it is used for customers, guests, and clients, while san is used for strangers, acquaintances, one’s superiors, and seniors.
San indicates some degree of familiarity or equality. You work for the same company, etc. Sama, on the other hand, implies utmost respect for an individual with a higher rank or status than oneself or someone exceptionally talented or skilled.
Is Dono Higher than Sama?
Dono or tono (殿) is an old honorific that was used to address feudal lords and can be translated as, “lord”, “master”, or “milord”. However, the honorific sama (様, さま) is higher than dono since it indicates that the other person has a higher rank and status, while dono implies the same (high) rank.
If you are curious about the current usage of the old honorific dono in Japan, please be a bit patient. I’m going to add another article about it in the near future.
Why Do Japanese Say “Sama”?
In Japanese, the correct usage of honorifics is important, since just calling someone by their first, last, or even full name, is considered casual or rude.
Japanese say sama (様) to adequately address individuals with a higher rank or status and to express their utmost respect towards them. The previously used honorific dono (殿) became too common and so the Japanese invented the new suffix which was only used for people of a higher rank not the same.
Not adding any type of suffix such as sama, san, chan, or kun is called yobisute (呼び捨て) and should only be done with people you are very close since it implies a high degree of intimacy and closeness. For example, it is okay to drop the suffix after the name of your partner or spouse, younger family members, and close friends.
Summary & Recap: The Japanese Honorific “Sama”
- Most commonly used for deities, guests, visitors, and customers
- Is only used for people that have a higher status than oneself
- It can be used to express admiration for someone or something
- In anime, it is also used when addressing family members, but that is less common in real life
- Used to address members of the royal family (except for the Emperor)
- Aso used in common words and set phrases (see list below)
- Never use sama with your own name
- You shouldn’t use Ore-sama since it sounds rude and arrogant
- Don’t use sama with your boss and seniors, san is more appropriate
- Sama is politer than san, chan, and kun
- It is higher than the old honorific dono
- Chama (ちゃま) is a cuter version of sama
|full name||Watanabe Yui-sama|
|Mrs. Watanabe Yui|
|Mr. John Miller|
|Mr. Leo(nardo) DiCaprio|
|Mrs. Erika (Sawajiri)|
List of Common Words & Set Phrases With “Sama”
|様||sama||Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms (respectful)|
|お客様||okyaku-sama||guest, visitor, customer|
|神様||kami-sama||God, superior person|
|お子様||o-ko-sama||someone else’s child|
|お日様||o-hi-sama||the Sun (used by children)|
|殿様||tono-sama||nobleman, lord, feudal lord|
|俺様||ore-sama||I, me (arrogant, rude)|
|お疲れ様||otsukare-sama||Thank you (for your hard work)|
|ご苦労様||gokurou-sama||Thank you for your hard work|
|ご馳走様||gochisou-sama||Thank you for the meal|
|お待ちどう様||omachidou-sama||I’m sorry to have kept you waiting|