What Does San Mean in Japanese? When, Why & How to Use it


What Does San Mean in Japanese? When, Why & How to Use the Japanese Honorific title suffix さん

The Japanese word san (さん) has more than 10 different meanings depending on whether it is written in Hiragana, Kanji, or Katakana. In daily Japanese, business Japanese, and anime, however, you will most commonly hear it when a person or character is addressing someone directly or talking about them. So here is what “sanmeans in Japanese when added to a name.

San (さん) is a Japanese honorific title used to address someone with higher status in a respectful and polite way. It’s the most common honorific and means “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms”, or “Miss” in English. You can use the suffix with men and women, someone’s first or last name, titles, and some common nouns.

If you are looking for a more detailed explanation of what “san” means in Japanese you can find all of its other meanings in the list down below. You will also get to know when you should and should not use the honorific suffix, the reason why Japanese people say it, and how to use san with occupations, titles, and common nouns.

What Does “San” Mean in Japanese?

In Japanese, the actual meaning of a word often depends on how it is written. The same goes for the Japanese word san. If it is written as さん (san) in Hiragana it is a Japanese honorific title that is added after a person’s name and means “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss”, or “Ms”.

However, if it is written in Katakana as サン (san) it actually means “sun” in English. While written in Kanji it has all kinds of meanings depending on which Chinese character is used including three (三), acid (酸), Mt. or Mount (山) as in Fuji-san, and many more.

Here is a detailed overview of what the Japanese word “san” can mean:

さんsanMr, Mrs, Miss, Ms
サンsansun
san3, three
sanacid, sourness
sanchildbirth, product of, …
sanpicture caption, legend
sanMt., Mount
sancalculation
sanbrilliant, resplendent
sanframe, bar, bolt
Meanings of the Word “San” in Japanese

(Translations are taken from the Japanese-English online dictionary Jisho and the Japanese-German online dictionary wadoku)

For the rest of this blog post, I want to focus on the first meaning of san when it is said after a person’s name since this is the most likely situation you are going to encounter it. No matter if you hear it in daily life, a business situation, or anime.

Meaning of San in Japanese After a Name (Honorific Title)

When san (さん) is used after a person’s name it is a so-called honorific title or honorific suffix and is usually translated as “Mr.”, “Miss”, “Ms.”, or “Mrs.”. In contrast to its English translations, however, the Japanese suffix is actually gender-neutral, does not indicate the person’s marital status, and can be used in formal as well as informal situations.

That is why a person called Ito-san, for example, could either be the married Mr. Ito, the married Mrs. Ito, the unmarried Miss Ito, or Ms. Ito, whose marital status is unknown to us.

The issue with the word’s general English translations becomes even more evident when san (さん) is added after a person’s first name. In Japan, it is perfectly fine to use someone’s given name and call them Aki-san or Steffi-san which would be Mr. Aki and Mrs./Ms./Miss Steffi in English. Something which just doesn’t sound natural when translated.

So if the English counterparts don’t do it justice what does san (さん) actually mean?

Adding the Japanese honorific title san (さん) to a name shows that the speaker addresses a person or talks about someone (or something as we will learn later) in a respectful and polite way.

The suffix implies a certain degree of familiarity or knowledge about the other person but also shows that they are not very close and/or that the other person has some kind of authority or higher status. They might have just met or the other person is the speaker’s boss, for example.

Exactly the same meaning applies when san (さん) is used in anime after a character’s name.

When & How to Use “San” in Japanese?

According to Wikipedia and other Japanese online resources like this one, for example, san (さん) is the most commonplace honorific and so it can be used in a wide variety of situations. So let’s take a look at when you should and should not use san in Japanese.

San (さん) should be used with strangers, acquaintances, and any familiar person you have to address in a politely or respectful way like your boss or senior. It should never be used with one’s own name and friends. However, it can be added to occupations, companies, and some things such as foods.

As a general rule, I suggest that when you are unsure which honorific suffix you should use choose San (さん). It is the safest option in informal and formal situations, especially among adults.

1. Using San in Informal & Daily Situations

When it is the first time you see or meet someone or when you are still getting to know each other you should use san (さん).

That means with a stranger, a classmate or acquaintance you have just talked to a couple of times, as well as your friend’s parents or your friend’s friends, whom you have just met or don’t know very well, you should always use san (さん).

Don’t make the mistake and use other more familiar honorific suffixes such as chan (ちゃん) or kun (くん) too quickly. Even if you already consider the Japanese person as a friend it will just make them feel uncomfortable. So better stick to san (さん) until they start using other honorific suffixes for you.

Additionally, when the other person is older than you or when you just want to address someone with politeness, you should always add the honorific suffix san (さん) to their name.

That’s also the reason why you can address family members by adding san (さん) after the kinship term. You can call your mother respectfully Okaa-san (お母さんちゃん) instead of the more affectionate Kaa-chan (母ちゃん) and your brother Onii-san (お兄さん) instead of Nii-chan (兄ちゃん).

You should also use the honorific title is when you refer to your spouse or partner in a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance. Using chan (ちゃん) or kun (くん) sounds overfamiliar and not appropriate here.

There are also a few times when you shouldn’t use san (さん), though. Don’t use it with children, your close friends, and your own name.

2. Using San in Formal & Business Situations

In formal situations or a business setting, you should address your boss, coworkers, and seniors by their last name plus san (さん). Once you have gotten to know your coworkers better you might be able to switch to the first name followed by san (さん) or even kun (くん) for juniors.

If your boss or senior has a manager or leading position it is also common to use their surname followed by their title. So you can call your boss Mr. Tanaka, Tanaka-kaichou (会長, kaichou, president or chairman) or Tanaka-buchou (部長, buchou, head of a department) instead of Tanaka-san.

Even at school, people can be addressed by their position or title. That’s why in anime series like “Kaguya-sama: Love is War” or “Kaichou Wa Maid-Sama!” the student council president (生徒会長, seito kaichou) is usually called Kaichou instead of Miyuki-san aka Shirogane-san or Ayuzawa-san aka Misaki-san.

If you want to show respect for another person’s company you can also attach san (さん) to their company’s name. The Japanese company Toyota can be called Toyota-san or Microsoft could be called Microsoft-san.

However, there is one important exception in the business world when you shouldn’t use san (さん). Whenever you refer to your superior or coworker outside of your company (in-group) you have to drop the honorific suffix.

That means that while you usually address Mr. Tanaka with Tanaka-san or Tanaka-kaichou when you talk to him or about him in your company, you just call him Tanaka when you mention him in front of a client.

And once more don’t forget that you should never use san (さん) to refer to yourself. It will only make you sound arrogant and rude even more so in formal or business situations.

3. Using San After Common Nouns to Make Proper Nouns

The honorific suffix san (さん) can not only be used with a person’s or company’s name, but also with occupations, titles, workplace nouns, and some other common nouns such as foods or animals to turn them into proper nouns.

A company president can also be called Kaichou-san (会長さん). A baker can be called Panya-san (パン屋さん), and a foreigner can be called Gaijin-san (外人さん) to address them more politely. I have also heard my favorite vocalist call their stage lightning designer Shoumei-san (照明さん) at one of their concerts.

Other common examples of this are food items, ingredients, and animals. Fish, for example, is called Sakana (魚) in Japanese. If you attach san (さん) and say Sakana-san you turn “a fish” into “the fish” or “Mr. Fish” aka a proper noun. However, this usually sounds childish.

Should You Use San With a Person’s First or Last Name?

The honorific suffix san (さん) can be used with a person’s first name or a person’s last name. You can also call a person by their full name and attach san (さん) to either their given or surname, whichever name is said last. If you want to sound more polite you should use a person’s last name.

Should You Use San in a Japanese Email?

The most polite way to address someone in written Japanese is by their last name plus sama (様). If you know the person and work for the same company or when you have a close relationship you can also use san (さん). Even if the rest of the email is in English Japanese usually appreciate such efforts.

Why Do Japanese Add “San” to Names?

Even though translating san (さん) and other honorific suffixes to English can sometimes be difficult they are an important part of Japanese culture and speech. So let’s take a look at why the Japanese use san (さん) and other honorifics after names.

Japanese add the honorific san (さん) to names to indicate that the other person has a similar or higher position than themselves and that their relationship is not close. It adds the right level of politeness and respect since just calling someone by their surname is considered casual or even rude.

Dropping the honorific titles including the more casual ones is called yobisute (呼び捨て). It implies a high degree of intimacy and closeness. Therefore dropping the honorifics should only be done when talking to your partner or spouse, younger family members, and close friends or buddies.

Summary & Recap: The Japanese Honorific “San”

Do’s

  • San is the most common polite honorific suffix
  • You can use it in formal and informal situations
  • Should be used with strangers, acquaintances, and superiors
  • You can add san to a person’s first or last name
  • It is gender-neutral and can be used for men and women

Dont’s

  • Never use san with your own name
  • Don’t use san with your close friends
  • Do not add san when talking to someone from an outside-group

Additional Information

  • Sama is more respectful than san
  • But san is more respectful than kun and chan
  • In the Kansai dialect san is pronounced han

Examples

last nameTanaka-san
田中さん
Mr. Tanaka
Smith-san
スミスさん
Mr. Smith
first nameChiaki-san
千秋さん
Chiaki (polite)
Mary-san
メリーさん
Mary (polite)
family membersokaa-san
お母さん
mother (polite)
onee-san
お姉さん
sister (polite)
occupationhonya-san
本屋さん
bookseller
panya-san
パン屋さん
baker
titleshachou-san
社長さん
president
oisha-san
お医者さん
doctor
common nounsakana-san
魚さん
fish (respectful)
gaijin-san
外人さん
foreigner (respectful)
Examples How to Use “San” in Japanese

Alex (RockinJapanese)

おはよう. I'm Alex. I have started studying Japanese when I was still a high school student and I have been living and working in Japan since 2015. I'm still learning new Japanese phrases and words every day and I thought that publishing them online will be useful for you, too. Hopefully, my study notes and free Japanese lessons will help you to reach the Japanese level you want to have! If you have any questions feel free to contact me anytime! Alex

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