Japanese honorifics are a very complex system of addressing other people, much like the “Mr.” and “Ms.” or the “Sir” and “Madame” we use, with the added complexity of having more than thirty different forms.
Honorifics are not a grammatical matter, so you won’t find any solid chapter on them in a Japanese grammar book. Knowing what they are is very important to understanding Japanese culture. Especially in regards to the Japanese sense of politeness and accepted behaviour.
An honorific is used to refer to the person we are talking to and/or talking about if that person is not around. While in English we would use these expressions in front of a last name (Mr. Johnson, Ms. Adams), in Japanese it is always expressed with a suffix. There are as many honorifics as there are levels of courtesy in Japanese society. But before going into the honorifics themselves, we need to clarify the when and the how of their usage. If you want to master Japanese honorifics, and thus master appropriate Japanese speech, you need to follow these rules:
1. Don’t use an honorific to refer to yourself
Well, the title is so self-explanatory, I’m not sure I need to clarify it any further. Never use an honorific to refer to yourself. It is considered cocky and a sign of bad manners.
2. Don’t drop an honorific when it is needed
When referring to someone else (or even to your company), be sure to use the appropriate honorific as needed. Failing to do so might result in appearing arrogant. You wouldn’t want that now would you?
3. Don’t just copy the Japanese
Now don’t get me wrong, most of the time it is good to copy the native speakers. It is useful for learning vocabulary, expressions and everyday idioms. However, the honorifics are an exception. In order to fully master the system, you need to have spent a lot of time in an authentic Japanese environment and have experienced a multitude of real life situations with different people.
Consider this: The younger generation of Japanese, mainly those born after 1980, often prefer to hear their names without the honorifics, giving a casual air even among people they don’t know that well. But as an international student who is learning Japanese, you really don’t want to assume this is the case. You need to understand their proper use before making any such potentially awkward slip-ups. The proper use of honorifics is quite tricky and difficult to judge, but there are some basic guidelines we’re going to analyse in the second part.
“But I want to know more now!” Okay, okay, if you absolutely insist. Here are some extra things you should know about the use of honorifics.
4. Often use honorifics with the –masu form of verbs
Honorifics are generally tied to all the other forms of polite speech in Japanese. Most notably with the first form we all learned: the –masu form. If you are not sure about which suffix to use, use this polite form as a buffer in case you get switched-around.
5. Honorifics are usually dropped when referring to family
When talking about a member of your family you may choose to drop the honorific. You can refer to your sister without using –chan (more on the individual honorifics in the next part) or to your father even as something cheeky like 親父 (おやじ – old man) if you are talking among good friends.
6. Honorifics can be dropped with a person very close to you
Let me clarify that. The only honorific you can drop is the one referring to the person you are talking to, and not the honorifics relating to other people not present. For example, if you are talking with your girlfriend, your best friend or your dog, feel free to drop that honorific. It shows intimacy. You know, love and stuff.
7. You can potentially drop the honorific if talking to classmates of the same age
If you are in school and this one applied to you, then, well done. You are probably younger than me. You also have access to another situation in which you can drop the honorific. If you are on a sports team or in a classroom with people of the same age, you can refer to each other without the need for honorifics. Especially considering a lot of homeroom class settings in Japan promote very close relationships with classmates.