Thursday, December 6, 2012

Japanese Naming Conventions 3, Or Fun With Nicknames and Formality

I'm a bit late with the final part of this series, but it's here, nonetheless! As a recap, Part 1 dealt with given name conventions, and Part 2 talked about Japanese surnames. What does that leave us with? Nicknames, of course!

(For the sake of brevity, this article isn't going to go over nicknames that are from an entirely different word.)

Like just about any other language, Japanese employs fairly easy to learn nicknaming conventions. The trick is that most of them play into the inherent formality of the language.

The important thing to understand about Japanese names and culture is this formality. If you get a little too familiar with somebody too fast, you risk alienating them - this is true for a lot of cultures, but in Japan especially, you must be cautious with how familiar you get with somebody when calling them by name. For example, the go-to name to call anybody is by their SURNAME. Even good friends do this, particularly amongst men and boys. Calling somebody by their surname as opposed to their given name is especially important in business culture. I've had Japanese coworkers who didn't even know the given names of their work friends. Women and girls tend to jump to first name basis more quickly (if ever) than their male counterparts, but that may be attributed to the level of intimacy it brings.

Now that that's established, let's check out how nicknames (with both given and surnames) may form.

Name Suffixes (Honorifics)

The easiest way to give and gain a nickname in Japan is with a suffix. Suffixes come in bother gendered and formality flavors, so before using them make sure you're familiar with how they work!

Here are some of the most popular naming suffixes, from most formal to least.

-sama (Gender neutral. Used for people who rank faaaaar above you, and especially if you're sucking up. This is a very contextual suffix. Sometimes you may be expected to use it in business culture, but most likely not. If you use it even playfully with friends/coworkers, you run the risk of still making them uncomfortable by giving them too much "respect," if that makes any sense. When in doubt, just go with....)

-san (Gender neutral. The most common formal suffix. Use it with just about anyone you meet. Sometimes even friends use this as well, although close friends will probably drop this suffix. It denotes a level of respect without putting the other person too high above yourself.)

-sensei (Gender neutral. Used towards instructors or teachers, of any profession, but particularly academics and doctors.)

-senpai (Gender neutral. Used towards people who rank slightly above you in years and experiences, such as at school or in the same department at work. Is formal while still conveying an "in the same group" mentality.)

-kohai (Gender neutral. Opposite of "senpai," such as for people ranking beneath you.)

-kun (Male gendered. Used with boys and young men, and sometimes between like-aged adults. Informal. Elementary schools will usually call male pupils by this suffix.)

-chan (Generally female gendered. Used with children and between very close female friends. Very informal. Do not use unless it's a child or somebody you're very familiar with - exception being at work. Not a good idea to use this in a business setting. Elementary schools will usually call female pupils by this suffix.)

-bo (Male gendered. For babies.)

Suffixes can either be amended to a surname (particularly with the formal ones and the male gendered kun) or given names. However, when adding suffixes to given names, another consideration is required.

Shortening Names

Certain names are more predisposed to being shortened when suffixes come into play. This keeps names from being too much of a mouthful with addressing one another. In part 1 of this series, I talked about the most common given name suffixes. Those appear here again...because they're usually what gets chopped.

Example: We have a young woman named Akiko Suzuki. (ko being the popular suffix of her name.) If her last name is suffixed, then it will probably just be Suzuki-san, Suzuki-sensei, etc. No changes aside from the addition of a suffix. However, if we wish to put a suffix on her first name, we may consider dropping the "ko" from her name, like so:


Any of those names are viable. However,  it is probably most likely with "chan" as a way of making her name even more familiar. For the more formal suffixes, her whole name of Akiko will probably be retained as a sign of resepct.

Not all suffixes are dropped for new ones, and not always in every circumstance. After a while it just becomes one of those things you "know" when you become really familiar with Japanese names. For one thing, women's names are a lot more likely to be switched around than men's names.


Giving your Japanese friends nicknames can be a tricky business, especially if you're trying to maintain a level of formality as well. If all else fails, just ask the person what their comfort level is with nicknames. Or, if they're too embarrassed to share (which may often be the case) either play it safe by showing them more formality or calling them by what their other close friends call them.

From a  Writer's Perspective

Writing about groups of Japanese characters puts one in a unique situation when it comes to the nicknames. I for one prefer to have characters call each other by these nicknames, since it's the cultural norm. I also prefer to go with Suzuki-san over, say, Mr. Suzuki, as translations aren't always cut and dry like that. The problem is running the risk of alienating a reader who isn't familiar with these conventions. That's why I have to work extra hard by making sure the context tells the reader what kind of relationships these characters have with each other based on what they call one another. Phew.

That finally wraps up this series! I hope you enjoyed this brief look into the naming systems and styles of modern Japanese culture. Next time I'll try to talk about something OTHER than language, maybe!


  1. Is kohai used much as a suffix? I don't think I've ever heard it like that.

    Even if I'm reading a nickname with ~chan, I hear it in that sing-song voice that parents/boyfriends/friends use with it :)

    1. I've heard it used before (particularly in a middle school setting where the novelty of it might still be fresh), but I don't think it's used as much as senpai. Seems to be mostly dropped by high school. (Should also note I mostly heard it in the more rural areas of Japan, like up in the Chubu mountains.)

      Haha, I don't hear the sing-song so much as the the fact the "an" seems to always be dropped off. So it's basically "Yuko-ch!"


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