How do you feel about honorifics?

A lot of anime fans make a big fuss about honorifics. Some may even argue that a translation isn’t authentic or accurate if honorifics are dropped.

I find that sort of dismissive attitude to be too fussy (plus the specifics and semantics of “genuine” translations, localizations, etc are not the topic of this post), but I do admit that I prefer honorifics being included. That’s because honorifics shed some interesting insight regarding how a character perceives his or her relationship with others. In my opinion, such subtleties are lost if honorifics are abandoned.

For instance, a character who doesn’t use any honorifics at all might come across as being blunt, or overly familiar, or not particularly caring for social graces. When people get close to one another they might drop honorifics (it’s especially noticeable in regards to lovers), but this particular character skips the prerequisite bonding and just starts calling people by their surname or given name. The interpretation of this character may vary wildly, but it’s an element that would be readily less apparent if honorifics were not included in the translation at all.

There are also individuals who addresses everyone with the -san honorific, which is apparently rather normal in real life. This practice paints a particular picture, however, when the individual insists on calling most people “__________-san” while only calling a select few by their first or last name (with no honorifics).

Is there a sense of distance between the individual and others? Does the individual feel like he or she is closer to others? Does the individual feel like he or she needs to convey respect towards those who he or she addresses with the -san honorific? These are the sort of thoughts I think when I see a character who is stubbornly consistent with calling nearly everyone “__________-san.”

vlcsnap-2018-07-24-03h15m18s749
Reminder: Love Live! Sunshine!! S2 episode 4 was basically about Dia trying to get her juniors to call her “Dia-chan” instead of “Dia-san.” Is this confirmation that honorifics are a big deal?!

What I find interesting is when someone uses honorifics in public but doesn’t do so mentally. For example, A-san might call B-san, well, “B-san” when they interact, but A-san might think of B-san as just “B” in his or her thoughts.

To me, this indicates that A-san is cognizant of their own relationship and is adhering to the social standard that is expected during their interactions, but A-san is a bit more relaxed when it comes to long and revealing internal monologues. Or maybe A-san wishes they were closer to B-san? Such nuances are definitely up to personal interpretation, but again, it’s something that would have been missing entirely if honorifics were dropped altogether.

It gets more interesting when we look at “-kun.” Said honorific is often used to address male characters and is more familiar than “-san” (in other words, if A-san starts saying “B-kun” instead of “B-san,” then something must have happened which resulted in the two of them dating feeling closer to one another).

But the “-kun” honorific can also denote that the addressed is of a lower position than the addressee. And, believe it or not, “-kun” can be used for women, too. Teachers in particular might use “-kun” for female students in order to denote the difference in social standing while avoiding the potential connotation and infamy that might come with addressing a student with the intimate “-chan” honorific.

So does A-san feel closer to “B-kun” or is A-san subtly reminding B-san of their respective positions on the totem pole? See, this sort of potential controversy would be completely absent if the translations just had A-san calling B-san “B.” Honorifics sure are interesting, huh?


There is soooo much more to talk about in regards to honorifics. There’s “-sama.” What about “-dono?” Don’t forget “-chan,” “-chin,” and “-tan,” too!

But for now, I’ll stop here. What do you think of honorifics? I would love to hear your thoughts!

53 thoughts on “How do you feel about honorifics?

  1. Personally I always feel like something is really missing if honorifics are excluded from a dub. It provides you with a really intimate sense of character’s relationships, as well maintaining more cultural authenticity.

    But then again, I say that now as a Japanese studies student who has basically had their different usages drummed in to my soul. I can remember them being seriously confusing when I first started watching anime as a teen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mmm they’re a bit confusing for those who are just beginning to get into anime, but honorifics really do add a little element that’s hard to express otherwise like you said. I’m for them, too, but it’s probably not a black-and-white issue.

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  2. Awwwww…. Remi-kun, I love honorifics! I agree that sometimes they can be inconsistent. I love having them in anime because it reminds me of what a respectful society these anime come from. I also don’t just love them in anime, but my K-Drama as well! They’ve changed a lot recently and become more modern, so a lot of honorifics have been dropped, but I loved when I first started watching them and you couldn’t be around a boy you didn’t know unless you grew up with them and you were very close so they would be Oppa, women you are close to like a sister to another woman is Noona, for men it is Hyung and Unnie. I love it! 💖

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  3. I don’t quite care either way because I understand the arguments on both sides. On one hand, when I started reading manga (a few years before I started learning Japanese) I read some which had the honorific explanation so I got fairly used to them early on. Then again, I see Funimation/Viz try to drop/substitute them as much as possible (“En-chan” -> “Enny” is a horrendous substitute because while it works in cultural equivalence it doesn’t sound quite right, while “Tsu-chan” -> “Tsu” is more reasonable because it’s natural-sounding and culturally equivalent), but that’s because they’re handling most of the anime/manga which appeal to a wider audience. In short, it’s very much a case-by-case basis, where the translator needs to make a choice that fits the context and then make it as consistent as they can without compromising the rest of the translation.

    …then again, in the internet age, even if you translated with honorifics then had someone who didn’t understand read them, they’re just a search away from understanding you…

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  4. When the people in question put great importance in honorifics then so do I. Like in the aforementioned “Perfect Episode” (You know which one). I even adapted to addressing my online gal pals with “-chan”, senpai or “-sama” on occasion…so yes I’m cool with honorifics.

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  5. Would you believe that this is a terribly confusing topic for me?

    First, a little background on myself. I’ve studied sociology at University and have a degree. At the time I did this, you needed a secondary subject to complement your first, and I chose “Anglistics and Americanistics”, which is a mish-mash of linguistics, English language in particular, and cultural studies. I’ve always been particularly interested in linguistics, and also in translation. I’ve participated in poetry translation workshops in eccess of what I needed to graduate, because I loved the excercise, and I had two translations published, one of which got picked up by another mag and was re-published. The point of this: I have fairly well ingrained ideas on translation, and I know what theories I’m in opposition to. I understand those other theories and don’t think they ruin anything. Translation isn’t just translation: you can’t do a word-for-word and hope to be comprehensible. And some concepts just don’t translate well.

    Generally, there are two opposed theories on localisation: (1) make the translation as comprehensible as possible to an audience who knows nothing about the culture from which the work springs: localise references you won’t get, iron out target-language associations that are not in the original language (e.g. Pokémon vs. Pokemon in English, to block a certain pronunciation and association – wanna poke Pikachu?) etc. – or (2) stick as close as possible to the original text and give the audience the opportunity to engage with a culture they don’t quite understand yet.

    I’m firmly in the stick-to-the-text camp. I won’t have the full experience, but the more I read, the more I’ll pick up. From childhood on, I’ve gone for subtitled films over dubbed films, anime or no, just for that reason.

    But there’s a problem: notice how often “as much as possible” comes up in the above paragraph? No matter what theory you prefer, there will be times you find yourself using techniques from the opposing camp. You have take things on a case-by-case basis. Some things just don’t translate, but those are hard to approximate, too, and you have to get creative.

    Honorifics sit squarely in that no-man’s-land. You can’t translate them, but you also can’t just leave them in. Since you translate everything else, the likelihood that you keep the subtleties that let you figure out relationship stuff through them is low. It’s not a problem with subs, since you have subtitles and audio complementing each other, but in, say, a novel?

    Say you’re hired to translate a light novel. Leave honorifics in? It sounds rather strange in English, and though your audience may get used to it, do you preserve enough subtleties in English to warrant the inclusion? Then there’s the target audience: there’s likely to be huge overlap between the anime and light novel audiences, but how many of them actually prefer subs? How many of them are actually familiar enough with honorifics to understand the subtleties without prompting? Enough to sell the novels?

    I’d like to say “include honorifics in translation,” but then I wonder if there isn’t an imbalance with the rest of the translation, and that strange mix, rather than aiding understanding, doesn’t actually aid a stagnant exoticsm, a sort-of “honorifics are so cool” effect instead? I’m slightly leaning towards leaving them off, even though everything in me screams “leave them in”. It’s not an easy-to-decide topic for me, and I understand both sides. I’d imagine leaving them in to be easier to justify in highly formalised settings (say “court intrigue” stories that are openly about diplomacy) – mostly, because if all the language is carefully controlled, you get away with a more stilted, less natural tone. In that sense, it’s probably a case-by-case decision.

    In any case, it’s not an issue with subs for me, since I have the orignal audio anyway. I tend towards leaving them off in subs (less to read is a plus when the text on screen is timed). Dubs? I don’t really know. But considering that a lot of the time even the names are mispronounced, I don’t think there’s much point leaving them in. People who care probably go for subs anyway. So once again, probably leave them out.

    I really have no clear-cut position on this topic, but it’s something like: sympathetic to leaving them in, but in practice probably leaving them out more often than not.

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      1. I sometimes wonder if it’s the topics that are messy, or if it’s my mind. Sometimes, it’s definitely my mind. Example: you carry lots of bags and have to open the door. How do you balance them? How much time do you spend thinking about it?

        Or do you just put down the bags and open the door? Well, I don’t. I spend some time thinking and then balance some of them on the wrist of the hand I’ll use to unlock the door. Welcome to my mind. [It’s not that I do it on purpose. I sometimes just can’t see the simple solutions.]

        I liked your post a lot, but I think that may have gotten lost in that wall of words.

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        1. Hmmm I think I understand. I’m not implying yours is the same, but my own mind is definitely at least a little abnormal. I have difficulty quantifying it, though.

          In regards to the opening the door while wielding multiple bags conundrum, I would consider moving all the bags to one hand so I can quickly fetch out the keys (which is very situational and dependent on how many bags I’m talking about here) or putting the bags on the floor. But your preferred method is usually the one I opt for when I know there’s no one else inside. If I know there’s someone who can assist me and I want them to do some extra work, I use my forehead to knock on the door. Maybe that’s not the brightest idea, but that’s how I roll sometimes.

          Sometimes the simple solutions aren’t the best! I still think the wrist method is the best overall.

          Ah, thank you. No worries!

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  6. I registered that honorific s were important, but for some reason treated them as an after thought. Then about a month ago I was watching an older series and I noticed that didn’t characters said each others names differently and it just clicked. I started enjoying the series a lot more after that.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I usually prefer honorifics kept in. However, for series that are clearly set in place where they don’t speak Japanese, then they shouldn’t be included, although replacements like Mr./Ms. may be needed.
    It does drive me a little crazy like how Yen Press manga uses honorifics but Yen On light novels don’t. It can be the same series and same translator, but two different handlings of names and stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just watch Legend of the galactic heroes, there is so much more there due to the military system. Honorifics are an important part of Japanese culture so I think that it’s good to have as it explores things not really possible in English. However if you’re subbed then you can hear the “san”/”kun” anyway so writing it doesn’t really matter and is just a preference in my opinion.

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  9. I actually feel uncomfortable when subs don’t have honorifics. I think which honorifcs a certain character use to refer to other characters give a lot of insight to what type of person they are. One example I could remember clearly is the Love Live Sunshine episode where Dia wanted to be referred to as Dia-chan because -chan is a title for endearment.

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  10. I feel the honorifics do add something important to the character relationships and while sometimes the bluntness or respect or other aspects end up being conveyed in other ways in translations that drop them, there’s still a little something lost. That said, I don’t think it is the be all and end all. if a translation keeps honorifics, I enjoy them. If it drops them, then as long as it all still makes sense that’s fine.
    I find it weird though when in the original Japanese a character either changed how they called a character or the honorific they used and then the English has to give the character some ridiculous nickname to try to mimic the process, or it just ignores that particular step in the relationship. Either way I feel something gets lost here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mmm, I agree.

      I feel like I have to add that sometimes things are lost simply due to the fact that there was a translation involved. Sometimes certain puns only make sense in Japanese, for instance.

      Sure, we can try to accommodate and maybe in the long run it’s not a big deal if nuances are lost. But in regards to honorifics, there really is something there and silly nicknames don’t quite bridge the gap like you said.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Honorífics where a weird concept at the begging, I mean I’m used to call my peers by names or nicknames… So seeing young people being a bit formal with each other was weird but it’s nice to know that other cultures work a tad different than yours. As for how important they are the only thing I imagine is when lovers star calling each other by name as a way to show intimacy (I guess you can translate that as using petnames?)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. As a country who doesn’t really use honorofics at all, I think one of the things that I have always found interesting and quite frankly something I have real respect for, in Japanese movies/anime is the use of honorifics. I don’t know them all, nor do I know all the exact rules for when to use certain ones, but I do think it’s one of the things that makes it only feel more authentic. I have no particular objection when they are lost in a translation, but I do think it loses some power, if they are not used. Wonderful post about a very interesting subject.

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  13. I think when it comes to translation of the medium, it is best to stick to the honorifics when it is used. As you have mentioned, honorifics is an important story-telling element in some anime. Using the A-san B-san example, if the translation decides to do away with the ‘san’, less experienced viewers may not pick up on the slight detail (and potential implication on the plot, if it has).
    *
    Of course, it really wouldn’t matter too much if a viewer doesn’t take much notice in the honorifics from the start. For myself, I enjoy reading the subtleties, because I can then try to understand said characters/scenario better. I don’t know, I like complicated stuff. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I suppose it really depends on the sort of viewer you are. There’s no one way to watch a series, after all.

      But complication and nuance and details is what helps keep a story interesting to me, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I always wonder how people who develop romantic/platonic relationships come to drop the honorifics (or switch to a more intimate one). Who’s going to start?? When’s the right moment? Do you address the issue in a conversation?
    I must be overthinking it, but it just feels so stressful!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. From what I’ve seen in anime/drama, there’s usually a consensus (both of them have a feeling of their relationship developing into something more than friends — Really good friends?!), which when one of them drops the honorifics the other will either 1) Be surprised at first, but follows suit easily or 2) Acknowledge it like it should have happened some time ago. Then again, it also depends on how the person who initiates does it. Does that person do it clumsily/awkwardly/boldly/casually. (wait… I’m forgetting about the contrast of one-way and two-way communication in the context…)
      *
      I think there’s no need to overthink from a 3rd person point of view, but I sure agree that if one is in that person’s shoes it can certainly be very stressful!

      Liked by 2 people

  15. For me since I lived there awhile it’s a habit to use them, more or less. My host family actually yelled at me for using them and formal language since we are ‘family’. I almost genuinely cried that day.

    That being said I’ve gotten in some really deep shit for NOT using at least san in work situations, and in other social interactions. Then again, that was in real life not anime.

    I prefer them now that it’s been ingrained through subs and real life. Sometimes people read too much into them, other times people miss out on those subtle nuances they provide. All and all, basic context about why they’re important would be helpful but not a requirement when watching.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whoa that is so touching.

      And that is scary. Real life is terrifying!!

      Mmm that’s a very reasonable stance. Nothing is black and white despite what hastily written posts about honorifics might possibly lead you to believe.

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      1. Real life is both touching and terrifying! Nothing like these anime moments!! lmao

        I try to be reasonable with my approach to life, sometimes it works lol. It’s always interesting to see people’s thoughts on various things though. I hadn’t really thought about it all for ages until I seriously watched ‘Rose of Versailles’ and was screaming at some characters for not properly using them for other people (Andre got a pass though).

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  16. I’m a subs man, so I’m not too fussy about honorifics being kept in so long as I can still hear the Japanese audio. I think there’s a lot of context you can imply from the use of honorifics (along with the way people refer to themselves — watashi, ore, boku, watakushi etc) that doesn’t necessarily really “work” if translated into English, but if you understand enough of the Japanese to be able to get that context from the original source while still reading the subs, that’s good enough for me.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. In my country, we also use honorifics, and it’s honestly just a culture thing. Even though I have been thoroughly westernized, it really just sticks with me to use honorifics around older people.

    Not so for younger peeps than me tho, first name all the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds reasonable to me. I’m also throughly westernized but I try to keep honorifics in mind when I’m addressing my elders.

      For English-speaking peers, though, I’m also with you. We gon be intimate as Japanese lovers by jumping to a first name basis.
      Unless if I feel revolted by you. Then we’re on a last name basis.
      If they’ve a funny name, then it’s a full name basis!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. i pretty much agree. i have a preference for preserving honorifics because they add a layer of nuance that’s hard to translate. barring that, i would say to just leave them out. i personally think that trying to localize them is the worst option, because it leads to some really awkward names…

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  19. I’ve seen this discussion on Twitter and Reddit and some people, including Frog-kun and some Japanese anime fans pointed out that western anime fans gives way more importance to that than it actually have.
    In the end, I prefer honorifics for the sake of being anime/light novel, but I think for light novels, not including honorifics may help the medium reach a broader audience, who won’t understand or care for the honorifics anyway

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I referenced those sort of discussions early on only to go on to vaguely talk about why I appreciate honorifics, even though they’re not strictly necessary.

      Ah, I guess dropping honorifics might allow anime appeal to a wider audience. Good point.

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