You may know, when you call Japanese, you need to put a title after his/her name. To respect someone, this “calling person’s name with a title” culture is all times and places around the world needless to say.

This Japanese honorific title calling system is too complicated to avoid rudeness when you call someone. You are required to have a ability to read between the line and use several titles properly depending on the situation because there are all 16 types of honorific titles in total. You need to learn when and where you should use what types of title to call someone.

You may think putting “San” after person’s name is a really safe way to call someone in any situations. However, in humble business scenes, this way is looked as easy way as you call someone in private as if you call your friend. In other cases, no matter how closed to your friend you are, there is a case where you should use honorific title to your friend which is suitable for the place. “San” is not as almighty as you expect.

It is sometimes really difficult for even Japanese to judge what kind of honorific title use to a person. It is not so easy to distinguish where to use, what to use. I will explain from now how to call people with a honorific title in business scene where you are required to be more humble.

Honorific titles

There are 16 honorific titles in total but the title used practically are just 10. Roughly you need to be aware of 3 situations down below.

  • when you communicate with a person in official places
  • when you communicate with a person in private
  • when you send a letter

The situation where you need to care about the most to distinguish honorific title must be business scene. Sometimes honorific title “San” makes people feel casual and friendly in a bad sense and there are also complicated rules like if you call intracompany people when you talk to clients, you need to call them without their honorific even if a person whom you call is CEO or a managing director.

Types of honofirics

Sama (様)

This honorific expresses respect to a person whom you talk to. Concretely “Sama” contains a nuance that inferiors express their loyalty to a seniors. This is often used in both oral communication and writing communication. The case that I often hear this is when a servicer call a customer. This is the one to make a person whom you talk to recognize the difference of
the position clearly in a respect manner so this is not really used except for the relation between a servicer and a customer.


San is the most orthodox title you can use every situation safely. For that reason, there are so many people who use this without thinking deeply at any scenes. However, especially, in a business scene, you should consider whether you are in a situation where you can use it or not.

Because, basically “San” is used to a person who has the same position as or lower position than yours in Japanese company. If you call higher ranked person, you call his/her name with his/her position title.

If you call CEO of a company you work for, you call his/her name + CEO. This is why Japanese business person feel resistance in being called with “San” in particular scene. This logic also corresponds to external business scene like the situation you call a client.

Of course, the more close the each relation is, the more cases you are allowed to call the person with “San”. But remember, San is not as humble as “Mr, Mrs, Miss” in Japan.

Dono (殿)

This is usually used for writing communication. Mainly when this is used for business matters like exchanging public documents, “Sama(様)” changes into “Dono(殿)”.
aA person who need to be called with honorific “Dono” on a document is called with “Sama” in conversation.

In old times, this was used to high ranked person as with “Sama” but these days, except for business matters, this is used for inferiors with great respect but this is not used to higher ranked person in private letter in most cases. Lately, a honorific title used in letters sent from municipality to individuals changes from “Dono” to “Sama”

Chan (ちゃん)

This is used mainly to call little kids or babies. You can also use this to call a member of your familywith great familiarity. For example, when you call Grand father and Grand mother, you can say “Ojii-chan”, “Obaa-chan”.

This is generally used for girls but there are often the case to use this to call a man. In that case, you are called the combination of your family name with “chan”.

Shi( 氏)

This is not really used in conversation but you can often find this honorific word on letters, books or TV news. In old times, this was mainly used to a man but has gradually tendency to be used to women.


This is used to woman with high social status. Originally this used to be honorific title for women substitute for “Shi(氏). Some women treated equally to men are only ones who have high social status.” This is recognized as very old honorific title now so we rarely use this in both every day conversation and business scene. In some cases, this contains a sarcastic nuance to call a woman


This is used to generally men. You can use this to your equals or inferiors with respect and familiarity.

Joh (嬢)

This is used to unmarried women. If “Kun” is limited to be used for men, “Joh” is used for women instead. Rarely, there is a case that it is used for married woman. Sometimes this comes along with “O” ahead of it and Sama behind it as indicating a daughter of aristocracy or wealthy house like “O-Joh-Sama”.

If you use only “Joh” itself, it becomes a jargon to indicate a prostitute in some cases. Pay attention to the situation where you use this.


Fujin is used to married women. There is a nuance that a women called “Fujin” got rich lifestyle by her rich husband’s high social status.


When you call sensei, we can imagine the following cases

  • When calling instructors of an educational institutions
  • When calling a doctors in a hopital
  • When calling a lawyer and an accountant
  • When calllin governor. Mainly person concerned like secretary call this way and governer himself uses this to senior politicialns

Honorific titles you put after someone’s name is not only these orthodox types but in business sence, you are required to call your boss with his rank position of the company after his name. There are some rules you need to pay attention to even when using orthodox ones depending on the situations.

By the way, dividing these honorifics by formality and familiarity, it is as follows.

  • Sama (様)
  • San(さん)
  • Dono(殿)
  • Shi(氏)
  • Joshi(女史)
  • Joh(嬢)
  • Fujin(夫人)
  • Sensei(先生)
  • Chan(ちゃん)
  • Kun(君)
  • San(さん)

Realistically, you have so many chances to use “San” in both formal and cadual situation. In most cases , you are not to be impolite to someone you call with “San”, This is the first honorific title you learn to get along well with Japanese people.

Rules to use honorifics in business situations

There are 2 rules you need to pay attention to in business situations to use honorifics I introduced above.

  • When you call your senior or manager, you sometimes need to put job title or rank behind his/her name
  • Do not put honorifics to whoever belong to your organization or company when you talk to clients or customers

When you call your senior or manager, you sometimes need to put job title or rank behind his/her name

The above titles are bog-standard and quite general way of calling someone, which is not to recognize and respect someone individually.

If you belong to a company or an organization, you are deeply concerned with the society and you remember where you are ranked and who is your boss. To save face of people whom you work with, you need to show your attitude to a person that you recognize him/her with great respect personally by adding title given by a company behind his/her name.

For example, when you have a business to a manager of the section you work for, you should say, his/her “Last name” + title.

However, nowadays, western culture comes in and many people accept western way so this tradition comes to fade out day by day in Japanese business scene and mostly people get used to calling someone with just “San” in a company.

Do not put honorifics to whoever belong to your organization or company when you talk to clients or customers

When you call your collegue or your boss, do not put honorifics after his/her name when you call or speak of him/her in front of customers or clients.

This phenomenon is caused by Japanese unique way of thinking. Japanese honorific is used to others by your side and you have to humble yourself at the same time. This is understandable for you.

This structure corresponds to not only a person vs person but group vs group. When you have a business meeting with a client, you are in the meeting as a representative of a company. A client looks you as just a personnel of a company to conclude a deal.

You and your company are a respecting side. A client is a respected side. Therefore, when you talk whatever about your company, you need to humble to a client and especially when you talk about a person belonging to a company with a client, you need to remove honorifics no matter how high ranked person you talk about.

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