On Names, Honorifics, and Language Choices

In writing my stories set in Japan, I also strive to remain true and be respectful of the culture of the Japanese people.  This includes not only aiming for accuracy in settings, characters’ actions and mannerisms, and the way certain situations play out and circumstances around these characters, but also in my use of language and in referring to character names.  I always have characters introduce themselves the same as they would if they were in Japan, with family name first and then their given name, i.e. I would be introduced as Natsu Anma, not Anma Natsu.

Further, Japanese societal norms include extensive guidelines on how people should refer to one another in order to be “polite.”   Most people refer to one another by their family names, except in the cases of it being someone you know, like a friend or family members, the situation itself is fairly informal, or you are speaking to someone inferior in station or position to you (such as an underclassman or someone beneath you at work).

You then need to add the appropriate honorific to that name as a way of acknowledging your status/relationship with them, whether you are talking to them or about them.  You could write whole books on the various honorifics found in the Japanese language, but for our purposes, the ones you’ll most commonly find in my novels are:

san: the “all purpose” honorific, for use in almost any situation where one wishes to be polite; it’s a generally safe go-to if you aren’t sure which honorific to use

kun: typically added to boys’ names to indicate familiarity or endearment, or while addressing someone younger than oneself

chan: used to indicate endearment or familiarity with girls, or when referring to young boys and pets; it’s also sometimes used among couples

nissan: big brother

neesan: big sister

sensei: this title, which literally means “one who has come before,” is used for teachers, doctors, and other professionals; it may be used as a suffix or as a standalone title

Calling someone by name is primarily used to indicate that you have a particularly close, intimate relationship with that person, such as a lover, spouse, the closets of friends, and sometimes with family members.  You might also see this between teammates and classmates within the same home room as a sign of their closeness.  Alternatively, and perhaps a bit ironically, one can also drop the use of an honorific as a sign of disrespect and to insult the person being addressed, if that close bond is not present.

Switching between using a family name to first name or in using an honorific or not usually happens after seeking permission for the change from that person, though it can also happen naturally over the course of the relationship.

Likewise, while most day-to-day speech is easily translated to English, the Japanese language is full of ritualized speech that uses words that do not have simple English equivalents.  Changing them to English would result in unwieldy or unnatural-sounding bits of dialog or in the loss of nuance, such as in the various ways of saying thank you or in referring to family members.  In these cases, I decided it better served my stories to retain their Japanese wording, with footnotes of explanation within my novels where appropriate.