How to address people in Japanese

How to address people in Japanese

Today’s question:

When you want to attract attention of a stranger, like in a situation above, how do you address the stranger in Japanese?

The word “you” in Japanese

Most dictionaries list あなたanata for the English word “you” but I try to avoid using that word as much as I can because it sounds like I am looking down on the other person.

Use their name

So the best option is to use the other person’s name with a suffix or use their job title. Remember to use a suffix because not using any suffix is called 呼び捨てyobisute and it is considered VERY RUDE in Japan.

Appropriate suffixes In the order of politeness would be:

  1. [surname] さまsama or [full name] さまsama (for a customer/client)
  2. [job title] alone or [surname] + [job title] – examples of job titles:
    • しゃちょうshachou (president)、
    • ぶちょうbuchou (senior manager)、
    • かちょうkachou (manager)、
    • きょうじゅkyouju (professor)
    • せんせいsensei (doctor/teacher)
  3. [surname] さんsan or [full name] さんsan (for acquaintances and colleagues of the same rank or below)
  4. [given name] さんsan (for more than acquaintances but less than close friends)
  5. [nick name] only or [given name] ちゃんchan (close friends and family members younger than you)

These suffixes/titles are gender neutral.

Having said that, do NOT add any suffix to the name of your own family member or your colleague when talking to people outside your own family/company. If I hear a Japanese native speaker I’ve never met adding a suffix to their own family member when talking to me, I can’t help feeling odd. In a business scene, by not adding a suffix, you show respect to your potential customer.

If you don’t know their name

This becomes a real challenge and I don’t believe there is a fixed correct answer, but we often use terms to call our own family members to address strangers.

In case of a young lady in an urgent situation pictured above, I might say, 「そこのsokono おねえさんoneesanあぶないabunai!」 (The “big sister” over there, watch out!) If it is a young guy, instead of おねえさんoneesan, I may call him おにいさんoniisan. Having said that, calling someone おにいさんoniisan or おねえさんoneesan would raise a certain level of suspicion and/or caution. I will never do that unless it is a really pressed situation.

Middle-aged people can be called おじさんojisan (Uncle) or おばさんobasan (Aunt). Kids will call their friend’s parents and anybody in that age group おじちゃんojichan or おっちゃんocchan (Uncle) and おばちゃんobachan (Auntie), and this is generally accepted, but be aware that most people are not particularly fond of being called that way.

If the other person is clearly old, you may call him/her おじいさんojiisan/おじいちゃんojiichan (Grandpa) or おばあさんobaasan/おばあちゃんobaachan (Grandma). In both cases the “-chan” version sounds friendlier. However, if they don’t consider themselves old, they will get offended also, so be careful.

When I’m shopping, I have been called おくさんokusan (the term that refers to somebody else’s wife but its literal meaning is a person at the back in the house), which is similar to be called “Madam” so I don’t mind it but younger generation may not like that for its literal meaning. If I’m shopping for grocery, I may be called おかあさんokaasan (Mum) and my husband おとうさんotousan (Dad).

When we are talking to a really young person (definitely below teenage), we often use ぼくboku (“me” for boys) or わたしwatashi (“me” for girls) for the English “you” as well. For example, ぼくbokuいくつikutsu? is a question “how old are you?” to an infant boy.

Family Words that can be used to attract attention from members

maleWhom to useFamily Memberfemale
おじいさんojiisanold people
(be careful!)
おにいさんoniisanyoung peopleolder siblingおねえさんoneesan
ぼくbokuextremely young peoplemyselfわたしwatashi
おじさんojisanmiddle aged people
(in a neutral setting)
おとうさんotousanmiddle aged people
(when they are with their family)
ごしゅじんgoshujinmiddle aged people
(when calling a customer)
(somebody else’s) spouseおくさんokusan
Changing the ending -san into -chan can make it sound friendlier but a bit child-like at the same time.
You cannot replace the “-san” suffix of おくさんokusan with “-chan.”

For the pronunciation of these words, watch this video: Family Part I.

Answer to today’s question: possibly そこのsokono おねえさんoneesan (The “big sister” over there)

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends via your social media accounts. Your support will be appreciated!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: