Japanese honorifics (e.g. -san, -chan, -kun) can be a divisive topic among translators and fans of Japanese media, with some feeling that retaining them in an English translation offers important cultural context that is hard to replicate otherwise, and others feeling they are a sign of stiff translation or even a sort of otaku affectation. Staff personally falls into the former category, but if you only take away one thing from this file, it should be this:
Battle Fantasia will encourage, but by no means require, use of Japanese honorifics.
If you think they're fun, great, so do we. If you don't like them or don't feel comfortable attempting them, that's fine too. In the event that you're interested in using them, but would like to learn about them first, we're going to attempt to offer a primer.
What Are Japanese Honorifics?
Honorifics are the suffixes applied after someone's name, such as "-san". Most anime fans are at least conscious of them, and have gleaned their basic meaning from context. They are an important part of keigo, the Japanese system of respect in language. The choice of honorific for a given situation depends on many factors, including age, familial relation, social status, social context, gender, and level of intimacy.
Honorifics are complex. Think about the English honorific "Mister" for a moment, and the different ways it is applied in colloquial language. It's not just a respectful term for a man, but also a negative, aggressive one ("You better watch yourself, mister"), a way of granting someone a humorous title ("Hey, it's Mr. Biology Major"), a means of indicating romantic attachment ("He's my new mister,"), an ironic marker of cuteness ("Mr. Sweetiepaws"), a way of personalizing an official title ("Mr. President"), and even a military title ("Take us in, Mr. Sulu"). As serious as the Japanese can be about politeness, they too get creative and playful with their use of honorifics, so it's best to avoid thinking each honorific has a single, rigid definition. There are exceptions to every rule.
Guide to Common Honorifics
-san: The most commonly used of all, -san is often equated to "Mister/Miss," but is used much more universally. Polite, gender-neutral, and flexible, -san is a safe choice that will handle most situations. You might meet a stranger and call them -san, and still be calling them -san 20 years later when you're lifelong friends, particularly if you are both women.
-chan: It wouldn't be a magical girl game without -chan, would it? -chan is a diminutive variation of -san, and trades some respect for affection. Family members often use it with one another regardless of gender. Girls use it among their female friends, and their readiness to apply it can be an indication of how casual or friendly they are (Usagi will be calling someone -chan within a day, Rei reserves it more). Boys can use -chan for girls almost as readily, but are called -chan themselves somewhat less often. It is very common for boys to have -chan as part of their nicknames, however.
-chan can indicate a lack of maturity, so its use becomes less common among adults. The younger or more cute a character is, the greater the chance they'll get called -chan (and the reverse for icy, mature characters), but it gets use among scarred Yakuza bikers as well, particularly in nicknames.
-kun: Generally used for younger males, but possible for younger females as well. Among schoolmates, it can be a sort of male equivalent to -chan, implying greater familiarity, though this implication is less strong. Its use can imply a relationship within an organization, such as school or work. Generally, a teacher will use -kun for male students and -san for female.
-sensei: The word "sensei" roughly means "one that came before." As an honorific, it is used for teachers, of course, but also other (often intellectual) authority figures such as doctors and lawyers.
-senpai: Used for those who have seniority over you in school or an organization (e.g. seniors over freshmen), but not specific authority (teachers, bosses, and dark queens are NOT -senpai). The opposite term is "kohai," but kohai is not an honorific; -kun is used to refer to juniors in an organization. This term is most common in school, and its usage in other contexts is a sort of echo of the school relationship the term implies.
-sama: Used with those of much higher rank than you. It's almost fawning, so don't bother using it out of mere politeness; it should be reserved for those your character admires or fears deeply, or at least someone who needs a lot of ass-kissing.
-tan: An even more diminutive version of -chan, taken from mispronunciation of that term by very small children. As you might infer, this is extremely cutesy, and not terribly respectful. You're basically baby-talking to them, so use with caution.
-hime: Princess, with all the connotations we associate with the term. BF is one of the few places this would make a list of "common" honorifics.
-dono: Lord/Lady. An old-fashioned term that could be handy for the various types of nobility in BF. Less respectful than -sama, so can be used among equals.
-[blank]: These lists tend to leave off one of the most important honorifics of all: the total lack of honorific. Now, most people who fail to use an honorific on BF will be doing so because they don't want to (or forgot), so we'd encourage you not to read into their absence.
However, for those who are interested, the absence of the honorific can be a fairly powerful message. It can convey rough disregard for inferiors (some teachers will call students by their last name and nothing else), rude disrespect for equals or superiors, or, in the right context, great intimacy. The first time you call someone by their bare name can be a significant moment in the relationship. Foreigners, of course, are generally not expected to be familiar with Japanese honorifics, and if they fail to utilize them, not much is read into it.
Rules for Honorifics
First and Last Name: Honorifics can be used with either first or last name. Last name is more common, as the use of the first name is generally restricted to friends and family members. Males in particular often stick to last names even when they've been friends for a long time. Magical girls who are particularly friendly might well use first names more aggressively, however.
Self-Honorifics: Honorifics are not used when referring to oneself in third person. Exceptions are rare, but they do exist. Characters of exaggerated arrogance (humorous windbags or people drunken-mad with power) will sometimes use respectful terms for themselves ("Yes, bow before Beryl-sama, ahahaha!"). On the opposite end, very cutesy girls will sometimes refer to themselves as -chan. This mimics how very young children don't understand not to use honorifics for themselves, and like -tan is akin to baby talk. Third Parties: Honorifics are generally retained even when the person being referred to isn't around to hear them. Of course, what they don't know can't hurt them...
Personality: As has been implied several times now, different people use honorifics differently. You can learn a lot about a character in anime by listening to how they refer to others: how quickly they will switch to first names, their readiness to use more casual honorifics, the degree of respect they offer superiors. Thinking about how your character uses them could offer a fun method of exploring their personality.
We hope that this guide will help those of you who are interested to use honorifics in a way that makes your RP feel more like the magical girl shows you love, and offer an extra dimension of character development for you to explore. If it's not your cup of tea, then perhaps instead you can use it to interpret the RP of others, or just to glean a little extra information from the next subtitled anime you watch.
These familial honorifics are both more complex and less important to us as roleplayers. Referring to another character as "sister" or "big sis" in English, for instance, can usually convey the same tone, so we would tend to stick to English for these. However, for those who are interested, we will briefly touch on a few family honorifics.
-neesan, -niisan: Older sister and older brother, respectively. As noted earlier, a simple -chan is generally sufficient among siblings, but to specifically refer to your older sibling, or someone you consider to fill the same role, you can use these honorifics. It's a bit precious, but not as much as -tan, say. Variations include adding 'o' (-oneesan) for greater respect, or changing to 'chan' (-niichan) for greater affection, or casually chopping to a simple -nee and -nii.
-basan, -jisan, -baasan, -jiisan: Respectively, 'aunt,' uncle,' 'grandmother,' and 'grandfather.' These can be used to refer to your actual family members, but are often used metaphorically for older people in general ("What is that aunt over there doing?"). This is not inherently offensive, but can be touchy subject for those who are not old enough for the term, as one sees with the schoolgirl referred to as "auntie" or even "grandma" by her juniors.