How many of you have a younger sister? How about any sisters at all? As for me, I have one older sister and three younger ones for a total of four sisters!
Now here’s the interesting thing: in English we don’t distinguish between older and younger with our word for “sister”. But in Japanese there is both a word that means “younger sister” and a different word that means “older sister”.
How do you say little sister in Japanese? Well the short answer is imouto.
But there’s a lot more to understanding this word, the kanji for it, and how it relates to the other family members.
To really understand it, you will have to know about the uchi/soto concept, and also about the tate concept. I talked a little bit about it before when I explained the meaning of the word senpai, but I will give a brief explanation about it here as well.
By the why, if you don’t know what the word senpai means, then you can click here to find out.
Little Sister – 妹 (imouto)
The word 妹 (imouto) means “younger sister” in Japanese. If you examine the kanji for it, you will see that it was created by taking two different kanji, and then combining them into a single new kanji.
Now this isn’t to say that younger sisters aren’t full-fledged women, but as an older brother myself I can kind of understand the protective feelings and sense of responsibility a person has towards their younger siblings. If you are also an older sibling, then I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
As long as you can remember the meanings of these two kanji when they are separate, then you shouldn’t have any problems identifying 妹 as “younger sister” when you see it. I specifically mention this because the kanji for “older sister” looks similar to this one.
Speaking of older sisters…
Big Sister – 姉 (ane)
The word 姉 (ane) means “older sister” in Japanese. As you can, see it also contains the kanji for “woman” 女 just like the kanji for “little sister” 妹 does.
Here is the breakdown on the kanji for “big sister”:
This one is pretty interesting too. Could it be that older sisters worked in the city markets? Or perhaps it was the older sister’s responsibility to go to the markets in town to pick up new supplies?
I don’t really know the reason behind the construction of 姉, but as long as you can recognize it for what it means and not get it mixed up with 妹, then you should be good.
By the way, if you just want to talk about all of your sisters, both younger and older, you actually combine both of the kanji together and form the compound word 姉妹 (shimai).
And if you’ve got twin sisters, then you’ve got 双子の姉妹 (futago no shimai).
The Concept of 縦 (tate)
Now both 妹 and 姉 are interesting because they are both relative to the situation they are used in. My younger sister might also be the older sister of another one of my siblings.
So a girl can be both an 妹 and an 姉 at the same time, but just to different people. This brings us to the concept of 縦 (tate) which literally means “vertical”.
There are always three positions that other people hold in relation to you: a superior position, an equal position, and an inferior position. If you’ve ever seen an organization chart that lays out a company’s hierarchy, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Well the Japanese language and culture are defined by this 縦 concept and it’s no different when it comes to talking about your sisters. Your 姉 is in a superior position to you and your 妹 is in an inferior one, if only because of the order of your births.
Of course, this particular example of 縦 would only apply within the concept of your family. The positions of superior/equal/inferior could possibly be different if you both work at the same company.
Things can get tricky like that with Japanese!
Your Sister vs. Someone Else’s Sister
No, no, this is not a fight to see who has the best sister! This is about the Japanese concept of 内 (uchi) and 外 (soto), otherwise known as “inside” and “outside”.
This is a concept that gets talked about a lot when people are learning Japanese, and it can get a little confusing when you start to get into the gradations of it. So for the sake of simplicity, I will just use your sister and someone else’s sister to illustrate it.
-Your sister is considered 内 for you. They key word here is “you”.
-Your friend’s sister is considered 外 for you. Again, it’s relative to your position with them.
Just like vertical concept of 縦 that was explained earlier, there is also an “emotional distance” of people who are close to you (family, close friends, etc) and people who are not close to you (acquaintances, strangers, etc).
These positions can change over time, like if you marry your friend’s sister then she will go from 外 to 内 for you. But the basic rule is that you want to be respectful towards people who are 外 for you, and you want to be humble about people who are 内 for you.
An example is that you would add the honorific さん (san) to the name of some who is 外, but you would not add it to the name of someone who is 内.
There are a lot of other ways that you can show this respect/humble attitude, but when talking about sisters, it’s pretty simple. You will just need to use slightly different words depending on whose sister you’re talking about.
For the most part you are just going to add on the さん honorific to the words for “sister”. But pay close attention to “older sister” as the pronunciation changes from “ane” to just “nee” and the polite お is added to the beginning.
Even knowing all this, younger siblings will still sometimes call their older sisters 姉ちゃん (neechan) to show them some respect and familiarity. They are older after all.
She’s not your older sister, but you call her that anyway?
Have you ever read a manga and saw the main character call a stranger お姉さん?
Or have you ever been watching an anime and heard “nee” added on to a girl’s name, kind of like “good morning Miyuki-nee”?
The first example is one that you will probably see and hear a lot. That’s because when someone doesn’t know a young woman’s name, they usually just call her お姉さん as a polite way of getting her attention. It would be considered rude to just point and say “hey you!”
As for the second example, sometimes a person will add 姉 (nee) on to someone’s name as a suffix to show the relationship that they feel towards them.
So to illustrate this, let’s say that you grew up with a neighbor named Miyuki who is a few years older than you and she’s always been “like a big sister” to you. You might call her 美雪姉 (Miyuki-nee), which would be kind of like calling her “Big-sis Miyuki”.
The More You Know, The More You Know!
So there you have it. You now know the words for both older and younger sister, the kanji for each one, how to tell them apart from each other, the concept of tate, and the dual concept of uchi/soto!
That’s a LOT! And to think, you were only looking to learn how to say “imouto” LOL! 😛
Rather than doing one post on words, and then a separate post on culture, I’ve decided to do more posts that blend both of them together into one. That way, you can see and understand how they influence one another all at one time.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: