The Japanese language is full of honorifics, and this can clearly be seen in the different names for family members. Today you’re going to learn the names of family members in Japanese!
There are four situations you need to be aware of in order to know the correct word to use. They are:
- When talking about your family to others.
- When talking to your family members.
- When talking about the family members of others.
- When talking to the family members of others.
The general rule is that you need to use the humble forms of words when talking about your own family, and you need to use the respectful forms of words when talking towards or about the family members of others.
However, the situation is half-and-half when you are talking towards your own family members. In this situation you’ll use respectful language to the family members who are older than yourself, and you’ll use the humble forms when talking to those who are younger.
The Japanese Names for Mom, Dad, Sisters, and Brothers
Here’s the format I’ll use from here on out for the different versions of words:
First it will be the respectful form of the word which is used in situations numbers #2 (when they are older), #3, and #4.
Then I’ll include the humble form of the words that you’ll use in situations numbers #2 (when they are younger), and #1.
Here’s an example:
- ご家族 (gokazoku) – The respectful word for “family” and in particular, someone else’s family.
- 家族 (kazoku) – The humble word for “family” and in particular, your own family.
Be sure to check back on those situations and this short explanation if you are ever confused with any of the following pairs of words.
Mom in Japanese:
- お母さん (okaasan)
- 母 (haha)
Dad in Japanese:
- お父さん (otōsan)
- 父 (chichi)
Sisters in Japanese:
- お姉さん (oneesan) – “older sister”
- 姉 (ane) – “older sister”
- 妹さん (imōtosan) – “younger sister”
- 妹 (imōto) – “younger sister”
Brothers in Japanese:
- お兄さん (oniisan) – “older brother”
- 兄 (ani) – “older brother”
- 弟さん (otōtosan) – “younger brother”
- 弟 (otōto) = “younger brother”
You’ll notice some interesting things right away from this list. First of all, the kanji is the same when you are using both respectful and humble language, but the readings (pronunciations) change.
You can see that the honorable お is added to the beginning for most words, and that the polite suffix さん is always added.
This suffix can change to alternates such as the super respectful 様 (sama), or the less formal and friendly ちゃん (chan).
It’s pretty common for young kinds to call their mommy and daddy 母ちゃん (kaachan) and 父ちゃん (tōchan) respectively. Keep an ear out for when a person uses different ending suffixes on their own family members.
Finally, the Japanese language distinguishes between older siblings and younger siblings with completely different words.
Having these kinds of insights into the language explains a lot about the society itself. In particular, the concepts of respect and humility, and of course the prevalence of hierarchies.
The Japanese Names for Grandfather, Grandmother, Uncle, and Aunt
The pattern continues here for the first two observations made in that previous section. There will also be a few new ones, so see if you can discover them for yourself before reading about them at the end.
Grandfather in Japanese:
- おじいさん (ojiisan)
- 祖父 (sofu)
Grandmother in Japanese:
- おばあさん (obaasan)
- 祖母 (sobo)
Uncle in Japanese:
- おじさん (ojisan)
- おじ (oji)
Aunt in Japanese:
- おばさん (obasan)
- おば (oba)
So what did you notice about these new words, compared with the last ones?
Well we see the honorifics are used here as well!
We also see that the kanji 父 appears in both father and grandfather. Ditto for 母 in mother and grandmother.
But what we also see with this particular section is that the phonetics of grandfather and uncle are nearly identical! There is only a slight elongation on the vowel in the word that is different: おじいさん and おじさん.
Of course the exact same thing happens with grandmother and aunt: おばあさん and おばさん.
Keep this in mind because the word for uncle, おじさん, is sometimes used when you are trying to get the attention of a middle-aged Japanese guy whose name you don’t know. It’s kind of like calling him “mister” in English.
If you accidentally hold the い too long, you’ll actually call him おじいさん which is more like calling him “gramps” in English! Rude!
And if you thought that was bad, then it’s even worse for the ladies! You might intend to a lady’s attention by saying “excuse me, ma’am” but if you hold the あ sound for one beat too long, then you’ll end up saying “hey, old woman!”
And the final thing I want to note in this part is that, while there are kanji for these words, they are almost always written in hiragana as I have done above.
Still, in case you’re interested:
- お爺さん – Grandfather
- お婆さんは – Grandmother
- 叔父さん – Uncle
- 叔母さん – Aunt
The Japanese Names for Wife, Husband, Daughter, and Son
There are actually several Japanese words for “my wife” and “my husband” which you will see here in a second.
Wife in Japanese:
- 奥さん (okusan) – Respectful, other people’s wives.
- 妻 (tsuma)
- 家内 (kanai)
- 女房 (nyōbō)
Husband in Japanese:
- ご主人 (goshujin) – Respectful, other people’s husbands.
- 主人 (shujin) – The humble version.
- だんなさん (dan’nasan) – This is another respectful word for husband.
- 旦那 (dan’na) – Here is the humble form, with kanji!
- 夫 (otto)
Daughter in Japanese:
- 娘さん (musumesan)
- 娘 (musume)
Son in Japanese:
- 息子さん (musukosan)
- 息子 (musuko)
And sometimes you will encounter the word お子さん (okosan) which means “child” and can refer specifically to someone else’s son, daughter, or it can just mean child.
The Japanese Names for Nephew, Niece, Cousin, and Grandchild
Here are a couple words that you don’t hear all that often:
Nephew in Japanese:
- おい (oi)
Niece in Japanese:
- めい (mei)
Cousin in Japanese:
- いとこ (itoko)
Grandchild in Japanese:
- お孫さん (omagosan)
- 孫 (mago)
Did you notice anything strange in this group of words?
The first three don’t have separate words for the respectful and humble forms!
When you say nephew, niece, or cousin in Japanese, you use the exact same word regardless of if they are your relative, or someone else’s.
Now there are kanji for these words as well, actually there’s pretty much kanji for all Japanese words, but I didn’t think they would be all that helpful since these words are most often written in hiragana.
That being said, I did think that it was interesting that the word for cousin uses different kanji depending on if you’re talking about a girl cousin or a boy cousin.
The pronunciation is still いとこ for both:
- 従兄弟 cousin (male)
- 従姉妹 cousin (female)
Are There Japanese Words for In-Laws?
In order to say something like “mother-in-law” or “father-in-law” you add the kanji 義 (gi) to the kanji for the respective persons. Like so:
- 義母 (gibo) Mother-in-Law
- 義父 (gifu) Father-in-Law
- 義兄 (gikei) Brother-in-Law (older)
- 義弟 (gitei) Brother-in-law (younger)
- 義姉 (gishi) Sister-in-Law (older)
- 義妹 (gimai) Sister-in-Law (younger)
Sometimes you’ll also see 義理 (giri) attached to words to add “in-law” to them. A perfect example would be the word for son-in-law as seen below:
- 義理の息子 (giri no musuko) = Son-in-Law
So, knowing that information what would you guess is the word for daughter-in-law?
Aaaaaaaaand the correct answer is:
- 嫁 (yome) = Daughter-in-law
COME ON JAPAN!
Now you know how to talk about family members when they’re you own, or your friend’s.
Try memorizing the words that you need to know first, and then come back here for any others that you might need a refresher on later.
Do you know any other words for family members in Japanese? Or do you have a question about anything I wrote in this post?
Let me know with a comment below! Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: