What Does sama Mean in Japanese?

If you’ve ever read manga or watched anime (especially anime with subtitles) then you’ve probably come across the word “sama” before and wondered what it meant. Well if that’s the case then keep reading and I’ll tell you all about it. But before I explain what “sama” means in Japanese, let mean establish a base line by explaining levels of formality in the language.

You wouldn’t talk to your boss like you would to your friend

Japanese is a very hierarchical language in that you will talk to people who are above you in status in one form of the language, while you will talk to people who are your equal or below you in a different form. Let me give you an example. Pay particular attention to the words highlighted in red.



As you can see, the younger man uses the verb です (desu), whereas his boss uses だ (da) Both words mean “to be” in Japanese, but です (desu) is the formal version of the word and だ (da) is the informal.

A lot of Japanese words have multiple forms and generally speaking, the longer the form of the word, the more formal it is (and vice-versa). You generally speak formally to people above you or unknown to you and informally to your friends or people below you.

How does this relate to name suffixes? I’m sure you are familiar with the name suffix “san” which translates to Mr. or Mrs. in English; So Sato-san translates as Mr. Sato.

Well, sama is the more formal version of san just like desu is the more formal version of da.

When should you use sama 様

The interesting thing is that the suffix “san” is already formal. So that makes the suffix “sama” even more formal!

You would use sama primarily in written Japanese (like writing a letter) and also to a person who is your customer. There is a saying in Japan that, “the customer is god.” So you would want to be very polite to them!

  • いらっしゃいませ!お客様!
    irasshaimase! okyaku-sama!
    Welcome! (Customer!)

Does that explanation help? Let me know in the comments below!

What other name suffixes have you heard before?


  • Craig

    Konnichawa Nick san,
    Very interesting and thanks for the info. Should I have used sama there instead of san since I have never met you? A friend of mine lives in Yokohama and he always addresses me as Craig san. It always makes me feel good, I just love this language. I’m assuming you also live in Japan? It’s on my bucket list and not too far from me in Malaysia.
    Best, Craig.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Haha, konnichiwa Craig san! No need to use sama with me unless we were meeting in some sort of super formal setting. As an American, I also think it’s pretty cool to use the honorific name suffixes with people like san, sama, chan, kun, and so on. To me, it sounds way cooler than our typical Mr. in English!

  • jschicanha

    wow this so amazing for i have never differentiate the tone and the language to use when having communication with my boss or my colleague in general of that have me ruined my reputation toward my boss in some cases
    and with this information provided i have found it more useful and real helping

    thanks for the information provide

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