What Does SAN Mean in Japanese?

If you’ve spent any time at all listening to Japanese people talk, then you’ve definitely heard them say the word SAN before. That three letter word (or two kana word さん) can actually have several different meanings depending on the context. What does SAN mean in Japanese? Read on to find out!

[Your Name] + SAN

Probably the most common way that you’ve heard SAN before is attached to the end of someone’s name.

Yoshi becomes ⇒ Yoshi-San

This is an honorific that the Japanese attached to people’s names to show respect. It’s the equivalent to Mr or Mrs in English.

There are actually a lot of different honorifics that can be attached to someone’s name, like CHAN or KUN for people you are on friendly terms with, or SAMA for people who are above you in social status.

Like I said, there’s a lot of different ones, but SAN is by far the most common. If you are a non-Japanese person, then using SAN after someone else’s name (never your own) will work 99% of the time.

The Number Three (3)

SAN is also the way to pronounce the number three (3) in Japanese.

How old are you? I’m 32 years old (san juu ni sai desu).

What time is it? It’s 3 o’clock (san ji desu) .

How much is it? It’s 13 dollars (juu san doru desu).

You’re gonna hear it a lot >_<

Unlike the “honorific SAN” that uses two kana to spell it, the “number three (3) SAN” has its own kanji. Here it is:

It is REALLY easy to learn and remember that the word SAN means three. Just think to yourself, “the word SAN has three letters in it when spelled in Romaji.”

And when it comes to the kanji, just count the number of lines!

There is also a unique kanji for the number three when it comes to documents. For example, this is what you would see in any kind of legal form for the number three:

Again, note the three lines in the bottom of the kanji. It’s a dead giveaway!

What else?

SAN is also the on’yomi (Chinese reading) of the kanji for mountain . It works the same way as the English abbreviation for “mountain, mount, or Mt.”

Mount Fuji = FUJI SAN = 富士山

Everything that you’ve read above should be good for like, 95% of the SAN’s you run into. But there are a few more odd ones that you will occasionally run into. Here’s a list of things that SAN could also mean:

  •  acid
  •  production
  •  praise

I wouldn’t worry too much about these last three (SAN, heh!) though.

Feel free to share this article with anyone you think might like it! And if you enjoyed it yourself, let me know with a comment below! Thanks!


  • Rori O'Hara

    Please tell me if I’m wrong: I counted 7 uses of “san” in your article. So now I have 7 words in my Japanese vocabulary!

    Yes, I have heard “san” in the context of honor, but didn’t know how rich and diverse this one word is.

    Thanks for this interesting, tactical blog about Japanese culture. I’ll be back for more!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Rori, yeah it’s pretty interesting how many different Japanese words sound the same. I think it’s because the language doesn’t have as many different sounds in it as others do. After all, it only has five different vowels. But this makes the words easy to pronounce!

  • swangirl

    This is really interesting! I don’t know any Japanese but I have heard SAN used in both the contexts you mention here for a person’s name and the mountain etc.

    I will show this to my husband since he picks up languages very well and he knows some Japanese. He has always been interested in learning more. You site could be very helpful for him.

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