Japanese

What Does “San” Mean in Japanese?

One of the most common words in Japanese is “san” and the sooner you learn what it is, the better off you’ll be when reading or listening to Japanese. It’s especially important to use correctly when speaking or writing, but what does san mean in Japanese?

The first usage is related to people, and the second is related to animals. Then we’ll talk a little bit about when this word appears in set phrases, and then finally we’ll talk about some common words that are read as “san” but all have different meanings.

Attached To People’s Names

The most common way to see and hear the word “san” used is attached to the end of someone’s name.

It’s always spelled in hiragana as さん and is roughly equivalent to adding the word “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to someone’s name in English.

  • こんにちは、佐藤さん。
  • konnichi-wa satou san.
  • Hello, Mr. Satou.

This is done to show both politeness and respect to the other person. Generally speaking, you would use this word for people who are equal to you or above you in social status.

So that means you’d attached it to the name of your co-workers, your boss, and people whom you have just met and are your acquaintances.

It also means that you never attach it to your own name since that would come across as kind of pretentious. The rule for Japanese society is to be respectful towards others and humble about yourself.

The word さん is usually attached to someone’s last name, but if they become close to you through work, school, or just hanging out a couple of times, then you can start using it with the other person’s first name.

This word also gets used with a lot of non-human things such as animals and job positions. Let’s go over these next.

Used For Non-Humans

Many times in English when we encounter an animal whose name we don’t know, we will refer to them by saying the word “Mr.” along with their animal name.

For example, if you see a turtle walking across your lawn while you’re eating lunch on the porch, you might wave to him and say something like “Hello Mr. Turtle!”

In Japanese, it’s a similar story. It is common for people to attach the word さん to the animal’s name when talking to them and or interacting with them.

For example, I was watching an episode of School Rumble the other day and there’s a scene where two of the girls are taking a giraffe for a walk when it bolts and starts running away. One of the girls yells out to him to stop.

  • 待って、キリンさん!
  • matte, kirin san!
  • Stop, Mr. Giraffe!

While animals are probably the most common non-human to get さん added to them, there are of course others as well.

For example, if you see a cute robot in a store, you could address him as ロボットさん (robotto san) for Mr. Robot.

The other thing that I should mention is that the word さん is gender neutral. I’ve been using it as “Mr.” so far in all of my examples, but it can be used for “Ms.” or “Mrs.” exactly the same way.

This is actually one situation where the ambiguity can cause confusion for people.

Let’s say that you have two friends who are married to one another and their last name is 田中 (tanaka). If someone said to you that they ran into 田中さん in the store, you actually wouldn’t know if they were talking about “Mr. Takana” or “Mrs. Tanaka.”

A final thing that I wanted to talk about in this section is that the word さん can also be added onto certain professions as a way of politely addressing someone.

Again, this is a way to show someone respect and politeness when you don’t know their name.

The word 運転士 (untenshi) means “professional driver” and is usually in reference to a taxi driver or a train driver. It’s pretty common to add さん on to it and say 運転士さん when either talking to them, or talking about them.

Another common example is 不動産屋さん (fudousan yasan) which is a real estate agent.

But perhaps the two most common “positions” that this word gets added to are the Japanese words for mother and father.

The word for mother is お母さん (o-kaa san) and the word for father is お父さん (o-tou san). In both of these situations a polite お (o) has been added in front of the word, and then the respectful さん has been added to the end.

As A Part Of Phrases

Sometimes you will come across certain phrases that include the word さん in them in order to make them polite.

Once such phrase is ご苦労さん (go kurou san) which means “I appreciate your efforts” and is generally used to thank someone after they have worked hard and accomplished something.

For this phrase in particular, you can also swap out the word さん for 様 (sama) which basically has the same meaning, but is an even more polite form.

Other Words For “San”

There are a couple of other words in Japanese that are pronounced “san” and I thought it would be nice to cover the most common ones now.

The first is the number 3 which is written as 三 (san).

Another is the suffix 山 (san) which gets added onto the names of mountains and is equivalent to our “Mt.” which means “mount” in English.

  • 富士山が見える。
  • fuji san ga mieru.
  • I can see Mt. Fuji.

The last word isn’t super common, but it is considered a noun you have to know to pass the JLPT-N1 test. It is 酸 (san) which is the Japanese word for “acid.”

A Very Useful Word

Now you know a lot about the Japanese word さん.

I won’t say that I covered everything, as there are more examples that could have been added, and even more Japanese words that are read as “san” but have different meanings.

If you’ve got any questions or comments that you would like to make, then please feel free to do so in the section below.

Thanks for reading!

4 Comments

  • 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

    Nick,
    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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