If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while now, you’ll have noticed that there are a lot of words that only have one English equivalent. A great example of this is wife in Japanese, which has at least 9 words that you can use!
The thing about it is that each word carries with it a nuance that you may want to use in certain situations, but not in others.
For example, two of the Japanese words for wife that I’ll go over today are considered to be politically incorrect in today’s society due to the kanji that they use and the original meanings they hold.
In other words, it’s a good idea to learn them all now, so that you don’t unintentionally use a word that upsets someone when you’re speaking to the in Japanese.
At any rate, let’s just jump into it now!
1. 妻 – つま (tsuma)
The first Japanese word for wife that I wanted to cover is 妻 (tsuma) which is used when talking about one’s own wife.
You will not use this word when talking about or addressing the wife of someone else, but when you are talking about your own wife it’s perfectly OK to use.
Furthermore, you can just say 妻 when speaking and leave out the 私の (watashi no) part which means “my” in Japanese, since this word inherently has that information in it.
- 妻は夢子と言います。 (tsuma wa yumeko to iimasu.)
- My wife’s name is Yumeko.
2. 奥さん – おくさん (okusan)
If I had to pick a single word out of all the ones that are in this article, I would say that this particular one is used most often in Japanese daily speech.
At least, it is the one that I hear most often in all sorts of media like TV shows, news articles, conversations, and so on.
The interesting thing about it is that it is one of the words that can be considered kind of offensive since the kanji 奥 (oku) translates as “inner” in English, and more specifically it means “the back of a house” in older Japanese.
You see, back in day when Japan was run by feudal lords and such, society was set up in such a way that men would converse and conduct business in the front of the house, and the women would remain in the back of the house.
Of course this included the wife of the guy who owned the joint too.
So you can see how some women in today’s day and age wouldn’t like to be called by a name that used to mean “back of the house” in older times.
It should be stated however that nobody really means this particular nuance when they use this word these days, and instead the way that it is used today is when referring to someone else’s wife.
That’s one of the reasons why the honorific さん (san) is added on to the end of the word to form the polite 奥さん which functions similar to the “Mrs.” that we would use in English when addressing someone respectfully.
There is also one final thing that I want to talk about before moving on to the second, and perhaps worse word for wife in Japanese that a person could potentially get mad at.
Even though the word 奥さん is primarily used when talking about someone else’s wife, I have also heard it used when talking about one’s own wife too.
This information flies in the face of what most books and courses teach beginner students, but I think that paying attention to how Japanese is used in the real word by the natives themselves is the safest way to go on these things.
Perhaps people use it to include the respectful さん when talking about their own wives?
I’m not entirely sure as to the reason since I’ve only noticed it, but haven’t researched it. If you have some insight into why this occurs, please let myself and everyone else know by leaving a detailed comment.
3. 家内 – かない (kanai)
Alright, now we get to the second Japanese word that you might want to avoid using, but should still learn.
It is 家内 (kanai) and it uses the kanji for “house” 家 and “inside” 内. So as you can easily figure out by looking at it, this word literally means “(person who is) inside the house” in Japanese.
This makes a lot of sense for hundreds of years ago when men would work all day out in the field or in town and their wives would remain in the house for cleaning, preparing food, raising children, and many other traditionally wifely duties.
It’s obviously not something that is as applicable today since women are working just as much as men are at corporate jobs, educational facilities, and you name it.
But it is what it is.
As a side not, this word also brings the meaning of “one’s own wife” which is similar to what we saw in the very first word, but of course you might want to not use #3 and instead stick with #1 just to stay on the safe side of things.
4. 女房 – にょうぼう (nyōbō)
Here we’ve got an interesting word becuase of a couple different reasons.
The first one is that is can be used to mean both “my wife” and also “your wife” in Japanese, although it is much more common to see it used when talking about one’s own wife.
The other interesting thing is that there is a generational gap on this word’s usage.
It is not a word that is commonly used by young people in Japan. In this particular situation, I would say that “young” is anyone who is 40 or below on the age scale.
So mostly I see this word used by the older “ojisan” type character in books and shows.
I think it’s also got kind of a blue collar feeling to it. Something that the common man would use, kind of like calling you wife “my old lady” in English, and not something that a person from high society would use.
5. 上さん – かみさん (kamisan)
Now we get to a much lesser used word, but one that you still might encounter if you do a lot of reading. I think that I personally have only ever seen it once or twice.
It is 上さん (kamisan) which is used when talking about the wife of merchants or craftsmen. This perhaps seems really obscure, but if you think of the “hostess” of an inn or lodge, then you can probably see where it’s coming from.
A woman whose husband runs the town’s only inn is bound to be known and have a modicum of respect, so perhaps that’s why she gets a special word all to herself.
Honestly speaking, I’m not really sure the logic behind it, but I ran into the word myself, and I thought that I would pass the information on to you in case you run into it and need to know what it means.
I think it’s pretty interesting how it’s written with the kanji for “above” 上 (ue) followed by the honofiric さん (san).
You see 上 used a lot in “old Japanese” when people talk about their older siblings or parents in a super respectful sort of way. Words like 兄上 (aniue) for older brother and 母上 (hahaue) for mother in Japanese.
So perhaps it comes from that era of the language and has someone managed to survive until modern times.
6. 夫人 – ふじん (fujin)
This particular word brings with it the feeling of “high class” to the lady it’s used for. For example, if you were talking about a nobleman’s wife, then this word would be appropriate to use.
But even though we don’t really have the system of nobility in most of the world, you will still see this word used sometimes when talking about the wife of a company’s CEO or a powerful politician.
What’s interesting is that this word can also be used like madam in English when you want to say something along the lines of “Madam Smith will be arriving at the mansion shortly” and such.
So it can be used as a sort of title for one’s name, if you will.
7. 嫁 – よめ (yome)
The word 嫁 (yome) means “bride” in Japanese and can be used when talking about someone’s future bride, or of course recently after one has gotten married and you’re still in that newlywed phase.
What’s kind of interesting is that this word is sometimes used to mean one’s “daughter-in-law.”
You will also see the honorific added onto it as 嫁さん for the colloquialism of the word wife.
Personally, I’ve always felt that this word was really cute, and has a nice sound to it when used.
8. お母さん – おかあさん (okāsan)
Now here is an interesting thing. The word お母さん (okāsan) actually means “mom” in Japanese, and is used by children when addressing someone else’s mom, as well as their own.
But sometimes you will hear the husband call his wife お母さん, or you will hear her referred to by that word by someone else.
So what is the deal on this one?
Well as it turns out, in Japan it is a common practice to call a lady お母さん (or sometimes ママ) when she becomes a mother.
This has to do with Japan’s culture of putting society above the individual. It is much more common to be called by your role in life, whether that be mother, teacher, section chief, etc. rather than your name.
Even your last name will get used more often than your given one.
So, all that to say that when a Japanese wife has children it is very likely that the word お母さん will get used to mean wife when talking about her and such.
9. ワイフ (waifu)
The final word that I wanted to go over is pretty much a meme at this point in life.
I’m talking of course about ワイフ “Waifu” which is a loan word taken directly from English.
I’m gonna be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Japanese person use this word. And why would they when they’ve got all those others to choose from!
I only ever hear this word used when referring to the anime girl that a dude in real life (IRL) has designated as his waifu.
Yes I have one. No I won’t tell you who she is!!!
Which Japanese word for wife do you like the most? Who is your waifu?
Let me know with a comment!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: