Study of Japanese modes of address and honourific

I guess I better start off with a disclaimer. I’m not Japanese. I studied it a bit and I have more than passing interest in it. So, this is what I can understand in my limited self-study and I may expand on this as I find new materials, aspects and understanding.

One of the interesting characteristics of Japanese language is the use of honorifics and the way someone is addressed shows the degrees/desire of familiarity in their relationship to each other. It even conveys the person’s personality, such as one who is normally formal or informal, open or distant, traditional or modern, rebellious, obedient or easygoing. A lot of these nuances are lost in translation to English. Which is why I feel it’s better to watch anime or japanese drama with English subtitles and original Japanese audio. You get the nuances and the depth of the story much better that way.

This post is an off-shoot from another article I’m writting on Prince of Tennis, The Captains’ Table, which is still half-done. I was looking at how Tezuka’s personality reflects the team dynamics and how it is conveyed and reflected in the members’ style of speech. So I’m afraid most of the examples require certain knowledge of Prince of Tennis. I’d recommend watching it, if only to study the nuances of Japanese language. But you should be able to observe similar usages in any anime or j-drama as well.

Most of the ways Seigaku players address each other are modern formal or semi-formal, much like Tezuka’s personality. Those that tends to go against this are Kikumaru Eiji and Momoshiro Takeshi, who were most playful and friendly members of the team. Momoshiro himself insisted of being addresssed as Momo-chan by younger members, which is usually considered too familiar and disrespectful. The younger members tends to compromise by calling him Momo-senpai or Momo-chan-senpai. The addition of senpai shows a sign of respect for a senior student, while the shorted name shows a certain familiarity and informality.

Compared to the extreme end, Tezuka is normally addressed as Tezuka-kun, Tezuka, Tezuka-buchou, buchou (captain), Tezuka-san, Tezuka-senpai.

The only people that calls Tezuka by his given name ‘Kunimitsu’ are his mother (offscreen) and his coach in Germany. It is expected as both women are senior and considered very familiar to him. However, it’s definitely more formal, as fitting Tezuka’s personality, than adding -chan or -kun to his given name.

In Junior Selection Camp story arc where Tezuka was replacement coach, we have a mix of teachers and players who talk about or talk with Tezuka. These episodes show an interesting study of different ways Japanese language and culture use modes of address (with some intonation) to convey implicit information, such as feelings, personality and relationship.

-San is the most generic formal address. It’s usually used by people who don’t know each other very well or from someone younger to an older/adult person. Tezuka-san was used by Coach Sasaki, who tends to be a formal and aloof person. In contrast, Coach Hanamura, who tends to act more familiar with the students, addressed him as Tezuka-kun, maintaining professionalism, age difference and yet conveying informality. Some of the players from other schools also address Tezuka by -san honorific. These are usually spoken with respect for a coach, a stronger player or from a younger player (second years) to an older one.

-Kun honourific is usually used to address a young boy or a subordinate. It is more familiar than -san but less familiar that just calling him by his last name, without any honourific as used by Coach Hanamura. Yamato Yudai, the captain in Tezuka’s first year is another that calls him Tezuka-kun, as a way of establishing informal seniority. -kun honourific is also used between boys of same age. Players where who are same age but less familiar with Tezuka also use the -kun suffix. In such usage, it conveys equality without over familiarity. One such contrast is the flashback during Fuji-Tezuka match, where in the first year, Fuji, Oishi and gang used Tezuka-kun. But at the present third year, where they have become closer friends with each other, they have drop the -kun honorific.

Younger students who are not members of Tennis Club address Tezuka using Tezuka-senpai. E.g. Ryuzaki Sakuno when Tezuka visited Ryuzaki-sensei in the hospital.

Those that calls him “Tezuka” are the third years that are closest to him, namely Oishi and Fuji as friends and equals when they are outside the framework of tennis club hierarchy.

The younger members (Echizen, Momoshiro and Kaidou) tends to address him as buchou or Tezuka-buchou, respecting his position as captain more than as senior student. This also shows that they are not as familiar with him as the third years. This mode of address maintains a certain distance or aloofness for a captain who maintains discipline and unchallenged authority within the team.

Aside from Tezuka, Fuji Yuuta also shows some interesting use of mode of address. The root word for elder brother is ‘nii’. Normally, elder brothers, such as Fuji Syuusuke, is addressed as onii-san or nii-san (respectful) or nii-chan (very familiar). Instead, Yuuta uses the honorific ‘aniiki’. Aniiki is used for elder brother or someone you look up to. It’s also less familiar or puts a little distance between them. This conveys a certain feelings of inferiority that Yuuta have towards Syuusuke, who was older, better and more famous player than himself. At the same time, it also shows Yuuta’s deep respect for his elder brother. It’s amazing how one word could say so many things.

Dorobou-niichan is what Chitose Miyuki calls Tezuka. Dorobou means thief, in reference to Tezuka using Miyuki’s tennis racket without her permission when they first met. niichan is cute and familiar form of addressing elder brother. In most Asian countries, it is customary to address an elder person of same generation as elder brother or sister as a sign of affection or respect. This can apply to friends, cousins or acquaintances. However, the use of niichan is extremely familiar and informal, which fits Miyuki’s child personality. It was also at the time when Tezuka was not in his Captain’s persona, which probably allows for such mode of address.

Next time, I might look at the usage of ‘you’ and ‘I’. Even the syntax and use of words can denote a feminine (softer) or masculine (rougher) mode of speech. As to be expected, there are more than one way to say ‘you’ in Japanese. From teme, kisama, kimi, omaega, to anata. ‘I’ can be translated from ore, boku, watashi, etc.

Currently, I’m focusing on second-person mode of address.
However, ann-applecode have another interesting analysis on first-person modes of address and speech pattern.



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  4. saliviabaker said

    Now it would be interesting to know what your native language is.

    As for the german coach it’s quite natural to use Kunimitsu, everything else would be weird. He is a child and such is a dressed by his first name (and in informal language).
    In comparison japanese teacher are more respectful/formal with the children because they use last names and/or -san (for older students).

    It would also be interesting to have a listing of who uses what for “i” and if they use direct or indirect speech when talking to someone.

    • cohlinn said

      Hehe .. I’m fluent in English and Malay. Can handle simple Mandarin and Hokkien (Chinese dialect). Given some acclimatisation, I might be able to understand dialects with close roots to the language I’m familiar with. Japanese would rank 5th, with my limited knowledge and exposure.

      Yes, it would be interesting to have a listing of who uses what for “I” and “you”. But my Japanese and knowledge of Japanese culture is not good enough to analyse speech pattern.

      As I was rewatching some episodes yesterday, I noticed Ooishi and Fuji use ‘boku’ while Tezuka prefers ‘ore’. Of course, there’s Atobe’s ‘ore-sama’. I have problems understanding Sanada’s speech. I’ll believe it if someone tells me he’s using classical or archaic form of Japanese.

      • saliviabaker said

        I’m just asking because from what you wrote it seemed that a difference between formal and informal language is new to you. English (sadly?) dropped it.

        Too bad I have too many other things to do otherwise I could have a look.
        But to use ore-sama is so arrogant. You do not give yourself a suffix.. and then sama! it just fits Atobe. *g*

        I just watched the Hyotei Winter Match Musical and in a song they explained why Tezuka wants to win so badly against Atobe. (I don’t know if it’s canon or not but since we talked about it I just though I’ll let you know in case you haven’t watched it).
        It was something along the line that he has to prove to himself that he is worthy to go to the nationals. Plus he wanted to be the one to bring them into the finals.
        And about Echizen as reserve player, wasn’t it that he couldn’t play against Kabajis power play and the only other position would have been a double, which he can’t play?

      • cohlinn said

        Ah … difference between formal and informal language is not new. It’s just that when you learn foreign languages, the first thing you learn is the proper-speak. That is, the formal polite business-oriented type. Native speakers don’t use that kind of language most of the time. Given the availability of good anime/jdrama, quality subs and original audio, it’s kind of fun to apply classroom learning to what can be observed (given that I don’t live in Japan, this is going the closest I’d get to observing native speech). Japanese language has root words and prefix/suffix/modifiers that will change the meaning, the level of formality, etc of the original word. It makes the grammar a little complex. But it gives a lot of coded information and nuances that is lost in translation.

        I don’t think there was any explicit mention of Tezuka’s motivation or reason for playing Atobe in Anime or Manga. Speculation-wise, I also thought along the same lines, seeing Atobe was one of the few people who could test Tezuka’s fitness/readiness for the Nationals. Anime talks about the Pillar thing and Tezuka’s desire to reach the Nationals.

        Oh, yes, you’re right about the reason Echizen ended as reserve.

      • saliviabaker said

        I watched a few scenes with Sanada again and he uses “ore” though he hardly addresses people directly. He avoids using “you” but also he doesn’t speak indirectly. I probably had to watch more.

  5. saliviabaker said

    Well I don’t think that Japanese endings are that much complex given that there are just two tenses and 2 declinations of verbs. Think of Spanish, german, Latin,.. you have to learn much more there. every person in several tenses in formal and informal speech.
    Japanese is quite relaxing in that manner. the particles are what is hard for me. Especially ni. Ga, wa, no, e, to, mo are ok but ni gets me every time.

    The thing is that the usage of language in Japanese media is different from the usage in western media. It seems as if the Japanese people are more aware that it’s just a show and therefore do everything they like and do not care if it’s like that in real life. You have to be careful what to take from anime/Jdoramas/films/.. for your language learning.
    btw. do you study Japanese or do you “just” pick up stuff when watching something?

    There is something I wan t to have your opinion about. It is something I haven’t read here so far.
    When Tezuka enters Seishun Gakuen he gets injured very quickly and wants to leave the Tennis Club. But the Captain persuaded him to stay. The Captain lets him play in the ranking matches even though he is a first year. He gets a regular position even though he is injured. BUT Fuji is as good as Tezuka – maybe better with Tezukas injury so why didn’t he get the chance to become a regular? Wasn’t that unfair?

    • cohlinn said

      I studied basic Japanese for one semester as an elective. That’s what started my interest. After that, I picked up Anime to maintain the interest and yeah, picked stuff up from Anime/Jdrama. But I also intuit or extrapolate what I pickup from my familiarity of other Asian languages and traditions. You’re pretty knowledgeable on languages. I’m curious as to your native language and did you study Japanese?

      You could say the same for Inui. He was doubles champion w/ Yanagi in elementary school.

      Purely speculation, I’d think that Fuji was hiding. Tezuka doesn’t really hide his strength, though he doesn’t go all out against weak opponents. Tezuka’s mindset would consider not playing seriously would be rude to the opponent. Like Echizen, Tezuka pretty much established that he’s better than everyone else in the club from the get go. That attracts a lot of attention, especially from Captain Yamato and Ryuzaki-sensei.

      On the other hand, based on Tezuka’s assessment of his year mates, his initial impression of Fuji was that Fuji was just a recreational player, because Fuji did not reveal any great skill, until his ‘lucky’ shot with a stray ball. Fuji, by his own admission plays according to his opponent’s strength. Which means, if Fuji is playing weak players, he would appear just mediocre or a budding potential. He did not get the kind of attention, both good and bad, from the seniors. Hence, would be skipped over from ‘special’ treatment.

      The other possibility is that, Tezuka and the other first years did not get to play in ranking matches till Summer. And Tezuka was made regular in the Summer and not during Spring. (Credit: Phoenixboy from This means that, as Captain, Tezuka’s decision to allow Echizen into ranking matches, not only breaks Seigaku tradition, it is without precedence. But then again, it would make Ooishi’s remarks about the ‘decision depends on the Captain’ sound strange.

      What I do find intriguing is that the Golden Pair and Tezuka are national-ranked, but I don’t hear Fuji being called that. But IIRC, Kawamura mentioned that Fuji and Tezuka are the only ones who kept their regular jerseys (never lost regular status) since they had attained it. Presumably Seigaku played maybe first or second round in Nationals during their second year, wouldn’t Fuji also play a National match?

      I think Tezuka’s injury during his first year was temporary. That is, he played badly against Fuji, immediately after the injury. But after it healed, it did not hinder him. His injury became a problem in the second year, aggravated by Tezuka’s insane training (according to Ooishi) and I’m guessing more difficult matches in his second year, possibly during the Nationals.

      Ooishi’s premise that Tezuka’s injury was partially caused by over-training is very likely and probable. Given Tezuka’s personality, he would probably train as obsessively as Inui and Kaidou. Based on some of the articles I’ve read on sports-injury, it is very likely that an athlete can cause self-injury (torn ligaments, etc) from over-training and not allowing enough time for the body to recover from that exertion. I have a feeling the lecture Inui gave to Kaidou about training causing more harm than good, should be given to Tezuka too.

      Well, that’s my two cents or ten cents. 😛 Sorry for the long winded explanations.

      • saliviabaker said

        I love your long winded explanations so don’t worry 😉

        I am German (half German half Austrian to be exact) that means my native language is German. (so of course I have to love Tezuka’s storyline in Germany ;)). I studied English in school as we all have to do. But I got fluent through TV and movies. It’s not perfect that’s why I still look for ways to improve it (i.e. lurk around
        I tried French for a year in school but it was way too much and ever since I hate that language even though German has a lot of French loan words (Sometimes I think the German language has the most loan words of all the languages.). I wanted a higher degree so stayed and one condition was that I learn a third languages. So I studied Spanish for 3 years. I forgot a lot but some basics knowledge is still there.
        I am not someone who is good in languages that’s why I just got by somehow. I didn’t even like other languages much but then I came across Japanese which changed my view completely.
        How did I get into Japanese? Well my subject at university is media studies and since animes are very big and I didn’t know much about them I though it’s my “duty” to get to know them. I didn’t think I would like them but at least I could gain same basic knowledge. I came across “Gravitation” and I loved it from the first 30 second on. Due ti that I got into Mangas (it’s manga based after all) and ten into JDorama and movies and music and.. well I just got into the whole Japanese media landscape and I just love it! Since I had to watch it with original audio and English subs I got exposed to the languages quite a bit. And Since I know that translations can never reach the original nuances given I deicided to try to minimize the loss and bought a book about Japanese in Animes. it explains phrased that come along often or the suffixes or the different words for I and you. and so on. I learned very much in addition what I had already picked up.
        And somehow my interest didbn’t go away and I wasn’t satisfied with the informations I had and looked out for more. I am still very low level. I simply can’t remember the words. I hat e my brain sometimes.
        Anyway, I do try over at JapanesePod101 and with my books even though most words I pick up by watching Japanese Media.

        As for other languages I am interested in a media scientific way. For example if I think I found out something in one language I try to confirm with another language. I then even look into languages I do not learn. I also love to talk with other people who know other languages so we can exchange informations.

        That is my long winded explanation 😉

        Now PoT
        Fuji so called prodigy so that implies for them probably that he is national level.

        It is said that Tezuka let Echizen play in the ranking matches because his Captain gave him the same chance. That means as first year before summer and after his injury.

        With your explanation it proves that Tezuka is reckless.Maybe he is so strict because of that. He can’t control it any other way but when pushed too far this site of him comes out.
        But probably I am completely off.

        Second year Nationals? I though Seigaku didn’t go to the Nationals before and that is the reason why Oishi and Tezuka wanted to lead them there in their time?

  6. cohlinn said

    Hehe … I just love the thought of Tezuka loose in Munich. No parents, no rules, no school!

    I took French for one semester and hated it. French numbering is insane. My other favourite language is Welsh. I was pretty obsessed with Welsh before I started on Japanese. But I only managed to pickup a few words and pronunciation. It’s the pretty looking and pretty sounding words in Welsh that got me misty-eyed without understanding a single word. Ahem … I blame Llyod Alexander, Ellis Peters and celtic songs for my temporary insanity in Wales.

    I don’t think you’re off about Tezuka being reckless. I think there’s a tendency in PoT fandom to label Tezuka an ice-block and ignore the fact that Tezuka is 14 and yes, he is a teenage boy and he is capable of being passionate and reckless. I do that some times too. IIRC, Atobe called Tezuka reckless towards the end of their match. In the manga, Tezuka called Ryuzaki-sensei to put Echizen in Singles 1 against Sanada, citing that he felt Echizen needed to play against Sanada, even though they may lose the Kantou Championship. Playing against Fuji with an injured elbow was reckless. Challenging Sanada and Yukimura (top 2 Junior champions) was pretty reckless. Tezuka isn’t afraid of taking risk, especially with himself.

    I think Seigaku didn’t make it to Nationals or even Kantou for many years before Tezuka et al showed up. Although in canon, it wasn’t explicitly mentioned. I’m not sure about their first year, but there are several implicit clues that they made it to Nationals in their second year. But they probably didn’t do very well.

    In canon, there are several hints of this. One is the ‘National-ranking’ given to Tezuka and Golden Pair. Secondly, Tezuka was invited to Jr. Senbatsu in second year, which he declined and Sengoku got lucky. Jr. Senbatsu invitees were chosen from students who played in the National Tournament of that year. Third, more circumstantial hint, was Ryuzaki-sensei’s personal thoughts about Seigaku being weak in Doubles. Her comment was, even their best Doubles, the Golden Pair … that one win was difficult for them. I took it to mean that ‘one win in National Tournament’.

    There are also some non-verifiable canon facts from Non-verifiable because I don’t see it mentioned in Anime or Manga. It’s highly probably those information came from Fanbooks and other sources that I don’t have. Seigaku was listed as one of five Kantou schools that participated in Nationals Tournament ( ). In the same year, Seigaku came 4th in Kantou, losing to Rikkai in Semifinals ( ). As Kantou Semifinalist, they would get to play at least one match in Nationals.

    Digressing a bit and purely speculating: If Seigaku got eliminated in the first round of Nationals, and Tezuka and Golden Pair won their Nationals match, it meant that Seigaku has to lose 2-3. The only players that were National ‘winners’ were all second-year students!

    While Tezuka and Ooishi said that they wanted to lead them to Nationals in their time, I think Tezuka has all ready started doing that in his first and second year. In manga, Ryuzaki-sensei remarked that Tezuka is the kind of man who constantly thinks of ways to improve the people around him. Personally, I think that promise between Tezuka and Ooishi was not just an entry in Nationals, but to aim for the Champion title.

  7. saliviabaker said

    And his acquaintance is drunk all the time…
    Though I have been three or four times to Munich I haven’t seen much of it since I only was there for a couple of hours each time. But since it’s such a big city Tezuka could do a lot of thing there besides sitting in a café
    But what impresses me a lot is that the German they speak there is hard to understand (even for some Germans) that means he has to be VERY good to understand the people there. I mean fluent. He is there for a couple of weeks? month?
    btw. do we know where he goes after the nationals? They only said Germany, didn’t they?

    Last year I was in Wales and it was great. I am just glad they speak English otherwise I had had a problem. But I agree it sounds nice 🙂

    Well I think that Tezuka wanted to go with Oishi, Fuji, Inui and Kawamura to the nationals. They formed a group early on and I think Tezuka tried his best to improve them enough to go to the nationals together (and win).

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