Japanese familial honorifics

I’m fairly undecided on how I want to deal with the whole Japanese familial honorific system and have been trying to run various samples through my head and written down to figure out how they look and feel.

The problem is this (are these):

English obviously doesn’t have as many meaningful familial terms than Japanese (or many other languages). Not only that, but certain terms have a colloquial or slang implication that I don’t want in my fic. (Example: Using a direct address for “grandma” works fine, but “bro” doesn’t work so well because of other implied uses in American English.)

But I’m iffy about including a bunch of Japanese terms when there are, in most respects, equal analogues in English. I really don’t want to use a term that requires either a footnote or glossary appendix. It’s bad form, I think–in some cases, using a cultural term that is a pure noun I think is fine; e.g. I used nikujaga intead of “meat and potatoes” because the latter invokes a different culinary image, and I can easily write it so that the descriptive definition sits beside the term. On the other hand, it seems awkward to say something like “This is my mother,” and then go on and refer to that person only as “okaasan.” People can still figure out the meaning, but it just feels awkward. I’m sure there are ways around it, though.

Then there’s also the issue of formality, and–bear with me since some of it is my interpretation–it goes something like this with English examples:

otousama > otousan > chichi(ue?) > papa (imported)
father > father > dad > daddy/papa (and other)

okaasama > okaasan > haha* > mama (imported)
mother > mother > mom > mommy/mama (and other)

oniisama > oniisan > oniichan > ani(ue?) …
(Not much variety here–just “brother” and “bro,” neither of which I really want to use.)

Now, I recall hearing examples of attaching a familial honorific to a name, perhaps like “Jo-niisan” or “Jo-nii.” Can that be used for both nonrelatives and relatives?

To take a record, in Mai-HiME, the only familial instances of direct address for living cast members are Takumi to Mai (oneesan) and Mikoto to Reito (ani-ue <– what’s the “ue” for?). For the indirect address, we have Nao for her mom (mama), Natsuki for her mom (haha, I think?), Akira for her dad (not positive), and… can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head. Then, as in the other anime I’ve watched, I noticed that younger family members are always addressed by name and not a familial honorific. Mai always calls Takumi by his name, and Reito for Mikoto.

Now, of course, I’m using normal honorifics like -san -sama -sensei and such, but these types of honorifics have no direct English analogues that carry a similar meaning in the same context (kids these days really don’t go around calling each other “miss” or “mister,” after all). I’m fine with using those because they’re always attached to a name, so you know exactly who it’s referring to, and if you do understand the meaning, it’ll alter the name it’s attached to–but the reader isn’t required to know it.

Anyway, there’s a bit of family talk for Part 1 and a lot more for Part 2. According to the link I have up there, referring to family members in direct or indirect address also changes, so that would be confusing and possibly annoying if I tried to be pretty accurate in pure familial honorifics–and that’s another problem. I’m worried I’ll misuse something. :P But I’m sure people will be around to correct me. Right? RIGHT?

*”Haha” is an example of something I’d never use in my fic. I mean, really… ^_^;

And so it goes like this:

Should I retain all Japanese familial honorifics only for direct address but use English analogues in third person/indirect?

Should I retain familial honorifics for only direct address of older generations? (e.g. aunt/uncle, grandparents, mother/father)

Should I avoid full familial honorifics in all cases and use only English analogues for older generations and then only names for the current generation?

Should I retain familial honorifics for everyone except the current generation, where direct address will include name + shortened honorific? (Not sure if this is nonrelative only, though; see “Jo” example above.)


Edit: Found a better explanation–“Honorifics for Family,”

Update (6/12): I’ve decided to retain familial honorifics for direct address of older generations. For the younger generation, I’m going to, for the most part, use names only with the occasional familial honorific (brother/sister), but not too often. For indirect/third person address, I’ll use English terms only. I think it’ll work… All of it will go into the notes, anyway. :) Thanks to people who commented.


7 thoughts on “Japanese familial honorifics”

  1. as long as you can get them right, I’d keep them in – most people who watch anime/read manga have a pretty decent understanding of them, although my mother objects when I call her ‘okaa-san’ – seems to think it means something other than ‘mom’

    Stick to what you know, Natsuki does refer to her mother as ‘haha’ in the anime, but you could change it to ‘okaa-san’ and not really loose the meaning, as they really are inerchangable, like Mom and Mommy. [only, who, at teh age of seventeen or whatever uses ‘mommy?]

    1. Well, Nao does use “mama,” after all… but that still sounds better than “mommy.” ^_^;

      Quick–in the flashback scene where chibi-Natsuki is sitting in the back seat with Duran just before the car flies off the cliff, what exactly does she say? “Okaasan”?

      1. In the begining of ep 9 while Natsuki is throwing flowers from the cliff to the sea she is saying “kaa-san”. in the same ep, flasback, chibi-Natsuki is saying “okaa-san kowai-no”. In ep 18, when Natsuki explains to Mai why she is 17 years old after FD, she is reffering to her mother as “haha”.
        So, gambare ^^

        -ue in ani-ue is an old honorific, as I heard.

        1. So I suppose the “o” is sort of a prefix of respect, which is why I’ve sometimes heard nee/nii-san without it… though I haven’t heard otou-san without it, I think.

          The use of haha vs. okaa-san supports what I inferred about direct/indirect address, at least. And I can see Mikoto and Akira using the -ue honorific, but I’m not planning on having them in the fic anyway… ^^;

          Okay, these details really do help. Thanks. :)

          1. So I suppose the “o” is sort of a prefix of respect
            BTW Somebody pointed out, that it’s characteristic for Kyoto-ben to use this one and honorific -san while reffering to inanimated objects, so you can hear Shizuru saying ‘o-negi-san’. Scary ;)

  2. From what I can remember from my days of the Inuyasha fandom, chichi-ue, haha-ue, and ani-ue are all old, overly respectful ways to address family members. (But I could be wrong – it’s been a while since I actively learned all of those things.)

    I’m perfectly find with whatever you choose to use in your writing. If you’re uncertain, you could just write the various meanings/implications in your notes for those who aren’t familiar with honorifics?

    1. Ehh, yeah, I’m not positive about the versions used there. According to that one site up there (I may have to look at more depending on which way I swing with this), chichi/haha is simply a way of referring to your own family in the third person (indirect). The “ue” part might be what makes it old-fashioned.

      Yeah, I’m leaning towards a combination of the first and second options up there. Hm. Yay for notes.

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