Manga Answerman - How Come Only Some Manga Use Honorifics?

by Deb Aoki,

Why do some translated manga use honorifics like -san, -chan, and -kun and some don't?

First, a little background: the Japanese language commonly uses honorifics, or suffixes added to names in a way that's quite unique, in that it can be used to indicate all kinds of relationships.

In English, we don't have as many additions to names that indicate our relationship to the person being described or addressed – for example, we can use Dr., Mr. or Mrs./Ms./Miss [last name] to show respect or formal deference to that person. For example, if it's someone you don't know very well or you want to show deference or respect, you don't address them by their first name (which can seem too intimate or casual in certain situations), you say 'Mr. Lopez,' or 'Mrs. Chang.' Or if it's a doctor or professor, you might say 'Dr. Petrelli,' or if it's a pastor or priest, you might say 'Reverend Jones,' perhaps.

The general English-to-Japanese equivalents in these cases are easy. “-san” is similar to “Mr.” and “Miss/Mrs./Ms.” “-sensei” is roughly equivalent to “Dr.”, and in Japan is also used to show respect and deference for a person with elevated professional status, such as an established author, artist, or manga creator. There's also "-dono" or "-sama" for an even higher level of respect for royalty, a very wealthy or respected person, or a high-ranked government official, which is kind of like "Lord Hollingbrook" or "Lady Collins" or "Queen Elizabeth."

But in Japanese, there are also honorific suffixes like “-chan” or “-kun” that are meant as affectionate terms of addressing someone, or indicate youthfulness that don't really have a simple equivalent in English. It can also be used sarcastically, to cut someone down as being a kid or immature. And then there's the various cutesy variations on that, which include “-chin” (e.g. Makka-chin, the poodle in Yuri On Ice) or “-nyan”

There's also the “-senpai” / “-kohai” thing, where you're referring to your senior colleague or your junior colleague at work or at school, which also doesn't really have a tidy English equivalent.

Referring to someone you're not related to as your “aniki” “or “ni-chan”/”oniisan” (“big brother”) or “ne-chan”/”oneesan” (big sister), isn't very common in English either. “Bro” somehow seems like a poor equivalent to “aniki,” and somehow loses some of the layers of meaning that's felt in the Japanese use of this word. And then there's the thing where it's considered a BIG DEAL / a big step toward a closer relationship/friendship with someone if you use someone's first name to address them, because last name is used most often in professional / formal situations. You'll see this happen in shojo manga a lot, when the character is shocked and super-touched when the object of their affections moves from calling them by their last name to referring to them by their first name.

There's a lot of layers of meaning in the use of honorifics, which is why some manga readers and translators are keen to keep them in when Japanese manga is translated to English. In many manga published in N. America, there may be a page in the back explaining what honorifics mean too.

But not all translated manga use honorifics. For example, you don't see “-chan” or “-san” in Yen Press' editions of Emma or A Bride's Story by Kaoru Mori, or in Vineland Saga by Makoto Yukimura from Kodansha Comics.

While policies on use of honorifics may vary from publisher to publisher, it's generally left up to the translator and editor of the manga. The general rule of thumb that seems to work best is to omit the Japanese honorifics if the story is set OUTSIDE of Japan (like Vinland Saga, and Emma), and to keep the honorifics if the story is set IN Japan, and there are Japanese characters whose relationships (and changes in relationship) are a significant part of the story. You'll see this in VIZ Media's edition of Haikyuu!, a story about high school volleyball players in Miyagi Prefecture by Haruichi Furudate, and in shojo manga like Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi (if you haven't already done so, check out last week's ANNCast with Althea and Athena Nibley, who translated the new Sailor Moon Eternal Edition from Kodansha Comics).

There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule-of-thumb. For example, Vertical Comics' edition of cute kitty manga Chi's Sweet Home by Konami Kanata doesn't include “-chan,” “-san” or “-kun,” and frankly, it doesn't lose any of its charm and readability with its absence. In Kengo Hanazawa's zombies running amok in Japan series I Am a Hero from Dark Horse, you can see a mix – with a page or two, you'll see a character addressed as “Mr. Mitani” or just “Mitani,” and another character referred to as “Mii-chan.”

So the answer to this, like many Manga Answerman questions is pretty much, “it depends.” Ultimately, it comes down to the translator's and editor's best judgement on what will be the best choice for an enjoyable reading experience.

What's your take on honorifics in translated manga? Add your thoughts in the forums!


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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.


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