Family Words and Terms in Japanese Explained

Family Words and Terms in Japanese Explained

I want to give you a brief overview of how Japanese words change depending on the context, however, if you are here just to get a vocabulary list, no problem! Scroll down to "Vocabulary List" for that and/or download the free PDF (plus sound files and Anki deck) by clicking here.

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Family Terms in Japanese

Understanding and using family words in any language can be complex and nuanced, and Japanese is no exception. Japanese family terms go beyond the basic mother, father, brother, and sister, offering a rich array of designations based on age, gender, and marital status.

This article will introduce you to the basic family words in Japanese and provide some insights into their usage and cultural context.

Interested in learning more about Japanese? See the last page of the PDF in the free download for a special coupon to get $5 off anything at TheJapanShop.com.

Basics of Family Words in Japanese

You may know that many words in Japanese have multiple versions depending on:

    1. Who is speaking
    2. To whom he or she is speaking
    3. and the level of formality of the occasion.

Uchi and Soto

Think of it as two circles:

  • One for talking about your own family to others (uchi, or "my house (circle of friends and family)"),
  • And one for addressing others' family members (soto, or "outside").

    The former is more informal, while the latter is considered polite. For instance, "haha" is used to refer to your own mother, while "okaasan" is used when talking about someone else's mother. But both haha and okaasan mean “mother.”

    Vocabulary List

    Let's start with the main family words and then we will break it down into the nitty-gritty regarding usage.

      • 家族 kazoku family
      • お父さん otousan father
      • お母さん okaasan mother
      • 両親 ryoushin (both) parents
      • 息子 musuko son
      • musume daughter
      • ani older brother
      • otouto younger brother
      • ane older sister
      • imouto younger sister
      • おじいさん ojiisan grandfather
      • おばあさん obaasan grandmother
      • otto husband
      • tsuma wife
      • 赤ちゃん akachan baby
      • 義理の父 giri no chichi father-in-law or stepfather
      • 義理の母 giri no haha mother-in-law or stepmother
      • 継子 mamako stepchild [The "mama" here doesn't mean "mother" but rather "to inherit" or "to continue" or "to succeed"]

    The above lists the most common and useful terms of family relationships. However, it should be noted that there are different words used whether you are talking about your own family or talking about someone else’s family. Japanese also distinguishes between older and younger siblings.

    And… there are many more kinship terms one might use. For example, a wife speaking to her friend might call her husband うちの人 uchi no hito [literally, our (family's) person], but this list covers the most useful words. (Want to know a distant family term? Leave a comment below and we will be sure to add it!)

    When to Use What Word?

    As I mentioned at the top, these family terms have an honorific (尊敬 sonkei) and humble (謙譲 kenjou) form. Which one to use is determined by who you are speaking to and how formal the situation is.

    Here are a few situations:

    • Referring to someone else's family [honorific]
    • Referring to one's own family members in a casual situation (among friends) [honorific or other terms]
    • Referring to one's own family members in a formal situation or to people with a higher status (your boss) [humble]
    • Speaking to your family members directly [somewhat honorific except for younger siblings; you may use the more casual ちゃん honorific instead of さん]

    TERMS OF FAMILY RELATIONSHIP

     

    Referring to someone else's family

    My family (casual with friends)

    My family (formal)

    To my family members

    Father

    お父さん
    otousan

    お父さん
    otousan


    chichi

    お父さん・パパ
    otousan / papa

    Mother

    お母さん
    okaasan

    お母さん
    okaasan


    haha

    お母さん・ママ
    okaasan / mama

    Older Brother

    お兄さん
    oniisan

    お兄さん・
    お兄ちゃん
    oniisan /
    oniichan


    ani

    お兄ちゃん
    oniichan

    Older Sister

    お姉さん
    oneesan

    お姉さん・お姉ちゃん
    oneesan / 
    oneechan


    ane

    お姉ちゃん
    oneechan

    Younger Brother

    弟さん
    otoutosan


    otouto


    otouto

    Given name

    Younger Sister

    妹さん
    imoutosan


    imouto


    imouto

    Given name

    Grandfather

    おじいさん
    ojiisan

    おじいさん・おじいちゃん
    ojiisan /
    ojiichan

    祖父
    sofu

    おじいちゃん
    ojiichan

    Grandmother

    おばあさん
    obaasan

    おばあさん・おばあちゃん
    obaasan / 
    obaachan

    祖母
    sobo

    おばあちゃん
    obaachan

    Husband

    ご主人
    goshujin

    旦那
    danna

    主人・夫
    shujin/otto

    お父さん
    otousan
    (with children)

    Wife

    奥さん
    okusan

    奥さん
    okusan

    妻・家内
    tsuma/kanai

    お母さん
    okaasan
    (with children)

     

    Age and Status

    Age and status play a significant role in Japanese language and culture. When addressing family members, it is customary to include honorifics that denote respect. For instance, "-san" is a general honorific used for both genders and all ages. It shows respect and is similar to "Mr." or "Ms." in English. Other honorifics include "-chan" (used for girls, close friends, and pets), "-kun" (used for boys and close friends), and "-sama" (a more respectful version of "-san").

    Moreover, words can change depending on whether you're an older or younger sibling. For example, an elder sibling would refer to their younger brother as "otouto," while the younger brother would refer to their elder sibling as "ani" or "oneesan" depending on the gender.

    For more on name honorifics, see our free lesson page here:
    https://thejapanesepage.com/what-does-san-mean-japanese/

    As mentioned before, honorifics are often attached to family words to show respect. However, they are not typically used when referring to your own family members in conversation with outsiders, as it might be seen as arrogant. On the other hand, you should use honorifics when addressing or referring to someone else's family members.

    You might be thinking why say the honorific among friends? Using the humble form would place you beneath the person with whom you are conversing. But you can also use other non-honorific terms (such as the above mentioned うちの人 uchi no hito for one's husband or うちの子 uchi no ko for one's child).

    The other question you might have is why not use honorifics for younger siblings? The terms are from the perspective of the younger child. This is because Japanese culture highly values age and experience. Younger siblings use the honorific titles for the older siblings, but younger or equal siblings are usually simply addressed by their given name.

    In Yumi's case, she has a younger brother and a younger sister. Since she is the eldest, her mother calls her お姉ちゃん oneechan, but her younger siblings are called by their given names.

     

    Conclusion

    Family words in Japanese offer a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and society, revealing the importance of respect, hierarchy, and relationships. However, they can be complicated for learners due to the dual system of uchi and soto words, and the need to choose the correct honorifics. With practice and patience, learners can master these terms and gain a deeper understanding of Japanese language and culture.

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    8 comments

    Joey @ Wed, Jan 06, 21

    How to say great-uncle/aunt and grand-niece/nephew? In other words, how would I refer to my niece’s son and daughter? How would they refer to me? Also, does it make a difference if the niece/nephew is my sister/brother’s son/daughter or my sister-in-law’s (my wife’s sister) son/daughter?

    Timothy Seltzer @ Thu, Dec 10, 20

    What about niece and nephew?

    Paul Krieger @ Thu, Nov 12, 20

    Correction: my/our daughter vs. your daughter?

    Paul Krieger @ Thu, Nov 12, 20

    How do you say ”our daughter” (as opposed to “my daughter”) when asking in general:

    ご娘? お娘?

    e.g.: How is your daughter? (the speaker does not know the daughter’s exact age but she’s in her 20s)

    Sato @ Thu, Dec 12, 19

    Teache me

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