Opinion – To -Chan or Not to -Chan? Japanese Honorifics in Manga

So my first opinion-slash-ramble is going to cover a big one: honorifics in manga. It’s one of the Great Divides in manga translation and in other Japanese-related media. Some people swear it’s a rather unique feature that is necessary for full cultural understand, and other people claim it does nothing but detract from a smooth adaptation. So, how do I feel about the subject?


Here it is:

Generally, I prefer them.

I know that’s automatically going to get me strikes from many people, as they believe that keeping honorifics is akin to laziness. They view them as the industry giving in to the “weaboos” who do nothing but randomly go around screaming “baka” and “sugoi”. While these proud self-proclaimed otaku do exist, to immediately proclaim any supporter of honorifics as these crazy fanatics is wholly unfair.

The Companies Versus the Fans

First of all, translation/adaptation is an art. Balancing translation with localization is a skill not easily acquired. There is no “perfect” translation nor does every phrase have a one-to-one translation. It would be so much better if it were so, but that is not how life is. One “hai” does not always another “hai”. Two people can translate the same sentence but use different vocabulary and word order. It’s hard when translating from a language where they go subject-object-verb (and often leave out the subject completely) to a language where it goes subject-verb-object.

A translator and/or adaptor will also never please everybody. One of my favorite lines from Whose Line is it Anyway? is from Colin Mochrie: “Nine out of ten Americans believe that out of ten people, one person will always disagree with the other nine.” Some will always claim a publisher ruined a series for some silly reason or another, like translating one phrase a certain way ruined the entire series. Some people are just trolls, the type who hate something for no reason than to irritate fans. Others are the type who would only be happy if they did the work themselves, no matter whether they have the actual ability to or not.

It’s also hard to judge sometimes whether an outrage is real and many people feel that way or if it’s a very small but very vocal minority is making a fuss. I sympathize, as most of the people who work on a series are overworked and underpaid, especially since translating is such difficult work. Regardless, it is their job, and there needs to be a fair balance between respecting the fans and respecting the original work.

But let’s go back to using honorifics.

The Setting is Key

Firstly, sometimes a translator or adaptor has no choice on whether to use honorifics or not. Maybe the original publisher or author had an opinion, the licensed company has their in-house rules, or the translator/adaptor has already decided and overridden the other. But should have the practice of using honorifics been started at all? Many critics say no. But I say the community has expanded enough to warrant their inclusion in many — but not all — instances.

The first step to determine whether honorifics should be used is to look at the setting. Is it set in historical France? An alternate reality where maps are clearly written in English? Set in America? Any setting where Japanese (or a form of it) is not the primary language should pretty much immediately be eliminated from consideration for honorifics. It’s a little awkward in a series like The Seven Deadly Sins; it is clearly set in an alternate Britain where English is still their primary language, as evidenced from the wanted posters and maps. I guess you can chalk it up to being a fantasy series. Their version of English uses terms not found in our real-world English. But personally, even as a supporter, I would have not chosen to use them in this instance. Kodansha USA generally does use honorifics in their titles but series like Manga Dogs eliminates them. So that isn’t a case of the US publisher always choosing one way or another.

But speaking of fantasies, these series also present an adaptation problem. In some stories, the characters still speak Japanese despite the alternate universe settings. It’s their language despite not being called Japanese. In others, the author acts as almost a translator and has the characters speak in Japanese for the readers’ benefits, although in-universe they are speaking a completely different language. In my opinion, these manga series should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If the characters’ textbooks are written in what looks like made-up scribbles, I would lean toward no honorifics. Maps in English? No. Japanese-style shops and signs? Characters whose comedy schtick is saying, “Don’t call me ‘chan’!”? Keep the honorifics.

However, any historical or modern Japanese manga really have no reason not to use them. I’ll tackle a couple of the more common arguments first.

Countering the Major Arguments Against

“It’s lazy!”

Essentially, yes, it can be viewed as a quick fix. On the other hand, there’s also the phrase “work smarter, not harder”. If you replace “senpai” with a word like “upperclassman”, you’ve replaced what would be six letters plus a dash with thirteen, which could be a problem in smaller panels. It’s also not natural English. If the goal of an adaptation is to make it accessible to a foreign audience, I think the fact that characters call classmates by their last names, have clubs for just about everything, and have students do jobs like cleaning and attendance are already examples of culture shock.

“Well, just eliminate it!”

Most school life shoujo, for instance, have at least the “what should I call him?” or “what did he call me?” subplots. Then you get instances like volume 5 of Ouran High School Host Club. Haruhi always refers to Tamaki as Tamaki-senpai. For their translation, Viz Media did not use honorifics. Well, that caused a problem in volume 5 when Tamaki wanted her to stop calling him senpai. So the solution Viz chose was to insert it into a few panels. But it made no sense, since on the exact same page she uses “Tamaki”. This was his goal, but in the original Japanese, he never achieved it! Then the adaptation continues as if this scene never happened.

I would also point out that honorifics are often the only way to determine who is speaking. English has a limited amount of ways to refer to oneself. For instance, in Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, a line of “Usagi!” would certainly narrow the field of speakers. If it was shown with a panel of Mamoru, Chibi-Usa, and Luna, an English adaptation that chooses to drop honorifics would make it hard to determine who said the line. In the Japanese version, Mamoru uses Usako (later Usa) and Luna uses “Usagi-chan”. Along those same lines, if a translator chooses to use “Usa” for the main character’s first nickname, it would lose the nuance that he only uses it after dating for a while. It is not always easy to determine the speaker if there are no honorifics, no matter if the line is important or not.

There’s also the problem of certain nicknames. Let’s take a fairly famous one, Setsuna from Negima! metaseries. Konoka refers to her as “Secchan” aka “Setchan” (also written as Se-chan). Since -chan is technically an honorific, if a person is against honorifics, what do you adapt this as? Setsuna? Se? Setsu? Set? If a person says keep it, why is only okay when attached to a nickname? And what about if a character is named Ito, nicknamed Ikko, like in W Juliet? After all, -ko is not really an honorific, but it is supposed to reflect the fact the character who uses it wants the boyish Ito to be more feminine.

And Japanese historical fiction (or nonfiction) takes place in Japan. Again, of course they have a different culture with their own language and quirks.

“They are not a part of the English language!”

That does not mean at least some of them cannot be adopted into English, as evidenced by the “will senpai notice me” meme. Setting that aside, let’s consider the fact that there are usually some sort of Japanese writing in a volume somewhere, people usually call each other by their last names, and there are school clubs for just about everything. You’re telling me the characters have a way of talking that’s different from English? In a book I’m reading backwards from my “normal” books? Shocking!

I’d like to first tackle the word “sensei”. It is in both the Oxford and Merriam-Websters dictionaries, although they both note it’s typically reserved for instructors of martial arts. But the fact that it is in the dictionary means there is little reason for it not to be in an English adaptation.

I’m going to take a sidestep now and talk about language. Language is fluid. Every year, dictionaries decide which words get added. This is especially true with all the technologies and websites being created. It’s hard to believe that words like “wiki” and “tweeted” are only a few years old. Some words I would have tried to use in a term paper when I was younger would have been marked wrong. “Whip-smart”, “mochacchino”, “underwater” (mortgage), and “steampunk” are all terms only added since 2012. Mochacchino has been used since the 1980s, but is only an “official” word since 2013. So what is technically “wrong” now can be considered fine and okay in a few years. Perhaps even “sensei” will be updated in a few years to just mean teacher.

“Use an English equivalent!”

But foreign phrases can help add to setting. When I’m reading a manga set in a world where they speak Japanese, I view my reading experience as reading subtitles of the original Japanese. They are not speaking English; they are still speaking Japanese. It’s no different than watching some of the Disney movies: Beauty and the Beast, for instance, is set in France, and terms like “monsieur” and “sacre bleu” are used. Should “mademoiselle” always have been replaced with “lady” or “Belle”? Again, readers of manga are likely to be older than the target audience of Beauty and the Beast, and the publisher can always include one extra page for notes. I am not advocating random “kawaii” and “baka” inserted, but my point is that it adds to the experience.

In school life, -san and -kun are often covered by Mr. and Miss. Yeah, that’s natural in American school systems. And if a translator or adaptor switches to first names, that opens up a whole potential mess if two people become closer (romantically or not). Some are easily covered up (just say my name vs use my name now), but other times, it is a significant story plot.

“They’re confusing to English speakers!”

And reading a book “backwards” isn’t? Keep in mind that most translated manga series are multiple volumes long. I would also argue that manga readers read more than one manga series. Even if they’re confusing at first, we all started somewhere. A page at the beginning of the book provides the overview, and by the end of the series, most people should have a grip on the basics. In a school manga, -san, -kun, -sama, -chan, and -sensei are the most common, and most manga released here are usually rated T for teen or higher. I don’t think it is too difficult for 13 year olds to learn five words.

“If you want the Japanese honorifics, just go learn Japanese!”

Well, if it were that simple, sure, we all would do that. But again, leaving a few terms in Japanese is not likely to make it inaccessible to newcomers.

Clarifications and Exceptions

That being said, there are a few other things I would to mention. First, translators and adaptors should be consistent. They shouldn’t drop -chan but keep -senpai. And if they run into a story problem but eliminating them, they should not backtrack just for the scene/chapter. Publishers should not skip out on a page that introduces honorifics. It’s one page, and most of the time it can be reused not only in later volumes but other series as well. Gate 7, for instance, really needed a page like this, especially since it used a very uncommon honorific (-ko for lord).

Combining English and Japanese honorifics should also not be done. Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, for instance, used phrases like “kitty-chan” and “princess-sama”. In these cases, they were unnecessary for several reasons: one or two times use, does not add any clarity, is used with generic terms and not names/terms. If you wouldn’t use “neko-chan” or “hime-sama”, then just go with “kitty” and “princess” (or highness). I would only use Japanese two if they were used as names or titles. The ninja in Kagetora! uses “hime” to address the heroine for the “my lady” connotation since she’s not an actual princess.

I would also not expect honorifics to be used in certain other media outside of manga, anime, and the like. Nobody is suggesting to use “okakyu-san” or “customer-san” in an informational brochure, just like you wouldn’t use “lol” in that same brochure. Manga is usually designed to be exaggerated. I doubt many schools have a perfect, rich school prince/princess or a team of secret agents.

Stuff like family terms are more complicated (onii-san/onee-san vs okaa-san/otou-san vs oba-san/oji-san vs obaa-san/ojii-san), but in short, yes when it’s used as a name/title, no when referring to a generic “boy I met” or “old man on street” random one-off character or to mom/dad/grandpa since they have regular equivalents. Unless it’s like Michiru-mama like in Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. This aspect of the debate is much more complicated with lots of exceptions.

What Would You Do?

I’d like to end this article with a “what would you do” to get you thinking and express your opinions.

I know this article is about manga, but let’s jump to an otome game for a moment since it has a pretty unique situation. It can’t be covered just with Mr./Miss nor is the original Japanese text an example of common use, so both sides have to think carefully.

In Uta no Prince-sama All Star, Kotobuki Reiji is the only one to refer to the heroine as “kouhai-chan”. In the ending, when they become a couple, he does refer to her as her name with “chan”. To set the scene, he’s a nice guy who’s an idol with a retro streak. She’s a composer, and for the past almost 2 years has failed to officially become a pro. She addresses him as “Kotobuki-senpai”‘. Oh, and love is forbidden for idols.

Keep in mind there’s a large cast, and they often have their own unique ways to address the heroine. But you also have to try to keep the text as accessible as possible. Is there another way to show this particular aspect? Or is it unnecessary? Do readers lose anything if this aspect is removed? These are the types of questions that so many translators and adaptors have to face every day.

Possible solutions:

Option 1: “[cute/li’l] junior (or underclassman)”

  • Arguments for: About as literal as you can get.
  • Arguments against: No proficient English speaker would talk this way. Even more awkward when referring to a female. Super awkward when talking to her directly this way.

Option 2: “[cute/li’l] newbie”

  • Arguments for: Represents the fact that the heroine is relatively inexperienced.
  • Arguments against: Newbie has more a negative connotation. Still not natural English and still awkward.

Option 3: Use her first name

  • Arguments for: Typically people are referred to by their first names in English.
  • Arguments against: Ruins the fact that he doesn’t call her by name until the ending. Could replace with nickname, but other characters call her by her nickname when they become a couple, so it loses its uniqueness.

Option 4: Use her last name

  • Arguments for: Keeps the fact they are not close/intimate. It’s a business relationship.
  • Arguments against: Many other characters call her by her last name, so loses uniqueness.

Option 5: Use a word like “missy” or “girlie”

  • Arguments for: Avoids her name. A bit old-fashioned. Helps emphasize the fact he’s older and her guide/mentor/partner.
  • Arguments against: Not a direct translation. Sounds like something that could be used by other characters. Sounds too close to “my girl” which he does eventually use.

Option 6: Kouhai-chan

  • Arguments for: Straightforward. He’s the only one who calls her this way, so he stands out.
  • Arguments against: Kouhai isn’t nearly as common as senpai. And either way, neither are English words. If in a game or anime, no notes are easily inserted like in a manga.

So, what would you do? I’d love to hear your opinions!

UPDATE: Crunchyroll in their subs for the anime went with “kiddo” for this. They do use “-senpai” and Japanese name order. So, what do you think?

This post may contain reviews of free products or news featuring products which gave me bonuses. I may earn compensation if you use my links or referral codes. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Please read my disclosure policy here.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: