San (さん) in Japanese has over ten different meanings depending on whether it is written in Hiragana, Kanji, or Katakana. If you are a passionate Japanese learner, you must know what does San mean in Japanese? When and how to use this word in your conversations.

San (さん) is a Japanese honorific title used to respectfully and politely address someone of higher status. It is the most common honorific and in English means “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms”, or “Miss”. The suffix can be applied to men and women, someone’s first or last name, titles, and some common nouns.

If you want a more detailed explanation of what “san” means in Japanese, you can find a list of all of its other meanings down below. You will also learn when and when not to use the honorific suffix, why Japanese people say it, and how to use san with occupations, titles, and common nouns.

What does “San” mean in Japanese?

The actual meaning of a word in Japanese is frequently determined by how it is written. The same is true of the Japanese word san. If written in Hiragana as さん (san), it is a Japanese honorific title that is added after a person’s name and means “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss”, or “Ms”.

However, when written in Katakana as サン (san), it means “sun” in English. While written in Kanji, it can mean a variety of things depending on which Chinese character is used, such as three (三), acid (酸), Mt. or Mount (山), as in Fuji-san, and many others.

Let’s have a detailed overview of what san means in Japanese:

さんsanMr, Mrs, Miss, Ms
san3, three
sanacid, sourness
sanchildbirth, product of, …
sanpicture caption, legend
sanMt., Mount
sanbrilliant, resplendent
sanframe, bar, bolt

Meaning of San in Japanese honorific title

When san (さん) is used after a person’s name, it is an honorific title or honorific suffix that is typically translated as “Mr.”, “Miss,” “Ms.”, or “Mrs.” In contrast to its English translations, in the Japanese culture suffix is gender-neutral, does not indicate marital status, and can be used in both formal and informal situations.

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When san is added after a person’s first name, the problem with the word’s general English translations becomes even more apparent. It is perfectly acceptable in Japan to use someone’s given name and address them as Aki-san or Steffi-san, which translates to Mr. Aki and Mrs./Ms./Miss Steffi in English.

Adding the Japanese honorific title san (さん) to a name indicates that the speaker is addressing or speaking about someone (or something, as we will see later) in a respectful and polite manner.

The suffix implies some familiarity or knowledge of the other person, but it also indicates that they are not particularly close or that the other person has some kind of authority or higher status. They may have just met, or the other person may be the speaker’s boss.

How and when to use San in Japanese

San (さん) should be used to address strangers, acquaintances, and any familiar person in a polite or respectful manner, such as your boss or senior. It should never be used with one’s own name or the names of one’s friends. It can, however, be added to occupations, businesses, and some items such as foods.

As a general rule, if you are unsure about which honorific suffix to use, go with San (さん). It is the most secure option in both informal and formal settings, particularly among adults.

Using San in daily life situations

When you see or meet someone for the first time, or when you are still getting to know them, use san (さん).

meet someone for the first time

That is, when speaking to a stranger, a classmate, or an acquaintance you have only met a few times, as well as your friend’s parents or friends whom you have only met or don’t know very well, you should always use san (さん).

Don’t make the mistake of using more common honorific suffixes like chan (ちゃん) or Kun (くん) too quickly. Even if you already consider the Japanese person to be a friend, this will make them feel awkward. So stick with san (さん) until they begin using other honorific suffixes for you.

Furthermore, if the other person is older than you or if you simply want to address someone politely, always add the honorific suffix san (さん) to their name.

Using San in formal situations

In formal or business settings, address your boss, coworkers, and seniors by their last name plus san (さん). You may be able to switch to the first name followed by san (さん) or even Kun (くん) for juniors once you’ve gotten to know them better.

You can also add San (さん) to the name of another person’s company to show your appreciation. Toyota can be referred to as Toyota-san, and Microsoft can be referred to as Microsoft-san.

However, there is one important exception in the business world where san should not be used. When referring to a superior or coworker outside of your company (out-group), you must remove the honorific suffix.

For example, while you would normally address Mr. Tanaka as Tanaka-san or Tanaka-kaichou in your company, you would simply refer to him as Tanaka when speaking to a client.

Using San after common nouns to make proper nouns

The honorific suffix san can be used with not only a person’s or company’s name, but also occupations, titles, workplace nouns, and some other common nouns such as foods or animals to make them proper nouns.

A company president can also be called Kaichou-san (会長さん). A baker can be called Panya-san (パン屋さん), and a foreigner can be called Gaijin-san (外人さん) to address them more politely.

Other common examples of this are food items, ingredients, and animals. Fish, for example, is called Sakana (魚) in Japanese. If you attach san (さん) and say Sakana-san you turn “a fish” into “the fish”.

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Frequently asked questions

Q. Should I use San before or after a person’s first or last name?

A. The honorific suffix san can be used with either a person’s first or last name. You can also call someone by their full name and add san to either their given or surname, depending on which is said last. If you want to sound more formal, use a person’s last name.

Q. Should I use San in an email to a Japanese contact?

A. In written Japanese, the most formal way to address someone is with their last name plus sama (様). You can also use San if you know the person and work for the same company, or if you have a close relationship. Even if the rest of the email is in Japanese, such efforts are usually appreciated.

Q. Why do Japanese add “San” to names?

A. The honorific san is added to names in Japan to indicate that the other person is in a similar or higher position than them and that their relationship is not close. It adds the appropriate level of politeness and respect, as simply calling someone by their surname is considered casual and sometimes rude.


In this post, we have covered the meaning of San and the ways in which it is used in Japanese conversations. You need to keep returning to this guide till you get the use of San otherwise you will end up creating an offensive environment for yourself.

A lot of learners ask how long it takes to learn Japanese, remember it all depends on how much time and effort you put in. Set a consistent learning schedule and keep following it till you become a fluent Japanese speaker.

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