Oh Brother: the Meaning of Japanese “Nii-chan”

The Meaning of Nii-chan

 

Here we go on another deep dive—this time into the word nii-chan and everything related to it. We’re going to tumble down a serious rabbit hole, uncovering the multiple ways of looking at the idea of nii-chan, the handful of meanings of nii-chan, as well as a far-reaching discussion of family names, politeness, and name-enders. It’s an impressive meeting of several Japanese concepts all in one word! But first, let’s start with the simple stuff.
 


 

What is the meaning of nii-chan?

The meaning of nii-chan is fairly simple, broken up into two parts: nii means older brother and chan is a name ender, or “honorific suffix,” that adds a sense of endearment. So, nii-chan is a sweet way to refer to your older brother.

 

What does dictionary-chan have to say?

(1)自分の兄を呼ぶ語
(2)若い男を呼ぶ語。また、不良じみた若い男をさしてもいう

Hmm, so not totally straightforward. We’ve got two meanings here—let’s break them down.

The first definition is the familiar expression we already covered. It says, “The word you call your older brother.” It’s worth reinforcing that it’s a particularly endearing way of referring to your brother, so it wouldn’t be used in all situations. Situations where you’d want to show more respect, or perhaps more frustration, would use different endings from chan. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

The second definition adds something to our understanding. “A word you call a young man. Also, used to refer to young men who have been misbehaving.” So, here we see that the word is not completely localized to the family. You can use it as a way of scolding a young guy who’s acting out. This is likely because of the cute-ifiying effect of the chan.

In Japanese, there are few real curse words. Typically, the way you’d express anger with someone or something would be to adjust your respect levels.

So, by referring to a young man as chan, you’ve referred to him in a sort of diminutive way, perhaps emasculating him and putting him in his place. You’ve also denied him the often used o- prefix that indicates a measure of respect.

It will help to look at the more common and baseline way to refer to one’s brother, o-nii-san.

 

Breaking it down

Typically, a neutral level of respect would involve referring to your older brother as o-nii-san. In its most elaborate form, it would be written like this:

御兄さん

That first kanji (Chinese character) carries the sound or “O” and conveys a measure of respect.

It’s attached to the front of words all the time in Japanese along with its counterpart pronunciation, or “GO.”

As we go forward with this article, keep that respectful “O” in mind, since you can attach it to almost every word we discuss today as a way of adding just a touch of respect.

The second kanji 兄 in this word can also be written にい and is pronounced “NII” (like the famous knights!).

Now, I want to prepare you: this kanji is pronounced differently depending on the word it’s contained within.

When it’s by itself, it’s ani. When you want to call someone “sonny,” you could say an-chan, where is the an. When it’s part of the word for “siblings,” kyoudai, it’s pronounced kyou. As a certain suffix it’s kei. In olden days it could be pronounced konokami.

Yeah, kanji are crazy. Anyway, where was I?

Right, the last two characters. さん is pronounced san and it’s part of the same word family as chan. Where chan expresses familiarity and closeness, san is sort of the middle standard of respect. It’s neither respectful nor disrespectful. It’s just proper. Upon meeting someone, you’d almost always refer to them as “their family name” plus san.

To think of a very rough equivalent in English, imagine you were introduced to someone named Edward. You’d likely call them by their full name unless they asked you to call them “Ed” or “Eddie.” And, often, we only let people use our nicknames after we’re friends with them.

There’s a bit more to it in Japanese, and you’d want to be much more friendly before removing the san, but perhaps that gives you an approximation of the intent behind the word.

We’ll get into more name enders in a moment. But first, now that we know another way to refer to our nii-chan, let’s dive in a bit more. What other ways can we refer to our big bro?

 

The brotherhood of brother words

On our way towards a full comprehension of nii-chan, let’s continue to expand the context of the concept and take a stroll through a few more words related to “big brother.”

Well, not Big Brother, like the Orwell character —that’s ビッグブラザ ー, pronounced biggu-burazaa. A little different. Nah, what we’re talking about is the concept of “elder brother.” At least to start. You’ll see what I mean!

So, first up we’ve got the plain ol’ which is pronounced ani. This just means “elder brother.” This word falls into the category of kenjougo, or “humble language.” It’s a word you’d use to talk about your own older brother to people outside your family.

In samurai times, could be pronounced konokami, as I mentioned up above. However, in those times it often covered a broader sense, indicating that one was the head of the family.

兄上 is pronounced ani-ue and falls into the category of sonkeigo. This is respectful, or honorific speech—a good way to keep in your brother’s good graces when talking to him. It’s also a bit of an archaism from samurai times, so don’t expect to hear it terribly often.

兄貴 is pronounced ani-ki and it’s a friendly way to call your big brother. It’s also a word used by non-family members to talk to boys older than them who sometimes fill that role of older brother. It’s slangy, and a bit rough, but an acceptable word to use.

It’s roughly translatable to “bro” in English. You’ll hear it mostly in manga and anime, but keep your ears peeled and you just might catch it in the wild.

The list seriously goes on. In one dictionary I’m looking at, there are at least another dozen ways to talk about the idea of “elder brother.”

It’s worth noting that, just like in English, you can get away with calling your brother a lot of things. The typical word is ani if you’re talking to your own brother, but if you’re talking about someone else’s brother you’ll want to go with the full, respect-sandwiched o-nii-san.

 

Ani: Not just for blood bros

I mentioned this briefly above, but it’s worth taking a moment to clarify the point. Some words for “elder brother” can be used outside the family. The most common among these is nii-san. This is a good way to refer to anyone who fulfills an older brother position in your relationship, whether it’s at work, or school, or in a group of friends.

You wouldn’t call them ani-ue, since that indicates a blood relationship. You’d also be less likely to call them nii-chan, unless you’re a cute, much younger girl.

Throwing that chan on the end sorta sucks out a lot of the respect you’re laying out in the first place by calling them “brother.”

There are a couple of other words you might hear that use the older brother phrase but are spoken outside the family. There’s ken-kei, which isn’t used often at all. This one gives a connotation of “wise older brother,” and can be used with an actual relative, or with any wise senior.

There’s the suffix kei, which can be attached to the end of a name to mark them as an older brother type of person.

The last one I’ll cover is ani-bun, which has two potential meanings. The first one is referring to a sworn brother. This is a word you’ll want to use when things get serious. You know, like if your friend saves your life from the oncoming samurai forces of Oda Nobunaga and you want to seal your friendship as a brotherhood forever.

There’s another, specialized meaning that you’ll want to be careful using. Ani-bun can also refer to the older man in a same-sex relationship.

That’s enough of that for now…

 

The flip side of ani

Well, now you know a bunch about talking to and about your older brother, but that’s only going to get you so far. Let’s take a brief peek at some of the words that cover the younger counterpart in the sibling relationship.

For this, we get the kanji , pronounced otouto. Slap a san on there and you’re ready to talk nice to your little bro with sonkeigo. It’s a bit of a mouthful compared to the relatively terse nii, and not quite as, well, cute sounding. Otouto-san versus nii-san. A strange pair, if you ask me.

If we want to speak in kenjougo (that’s the humble language I mentioned earlier), then we’ll want to say gutei.

If you want to play “ninja and samurai” with your kid brother, you might want the archaic counterpart to ani-ue, which would be otouto-gimi. That’s teineigo, or “polite speech” (all these types of speech—teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo all fall under the umbrella category of keigo which you may have heard of).

 

Odds and Ends: the rest of the family

For a more complete picture, let’s quickly tackle the family as a whole. If we want to talk about siblings in general, we’ll push the two brother kanji together to get 兄弟, or kyou-dai. Yup, that goes for siblings as in “brothers and sisters” as well.

As for the sisters, we get some nice parallels with the brothers. Instead of ani, we get ane. Instead of nii-chan, we get nee-chan (nee is pronounced almost like “NAY” or “NEIGH” in English). There’s also ane-ue for our samurai-era older sisters.

In fact, in almost every way that the elder brother words were used, there’s a female counterpart. For example, just as you can call an older brother-figure your ani-san, you could do the same with an older, unrelated female in your life, calling her ane-san.

There’s the flip of otouto as well with imouto. And, once again, we get those same, reliable counterparts where we can mix and match o, san, and chan.

If you want to talk to your mom, you’d call her kaa-san, and if you wanted to talk about her, you’d refer to her as your haha. No, that’s not a joke, that’s what you call her!

You’ve also got your super-respectful, pretty archaic haha-ue and the much more familiar (especially to English-speaking ears) mama.

For dads, we’ve got tou-san for when you’re talking to your dad and chichi for when you’re talking about your dad. For all of you wondering why Gohan’s mom’s name was Chichi in Dragon Ball—well, you’re as lost as I am. There’s also chichi-ue and papa.

Noticing some patterns?

At last, I’ll cover some potential pitfalls for you. And this has to do with aunts and grandmas. Ready for something crazy? You call your aunt and women who are middle-aged o-ba-san.

You call your grandmother and elderly women o-baa-san.

Yup, all that’s standing in the way of you and a quick slap to the head is a slightly elongated “A” sound. The shortcut to being inoffensive is to emphasize the O in o-ba-san and the BAA in o-baa-san. Be careful out there folks!

It’s no easier for the men. Your uncle is your o-ji-san. Your grandfather is your o-jii-san. And ditto with referring to middle-aged and elderly men respectively. It’s a minefield.

 

The cherry on top—name enders

I’m not going to go into all the different name enders that are possible—that’s a whole subject in itself. But on top of chan and san which we’ve already seen, I want to add two more very useful ones.

You can add kun to someone’s name or their relationship term (e.g. nii or nee) in order to speak endearingly to them without putting them down. It’s similar to san, but is much more casual and you’d never use it for someone of higher status than you. While it can be used for either gender, it’s typically used for boys and men.

Lastly, there’s sama. This one is the big guns of respectability. You’ll use this when speaking extremely respectfully of someone, like customers, high superiors, or, possibly, your own parents. Used in the wrong way, with the wrong person, however, it can have the opposite effect.

In the same way that if you said to your brother, all sarcastic, “Of course, your highness,” you can use the respectful term sama to be very rude. Careful when using this word or you may come off as very impolite!

 

Catch you later, nii-chan!

So, that’s a pretty thorough overview of the meaning of nii-chan and its interplay with different uses, words, and suffixes. You’ve got lots now that you can play around with, mixing and matching siblings, honorifics, and ways of expressing the same relationship. Get out there and use it with your own nii-chan, or someone who’s a nii-chan to you!