Also, things change considerably if they’re yakuza or a fictional boss in a video game. To top it off, there are a jumble of ways to talk about your boss.
Just a warning: it’s a long and winding road up and down the proverbial corporate food chain, and as with most things Japanese there is no one clear cut way to say ‘boss’. That said…
What to call your boss in Japanese?
Most often you’ll refer to your boss by their name + their position title. Which title that is will depend on where in the company you work. It could be shacho, bucho, kaicho, or one of many others. If you’re in the Yakuza, “oyabun” will suffice for the most powerful guy. If you’re playing a video game the bosses are, well, bosu.
Let’s begin at the basics, because they’ll form the foundation for all interactions, with your boss or without.
How do you address someone in Japan?
For newcomers, this can be a bit of an issue. Let’s start by going over a few simple rules:
1. Don’t use their first name unless they give you permission. When someone introduces themselves, they will usually say their family name first and then their given name. Go with the family name. But that’s not all…
2. You gotta slap a さん (san) on that. Family name+さん is okay to use with both men and women. Generally, this is used for and by middle school children all the way up to the elderly.
There are many options, many many more, but they all relate to the following: job title, nicknames, children, and position in society.
Don’t worry about calling your boss by his/her name+さん. While there are more polite honorifics, which I’ll get into further on, name+さん is still polite and appropriate in many situations.
3. The use of -さま(sama) adds a higher level of respect. You’ll hear this most frequently as a customer since service people must (usually) refer to you with this honorific (usually in the form of “o-kyak-sama”—customer-sama).
In the workplace, this usually gets appended to a name in emails. Note that this only ever goes after a name, never after a position or title. Not because it’d be rude, just because it’d sound funny, like “Doctor Mister Smith.”
4. Unless you want to sound a little full of yourself, childish, or weird, don’t use an honorific when speaking about yourself.
5. In general, though, you will use one of the many terms for boss as an honorific. More often than not, you will use their surname + their company title.
It also wouldn’t be out of place to just address them by their company title. For example, if your boss’s name is Yoshida and he’s the company president—aka the 社長 (shacho)—you can call him either Yoshida-Shacho or simply Shacho. Both are respectful.
Now for something you shouldn’t call your boss (unless they ask, I guess…). No matter what your Japanese media consumption may have led you to believe, it is never appropriate to append “dono” (どの) to your higher-up’s name.
This one comes from the ol’ days when it was used to refer to high ranking government officials.
Nowadays, it’s shifted to the other end of the spectrum, often used in official documents to refer to ordinary or low-ranking people (although even this is moving out of style).
Using “dono” with your boss could come off as rather sarcastic, implying that they’re acting high-and-mighty like an old samurai-era daimyo.
Besides “dono,” do not call your president –ちゃん (chan) or –くん (kun) unless you and they are in elementary school. It is usually reserved for addressing children (or for those much older talking to those much younger).
If your boss is in elementary school… well, then I dunno, sure, go for it.
Long may they rule (over the office)…
長 is a kanji that is alternatively defined as “long” and “leader.” As you might expect, we’re going to focus on the latter definition. The Japanese language will often combine more than one Kanji to make words.
You will see this kanji thrown on the tail end of several words to form variations on ‘boss’.
Let’s go through a few of them.
Most Japanese companies are headed by a board of directors. The chairperson of the board is called 会長, or kaicho. This should not be confused with the president of the company.
The first kanji in this set is used in the verb for ‘to meet’ and alone can be translated as “party leader.”
The president of a Japanese corporation is referred to as the 社長, pronounced shacho. 社 (sha) is the kanji for company or firm.
This should not be confused with 所長(shocho) which can be used for a general manager, chief or director at any branch of a company. Shocho is the highest position at a branch, but there is only one shacho in a company.
Movin’ on up
Now let’s take a look at the real heavy hitters with names like tongue twisters. 代表取締役社長 (daihyou-tori-shimariyaku-shacho) translates directly as “president and chief executive officer.” That’s a heckuva mouthful, so let’s break it down a bit.
According to one dictionary, that first part, 代表取締役 (daihyou-tori-shimariyaku), refers to a person who is chosen by and from the board of directors to represent the company in outside dealings.
That itself breaks down further into two constituent parts. First there’s 代表 (daihyou), meaning “representative” or “delegation.” Then 取締役 (tori-shimariyaku), meaning “company director” or “board member.”
See how that works out? Representative board member president!
Not quite so bad when you break it down like that, eh?
Chief Executive Officers, aka CEOs, have their own term, 経営最高責任者 (keiei-saikou-sekininsha), though this will usually only be found on their business card, and is not usually used as an honorific in practice. Let’s break it down anyway.
First there’s 経営 (keiei), meaning “management.” Then 最高 (saikou), a common expression just meaning “most,” “highest,” “maximum,” and things like that.
Finally, there’s 責任者 (sekiinsha), meaning “person in charge.”
“Management’s highest person in charge.” Not so bad, hunh?
A Step Down
The executive vice president, 副社長 (fuku-shachou), is—according to Japanese— a mere copy of the president. 副 (fuku), means copy or duplicate.
That 社 (sha) character appears again in the name of an even lowlier worker, then 社員 (shain), or “company employee.”
You will normally refer to your department manager as 部長, or “buchou.”
The first kanji in this word, 部 (bu), means department. Therefore, if you work in the sales division, finance, H&R, operations etc., this is your go to word for the guy or gal who runs the department.
However, this word is not exclusive to the business world. School club captains get the honor of being called “buchou” as well.
Just below the buchou is the 課長 (kachou), or section manager.
This is the guy who is boss enough to get promoted after, usually, at least fifteen years of work (no joke).
Just a step lower in the corporate food chain, you simply add 代理 (dai-ri), or “deputy” to the word to create the Deputy Manager, or 課長代理 (kachou-dairi).
Below even that we add 補佐 (hosa), or “assistant,” to create the Assistant Manager as 課長補佐 (kachouhosa).
Behind Boss’s Back
Now let’s say your boss is super strict and you just need to tell someone (not in your company) about what a horrible day you had at work.
When you describe your boss to your friend, you won’t actually use any of the words previously mentioned.
A good word in this situation would be 上司 (joushi) which just mean’s “one’s superior” in general. This word is made up of the kanji for “above” and “official,” and is great for talking about your boss to people outside the company.
A family affair
You can think of the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza, as a scattering of tight-knit families—albeit ones that occasionally chop off fingers and have a penchant for gambling.
The Yakuza are structured within the hierarchy of oyabun-kobun (親分子分). Through the ceremony of sharing a single cup of sake, the kobun (子分) is ‘adopted’ by the oyabun (親分) and becomes a part of the organization.
The kanji 親 and 子 mean parent and child respectively. 分 means part, or, in this case, one’s duty.
At the other end of the heirarchy, the lowest henchmen (射程 shatei) will refer to those slightly above them as “kyoudai” (兄弟), or “big brother.”
Beyond this there are many different bosses in the yakuza, covering different duties. The tippy-top of the pyramid is the oyabun who is also referred to as おやっさん (oyassan), aka “father,” or 組長 (kumicho), a combination of “association” and “leader.”
Below that are a few different duties. There’s the 最高顧問 (saikou-komon), or “highest advisor.” This guy tends to oversee most of the “legitimate businesses,” such as hotels, restaurants, law firms, etc.
There’s also the 舎弟頭 (shatei-gashira), aka Second Lieutenant, whose name means “head of the underlings.” He’s typically responsible for collecting dues from the shatei and managing the “street level” criminal activity, such as drug dealing, assault, car theft, etc.
There’s even more layers to it, but this should get you by should you ever be unfortunate enough to need to know what to call the guy who tied you to a chair.
Oh, and it so happens that Oyabun is not used exclusively for the yakuza. Office workers will sometimes refer to their boss using this term as a joke. Y’know, the boss who’s so bossy he’s like a gangster.
This might sound familiar…
If you are looking for something really easy to pronounce without having to go to the trouble of memorizing actual Japanese, you can always resort to what the Japanese call “katakana-eigo,” aka Katakana English.
ボス, or “bos” (in practice pronounced almost the same as “boss”), is not as formal sounding as other words might be, but you will get your point across.
If you’re a gamer, you’ll instantly recognize this one if you decide to try playing games in Japanese. ボス is just what you call the “boss” at the end of the level. 大ボス (dai-bosu, or “big boss”) and 最終ボス (saishuu-bosu, or “last boss”) both just mean “Final Boss.”
A mid-level boss would be called a 中ボス (chuu-bosu, “middle boss”), 少ボス (shou-bosu, “small boss”), or サブボス (sabu-bosu, “sub-boss”).
ピットボス (pitto-bosu, “pit boss”)
隠しボス (kakushi-bosu, “hidden boss”)
倒せないボス (taosenai-bosu, “unbeatable boss”)
倒す必要のないボス (taosu-hitsuyou-no-nai-bosu, “defeat-unnecessary boss”)
演出上弱く設定されたボス (enshutsujou-yowaku-setteisareta-bosu, “made-to-be-weak boss”)
In fact, the Japanese Wikipedia article is full of interesting gaming terms and discussion related to gaming bosses.
Back to work!
Alright, that’s a wrap! Now, if you ever find yourself with a Japanese boss, you have some idea how to refer to them without getting fired. Good luck out there in the wild world of the Japanese workplace!
What does taichou mean?
Taichou is written 隊長 and means “commanding officer.” The first kanji means, roughly, “regiment, company, squad.” The second kanji means “leader.”
What does dancho mean?
Danchou is written as 団長 and means “leader of a delegation.” The first kanji means “group, association.” The second, as you’d expect, means “leader.”
Japanese word for chief?
This is an easy one! It’s チーフ, pronounced “chiif.” That’s one of many words borrowed directly from English into Japanese.
Sir in Japanese?
The closest equivalent for this is “san” or “sama,” depending on the circumstance. When dealing with customers in a customer service environment, “sama” is likely going to be your go-to. For most other situation, add “san” to the end of the surname to get a rough equivalent to the English “sir.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.