There are several ways to call your wife or husband in Japanese, but what is the most surprising is that Japanese wives are supposed to refer to their husbands as “master” in front of others.
Let’s see the details of how to call wife/husband in Japanese.
How to refer to wife/husband in front of others in Japanese
Japanese wives call their husbands “master”
When Japanese wives talk to others and mention their husbands, many of them call their husbands “shujin” (主人) which can be translated as “my master.” For example, if a wife wants to say something like “my husband gave me this,” she would probably say “my master gave me this” because the word “master” is considered to be the proper way of referring to husbands.
I believe “shujin” has the exact same meaning as the English word “master.” It’s just the way of calling and no modern Japanese cares about what the word means today, but the situation was different in pre-modern ages.
I wouldn’t stop other women from calling their husbands “master,” but the problem is they also refer to husbands of other women as “master.” For example, they would ask you, if you were a married woman, “what does your master do?” Um… please, my husband isn’t my master.
Wives can also call husbands “otto” or “danna”
Some Japanese wives are aware of this issue and they don’t use the word “master” to refer to their husbands. If you don’t want to call your husband “master,” call him “otto” or “danna” instead. According to Japan’s national broadcaster (NHK) however, danna means “someone that brings money” and it might not be the ideal way of calling your husband. It’s a colloquial expression anyway and you should only use it on informal occasions.
“Otto,” on the other hand, means just “husband” and this is what sounds the most suitable to refer to their husbands.
As a married woman living in Japan, I don’t call my husband “master” and refer to him as “otto” whenever I talk to Japanese people in Japanese, because no matter how I respect him, there is no reason I have to call him “my master.” Hopefully people will also stop calling my husband “your master” at some point. But you can’t blame people for calling your husband “your master” because that’s the only honorific expression of “husband” in Japanese for now. Alas, languages are tied to cultures.
Japanese husbands call their wives “yome” or “oku-san”
OK, enough of how Japanese wives call their husbands. Now, how do Japanese husbands refer to their wives in front of others?
There are several ways of calling your wife, but the most popular ways would be “yome” or “oku-san.”
“Yome” literally means “bride,” and “oku-san” is a honorific way of referring to “my dear inside one.” Inside here refers to inside home.
Note that yome is a third person pronoun of your own wife, not someone else’s. You can only use yome when you talk about your own wife to others. Oku-san is a third person pronoun too, but this can refer to anybody’s wife – yourself’s or other men’s. It’s OK to say to a man “what does your oku-san do?”
However, both yome and oku-san are third person pronouns and not second person. You can’t use either yome nor oku-san to directly call your wife, so don’t say “hey, yome” or “hey, oku-san” to talk to your wife. It’s like saying “hey, wife.”
As to what husbands and wives call each other, see the following sections.
How Japanese wives and husbands call each other between themselves
Younger couples call each other by their names
It might sound boring, but most younger couples call each other by their names. If the husband is Taro and wife is Hanako, they just call each other Taro and Hanako. That’s it.
Alternatively, some couples put honorifics at the end, such as “-kun,” “-chan” or “-san.” -Kun is used for young boys or intimate male friends/partners (e,g. Taro-kun). -Chan is put at the end of female names, which is often used to show intimacy with close friends or younger girls. Since this is usually used for younger girls, don’t use it for anyone who is older than you or not intimate. “-San,” on the other hand, can be used for anyone.
Here’s a summary of how you can use each honorific:
- -Kun: Younger or intimate, male, first and last names
- -Chan: Younger or intimate, female, first name only
- -San: Honorific, male and female, first and last names
You can call your husband Taro-kun, or your wife Hanako-chan. Some couples call each other by their last names and with “-san” (e.g. Yamada-san), but I wouldn’t do that because it sounds too distant. You can see more details on Wikipedia.
Couples with kid(s) usually call each other “papa” or “mama”
Many couples with kid(s) call each other “papa” and “mama.” Obviously they are not father nor mother of their counterpart, but as soon as they have a kid, they start calling each other “papa” and “mama.” Interesting.
Men have a stronger tendency to do this than women. I have heard many Japanese wives complaining about their husbands like “duh, I’m not your mother.”
Older couples don’t even call each other. Husbands just call their wives by saying “hey” or “you”
Papa or mama might sound better if you read what I’m going to say next. Many Japanese couples over 60 years old don’t even call each other by names, but they just say “hey” or “you.”
I don’t know why, maybe they are too shy or feel embarrassed. There is even a set expression “hey, tea” used by a husband when he wants a coup of tea.
Japanese ways of calling wives/husbands are interesting, aren’t they? I don’t think you can use them when talking in English, but if you ever learn Japanese, why don’t you call your husband/wife in the Japanese way?
Learn more about Japan:
- Driving rules in Japan
- Bicycle rules in Japan
- Unwritten Japanese private lodging rules and etiquette
- Japanese table etiquette
- Western don’ts that are widely accepted in Japan