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I learned 総{そう}理{り} as the word for Prime Minister, but I've recently learned that 首{しゅ}相{しょう} is also used. Is there a difference in usage or meaning? Is one more polite than the other?

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総理 is an abbreviation for 総理大臣, which in turn is an abbreviation for 内閣総理大臣. This is specifically the Prime Minister of the Cabinet (内閣) and is a formal title.

首相 is the common and informal name. In Japan, this refers to 内閣総理大臣. Originally, a 相 is a person who assisted a lord or emperor in his work. This is essentially a minister. The primary or head 相 is known as 首相, which in Japan is the Prime Minister. Note that one of the meanings of 相 is "to help", which leads to the above usage.

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In Japanese newspapers, 総理 is used for only Prime Minister of Japan, because it is an abbreviation for 内閣総理大臣. Equivalents of other countries are referred to as 首相, for example, イギリス首相 (Prime Minister), ドイツ首相 (Bundeskanzler / Chancellor), フランス首相 (Premier ministre / Prime Minister), スペイン首相 (Presidente del Gobierno / Prime Minister), and 中国首相 (国務院総理 / Premier of the State Council). It also can be used for the Japanese prime minister. The kanji 相 has a meaning of "minister" since ancient China.

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