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I've always heard that 様 is a highly respectful honorific, being used to refer to lords, kings and deities. However, many times I hear people calling someone with 様, without sarcasm or irony, being that person of no high authority, like the emperor or someone else. Additionally, the customers are called 客{きゃく}[様]{さま}, i.e. double honorifics. Maybe that would be the reason to why it's said that "the Japanese treat their customers as if they" (the customers) "were gods".

Now, or the Japanese give a highly exaggerated respect to those "normal people" (maybe some kind of "idolatry"?), or I misunderstood completely what 様 means.

So what is the proper use and real meaning of the 様 honorific?

  • The usage of honorific is one of the most controversial issues in Japanese. So all I can offer you is to point to an opinion or two. This site -> sljfaq.org/afaq/titles.html says "Sama (様) is the formal version of san. It's used in addressing persons higher in rank than oneself, and in commercial and business settings to address and refer to customers. It also forms parts of set phrases such as o-kyaku-sama (customer) or o-machidō-sama ("I am sorry to keep you waiting"). Sama also follows the addressee's name on postal packages and letters." – eltonjohn Jul 13 '15 at 5:33
  • Yeah, I've read that site before asking here, and it seems that 様 is a more formal honorific than さん. However I'm not completely sure if it's that simple. – Yuuza Jul 13 '15 at 7:36
  • <I'm not completely sure if it's that simple.> I have the same impression. And I guess that's why this issue is controversial (I looked up several sites, but none of them offered a definitive answer.) – eltonjohn Jul 13 '15 at 7:44
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As you said, in the past days, the honorific "様" was used to refer lords, princes, princesses, etc. (But not for kings! "陛下" is used and only used to refer kings(天皇) and kings' family in Japan.)

However, after the lords thing disappeared from Japan, the honorific "様" became a much more daily used word now.

Just that simple as you found in the site, "様" is the formal version of "さん".

To refer a person in business situation, it's very common to use "様" in contemporary Japanese.

Also, in city halls or hospitals, they are also using "様" for citizens/patients.

Different meaning/nuance, in different age. This may be the answer you are looking for.

  • So, as you said, the original meaning (a highly high respect) was lost and now it's only a more respectful honorific than さん, not being used as if the "normal person" was someone "superior"? – Yuuza Jul 13 '15 at 23:18
  • Right. That is exactly what I meant. It is not being used as if the "normal person" was someone "superior". – user2559538 Jul 14 '15 at 6:56
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    「"陛下" is used and only used to refer kings(天皇) and kings' family in Japan.」>> 「殿下」もあるんですけどね。。。 – Chocolate Jul 21 '15 at 6:48

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