While it is generally safe to use -さん when taking to someone and the use of -先生 is appropriate for use in a school environment when talking to a teacher, would the use of -先生 carry over outside of the school environment if encounter the person under different circumstances?

For example, while the use of the honorifics is pretty obvious in a school environment, suppose the teacher of one of the classes starts to learn a new martial art where one of their students holds a higher rank within the art, how would this affect the use of honorifics?

  • I think your edit from yesterday would work better as a new question than an addition to this question.
    – Amanda S
    Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 3:24
  • @Amanda S - The edit was intended as a clarification of the original question, from my standpoint, a new question on the same topic would be redundant.
    – user51
    Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 12:17

4 Answers 4


I don't think the earlier three answers are completely correct.

Japanese adopts the relative honorification system, meaning that whether to honorify a particular person depends on the existence of a third person. Suppose A is B's teacher. Within a conversation between A and B, it is appropriate for B to use 先生 to refer to A, irrespective of the situation. However, suppose A and B are doing a venture business together, perhaps selling products that came out as result of study. Suppose B picks a phone from a customer C. In this situation, B cannot use 先生 to refer to A. Otherwise, it would be considered rude of B to C. Here, A and B are one group as opposed to C, and hence, B has to use the humble form to refer to A, just as B would do when referring to him/herself.

I heard, although am not completely sure, that this is where the Korean honorification system differs from the Japanese honorification system.

  • Ah, yes, and this is a bit more what I was driving at in the question. The teacher-student relationship is pretty obvious on school grounds and the like but outside of school or in collegiate situations where you might work in several different situations with someone it seems to get a bit more complex.
    – user51
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 20:26

If you talk to a teacher, it is always appropriate to use -先生. If you are a student and talk to a teacher, you should always use -先生, even outside the school. If you are a teacher and talk to a fellow teacher, depending on the relation (you are a boss or the other teacher is a boss, you are younger or older etc.), it may be also acceptable to address the other teacher as -さん.

  • 1
    I don't think this is completely correct, although it's mostly correct. See my answer.
    – user458
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 20:08
  • @sawa: My answer is about the case where the speaker is talking to a teacher who is referred to. Your answer is about other cases. They are both correct and not contradicting each other. Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 20:40
  • Would -先生 be used if you were talking to a university president?
    – gattsbr
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 19:36

The use of ~先生 is a bit wider.

Usually it's adopted for doctors, teachers and professors, but can also be used for politicians, martial arts masters, etc. So, with anybody that has a knowledge superior to ours, or better, with anyone who has achieved a certain level of mastery or skills in a certain field or that are very popular; so, also movie directors, writers and even mangaka are included.

Unlike most other suffixes, "~先生" can be used alone, without a name before it. So you can say "和子先生" or simply "先生".

If you are addressing an older student in an academic setting, however, you use "先輩" (=Senpai).


My experience has been very similar to what @Tsuyoshi Ito described. In one context, I am a student at a study group not associated with any school. Everyone always calls the teacher/expert/organizer Takase-sensei at all times.

In my work as a teacher, it seems to be part of the local culture of each school. At one university all teachers called all other teachers 先生 just about all the time, even off campus regardless of rank: part-time instructors or faculty heads were all the same. Only people who really became friends moved away from this. Where I work now, it is universally さん. Every professor calls every other "san". The safest course is to go with 先生 and you can always go to さん later if you notice that everyone else does.

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