When referring to a celebrity or historical figure, do you use -さん?

I am listening to Yoko Shimomura.
Would it be:"下村陽子さんを聞いている。"?

Abraham Lincoln is my favorite president.
Would it be: "エイブラハム・リンカーンは一番好きな大統領。"?

I have seen celebrities' and famous people's names in texts and references without any honorifics, but it feels strange to use someone's name whom I've never met before without saying -さん, especially when using their full name.

Another case would be if a celebrity goes by a mononym (e.g. Beethoven) or a pseudonym (e.g. Sting). Is it customary to use -さん or some honorific title when referring to them? Or is it only appropriate in certain situations?

  • 2
    Related question: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/4206/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Aug 8, 2012 at 0:00
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    @Andrew Grimm: Thank you for the link. It partially answers phoenixheart6's question (for historical figures) but it is true sometimes people refer to politicians with -san in conversation. I am not sure about written Japanese but like English, the use of titles seems to vary. I notice that when the TV news reports a child casualty they use -chan. Is the question too broad to answer briefly?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 17:21
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    It's quite commonly used when referring to foreign celebrities, i.e オバマさん、マイケルジャクソンさん、ベックアムさん. However when talking about Japanese celebrities (mainly if they go by a mononym) it tends to be left off, the pro baseball player Ichiro for example is commonly referred to as just Ichiro.
    – Jeemusu
    Commented Aug 15, 2012 at 1:37

1 Answer 1


I think that using さん, 様, ちゃん, 君 etc. is more of a subjective statement of how the speaker/writer relates to the person he refers to. In an objective text, it would be fine to refer to President Lincoln simply as Abraham Lincoln, without title. Referring to President Lincoln as "President Lincoln", expresses a personal stance of how the writer relates to the person Abraham Lincoln.

If you were to write an article about a contemporary university professor, whom you know personally (as Prof. X), you would be more likely to use Prof. X than the more objective John X in your article.

Of course さん or ちゃん are quite personal, so their use in formal writing would be more limited than, for example, 先生, which is an objective fact (of course coupled with your subjective decision of choosing 先生 as suffix).

As a rule of thumb, I would only include さん for people I don't know, if I am describing a personal situation (as in your first example), and omit it in more general contexts (as in your second example).

If you were to say エイブラハム・リンカーンさんは一番好きな大統領 it sounds more like you are his personal fan, although you don't have a particular high esteem for him, because you don't use 様 for someone as high up in the social order as a president...

Hope this makes some sense.

  • That makes sense. Yoko Shimomura being my favorite composer, would it sound strange if I said in a facebook status "下村陽子さんを聞いている"? Would I sound more like a fan, or more like I've actually met her directly (and am a fan)? Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 21:09
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    Here you are describing a personal situation. By listening to 下村陽子さん you make her (at least indirectly) part of your personal life and the use of さん is perfectly acceptable. Furthermore, your facebook status is a personal statement. Using さん does not imply that you must have met her personally, but more that you take a personal stance to her, which is appropriate in a facebook status or blog post, say... If you were to write a journal article about her, I would say that you should at least have seen her live in order to make such a public personal statement.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 23:16
  • All sounds a bit opaque, sorry, but I have tried to be as clear as possible.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 23:16
  • You're fine. If anything it's an unclear topic. This really helps though. Thanks a lot! Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 16:29

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