Japanese family terms which include birth order

By | March 27, 2015

In Japanese, differences in position, experience, and age are considered very important and are built into the language itself in the form of words that indicate where someone is with respect to others.

This concept is expressed in the terms 先輩 (senpai), which refers to someone older or with more experience, and 後輩 (kouhai),  which refers to someone with less. These terms can be used in school, work, or other places as well.

Another place where the hierarchy can be seen is in family-oriented terms. In English, as far as I know  there are few, if any, terms for which the concept of older/younger is included in the word. Instead, we have expressions like “younger brother” and “older sister” where we add the age separately. One can argue that this is just a syntactic difference and the meaning is ultimately the same, but I feel like the tendency to have a single word which indicates relative age (i.e.: 弟 ‘otouto’ – younger brother) is tightly connect with the Japanese concept of hierarchy.

Here is a list of a few of the words that fall into this category.

  • 弟(otouto) –  younger brother
  • 妹  (imouto) – younger sister
  • お姉さん (oneesan) – older sister
  • お兄さん (oniisan) – older brother
  • 長女  (choujo) – first born daughter
  • 長男 (chounan) first born son
  • 次男 (jinan) – second born son
  • 次女 (jijo) – second born daughter
  • 三女 (sanjo) – third born daughter
  • 三男(sannan) – third born son

Using the same pattern I think these names go up to at least 5th or 6th born, and possibly higher.

Interestingly enough, there are even some names which were traditionally used that indicated birth order. For example 一郎 (ichirou) was first born (長男), 次郎 (jirou) the second, and so on. I think these names are used less now a days the can still be found. For example, 鈴木 一朗 (Suzuki Ichirou), the famous Japanese baseball player.

Note: In this post I discuss how some of these terms can also be used to refer to non family members.


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