How to address a samurai without him cutting you in half

I think I finally figured out that commoners in feudal Japan would not call a samurai by his last name, followed by –sama, or tono, which means “lord.”  Tono is more for actual lords, and so is –sama.  According to people I’ve spoken to who know some Japanese, as well as Akira Kurosawa (who may or may not have known what he was doing in all of his historical films), a samurai would be addressed as <name>-san, or by the term sensei (teacher, but also other figures of authority). 

Sensei can be used sarcastically to ridicule someone who’s too full of himself, but I suspect that usage may be modern.  In any case, anyone addressing a samurai like that had better be of equal or higher rank, if he wanted to survive the experience.

Shinosuke is now approaching 14,000 words, which was my goal for the story, but considering the fact that the romance has only progressed to the point at which Senpachi and Shinosuke have had their first kiss, I think the story may go on a bit longer than I originally intended.  Not bad, considering it’s being adapted from a story about 500 words long, to begin with. 

Incidentally, tracking down the original story, to verify that it wasn’t a modern fabrication, posing as an old samurai tale, was a bitch.  I finally found it in a book called Comrade Loves of the Samurai  by Ihara Saikaku, translated by E. Powys Mathers.  It was written in the mid-1600s, so I’m pretty safely out of copyright.  Even the translation was done in the 1920s, if I recall, but it hardly matters, since I’m not directly quoting anything.

So far, I’ve spent about a month and a half on this, which is longer than I’ve spent on the first draft of any story of this length.  Is it worth it?  I’m not sure yet.  It hasn’t gripped me and carried me away, which could be a bad sign.  But it’s often in the second draft, when I add the details and flesh the characters out that a story really comes alive.  So we’ll see.


Filed under Japanese, Writing

3 responses to “How to address a samurai without him cutting you in half

  1. Cornelia Grey

    What if someone didn’t know the samurai’s name? Would ‘samurai-sama’ be correct?


  2. Well, I’m far from an expert, but I believe “sensei” would probably be correct, in that case.


  3. Actually, I’m now finding sites that claim “Samurai-sama” is correct, too. This is really a complicated subject.

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