What you call your spouse in private is your own business, but how you refer to them in public can be a more complicated issue, especially when speaking in Japanese. In English one might casually refer to their wife as the missus, the old lady, the ball n’ chain, my better half, or wifey, but all of these are euphemisms. In plain discourse, English keeps it simple with only two words: wife and husband. For folks living in Japan, this is certainly not the case. Much like the myriad choices for the pronoun “I” (watashi, boku, ore etc.) there are numerous ways one may refer to their spouse in Japanese. Choosing which word is most appropriate for each situation can feel like navigating a minefield. Hopefully this little guide will help you out next time you are in the awkward situation of referring to your spouse in the the third person.
Referring to one’s wife
According to a 2013 poll of Japanese married women, the most common words used to refer to one’s wife were yome(嫁), okusan(奥さん), and tsuma(妻). Trailing behind were words such as kanai(家内), and aikata(相方). Not included in the poll was the word my father in-law often uses, nyoubou(女房）which may be sort of archaic. Looking simply at the word construction, some of these words seem much better than others. For example, the term kanai literally translates to “inside the house.” But okusan also means “inside” with the honorific “san” added for good measure. Out of this list, aikata, which means “companion” is clearly the winner, but let’s look closer at the rules for how to use them.
Cathy JK over at the blog by S compiled a nice guide for when to use which word. The words tsuma simply means a married female, and for this reason it is the legal word that appears on documents such as a marriage registration. The opposite of this word would be otto (夫) (not as in “Von Bismarck” but pronounced oh-toe”). The word yome 嫁 actually means daughter-in-law, and is only meant to be used by the husband’s parents. Due to the way that a marriage ceremony was traditionally seen, not as a union of two lovers, but as a ceremony for the family to take in the bride as a new member, the Japanese word for “bride” is the same as “daughter-in-law” which may explain the confusion. After all, it is not that strange for men to refer to their wife as their bride in English. A good way to show the absurdity of this appellation is to imagine the opposite, that is, a women referring to her husband as muko (婿) – son-in-law – something you never hear. The word okusan mentioned earlier, or the more formal okusama is actually supposed to be used in reference to another person’s wife, thus the addition of the honorific “san.” It should be noted that both kanai and okusan seem to reinforce old fashioned gender roles of the woman’s role being in the house, and the man’s role of working outside the home. In modern society where dual income households outnumber single income households these words might seem antiquated, if not just plain offensive.
To make it more concise:
Okusan – should be used to refer to the listener’s wife, as in “Is your wife still boinking the delivery man?”
Yome – should be used by the in-laws to refer to their daughter-in-law, unless you are a family of rednecks and your wife happens to be your daughter-in-law as well.
Tsuma – is the way to go when speaking about one’s own wife, as it has no sexist connotations. Gender normative perhaps, but not sexist.
Referring to one’s husband
Unfortunately the various titles for one’s husband are not nearly as cut and dried as those for referring to a wife. There is a fair amount of overlap, and to be honest, none of them are particularly appealing. The most common words used to refer to a husband are otto(夫), shujin(主人) and danna(旦那). Again, let’s look at the kanji construction. The word otto, as mentioned earlier simply means husband and is used mostly for legal documents. The word shujin literally means “owner,” or “master.” It is the same character used for the master of a dog, or a landlord. The word is supposed to be a reference to the man’s role as “provider” but even that is troublesome to many people in the 21st century. It implies that the man is the master and owner of the house, which simply is not the case in many modern households. Because this word includes implicit humility as the person who serves the husband, it is not appropriate to use in reference to another person’s husband. The word danna is not much better. This word is a carryover from ancient times when it was used to refer to high-ranking, dignified guest and customers. It was especially used by geisha to refer to male patrons. This is title is even more elevated than shujin, or master. This word corresponds to okusan so it is an appropriate word to use to refer to another person’s spouse.
Shujin – Socially appropriate for referring to your own husband, but remember it means master, which is fine if you like to be the sub and let him be the dom. If this word makes you feel uncomfortable, you are not alone. Many Japanese young people have expressed similar feelings.
Danna-san/danna-sama – This word is most appropriate for referring to another person’s husband. For example, “Your husband is not nearly as ugly as your children.”
otto (no, not the bus driver from the Simpsons)- is the best way to refer to your own husband (although it is probably the least common of the three).
Hopefully this will make things a bit smoother for you in Japanese social interaction. If not, you could do like many young people in Japan are doing recently, and avoid getting married altogether.