In the Japanese language, there are many ways to refer to one’s husband. Among those is a word fraught with controversy: 主人 (shujin), which means either “husband” or “master.”
In 2020, Huffington Post Japan conducted a survey asking people about the Japanese words for “husband” they use to refer to their husbands and other people’s husbands. They also asked how people felt about the word 主人 and what alternatives people have tried to avoid the word. They published the results recently, on March 5th, 2021.
Overview of Survey Demographics
The survey by Huffington Post Japan targeted people in heterosexual relationships, as well as single people who were interested in entering a heterosexual relationship. In total, they received 2,271 responses. 82% of respondents were female, while 15% were male. 71% of respondents were married. I created the graphs in this article from the data provided in the original article.
Which Word for Husband Do You Use for Your Spouse?
Previously, we’ve covered the ways to refer to one’s wife, as well as the discussions surrounding it. This survey asked married respondents to indicate which words they use to refer to their husbands (if female) or which words their wives used to refer to them (if male). It also posed the same question to single respondents, asking them to consider a hypothetical spouse.
You can see the results compiled in the graph below, but first, I’ll provide a brief overview of each of the “husband” words that were presented as options:
- うちの人 (uchi no hito): A familiar term for husband, うちの人 directly translates as “person in my family.”
- 夫 (otto): A neutral term for husband.
- 主人 (shujin): One of the controversial terms for husband that inspired the survey. 主人 originally meant “master (of the house),” and in some contexts, it means “master (whom one serves).” The characters in 主人 can be decomposed as “chief” + “person.”
- 旦那 (danna): Similar to 主人, 旦那 can also mean “master,” but it feels less old-fashioned and perhaps more intimate.
- 連れ合い (tsureai) or 連れ (tsure): A gender-neutral term to refer to one’s spouse. 連れ合い can be literally interpreted as “person you travel with,” so you can think of it as a Japanese equivalent of “partner.”
- パートナー (paatonaa): Speaking of “partner,” パートナー is the direct borrowing of the word from English.
- パパ (papa) or お父さん (otōsan): Instead of saying husband or partner, a married woman may refer to her male spouse with either of these terms that mean “Dad.”
- By name (first or last): Finally, using one’s spouse’s name directly is also an option.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the English word “husband” comes from the Old Norse word húsbóndi, meaning “master of a house,” so it has a similar origin to 主人 and 旦那.
From the responses, we can see that calling one’s own husband using the neutral term 夫 (otto) and by name are the first and second most preferred options. After that, the preferences vary by demographic. For instance, married women, who also likely skew older, prefer 旦那 (danna) over the gender-neutral terms 連れ合い (tsureai) and パートナー (paatonaa), whereas unmarried women prefer the opposite.
The next question on the survey asked respondents to indicate which terms they thought would be the ideal way(s) to refer to one’s own husband, as opposed to the terms they actually use.
Once again, 夫 (otto) and first/last name top the chart. However, this time, respondents preferred the gender-neutral terms 連れ合い (tsureai) and パートナー (paatonaa) over 旦那 (danna). Even though 412 married women said they use 旦那 to refer to their husbands for the previous question, the results here show that only 224 in total thought 旦那 was ideal. This suggests that some married women who use 旦那 would prefer not to use it in an ideal world.
The word 主人 (shujin) was noticeably unpopular across both polls. Many respondents expressed their discomfort with this word:
- “It feels out of place in the modern day. I think it subconsciously reinforces sexism.” (Female, 20s)
- “I’m reluctant to use a form of address that enforces a power dynamic between two people who should be equals.” (Male, 20s)
- “Some people might argue that ‘it’s just words,’ but words have an impact on people’s consciousness. Using words like this in everyday situations perpetuates the idea that the husband is the ‘master’ and the wife is the ‘servant.'” (Female, 30s)
How Do You Refer to Other People’s Husbands?
In Japanese, the words that one uses to refer to their own family differ from those used to refer to the families of other people. Typically, the words used for others are more polite and respectful. This distinction is important, so the survey also asked which terms people used when talking about other families’ husbands.
Looking at the graph below, you’ll notice that every option for this question is a more polite version of the options in the previous questions, either featuring the honorific prefixes お (o-) and ご (go-) or the honorific suffixes さん (-san) and さま (-sama). Only うちの人 (uchi no hito) is excluded because the word うち (uchi) always refers to own’s own family.
Whereas 夫 (otto) was the most popular choice for referring to one’s own husband, we see here that 旦那さん (danna–san)/旦那さま (danna-sama) is the most preferred when talking about others’ husbands. Addressing another’s husband by name and addressing by ご主人 (goshujin) are also quite common.
So how do people choose which words to use for other people’s husbands? The survey asked respondents to share their thoughts and experiences—especially about times when they struggled to choose. 996 out of the 2,271 respondents answered, and the analysis from the original article organized their responses into three themes.
(1) Process of elimination
- There aren’t any well-established polite terms to refer to another person’s husband besides 旦那さん (danna-san) and ご主人 (goshujin). (Female, 30s)
- If I don’t know their name, then I use 旦那さん because otherwise, I wouldn’t know what to call them. It does make me uncomfortable though. (Male, 30s)
- I want to use a word like お連れ合い (otsureai, which is gender neutral), but it’s not typical, so I begrudgingly use ご主人. (Female, 40s)
- Saying 旦那さん is the least likely to offend, so I have no problems using it. (Female, 30s)
(2) I try to use other words, but…
- When I try to use 夫さん (otto-san), I’m asked to clarify 90% of the time. Sometimes they even mistake it for 弟 (otōto, “younger brother”). (Female, 50s)
- When I say パートナーの方 (paatonaa no kata, “your partner”), they’ll often ask back, “You mean my 主人/旦那?” (Female, 20s)
- When I don’t know the husband’s name, I’ll try to just avoid referring to him by omitting the subject from sentences. It works, but it feels unnatural, haha. (Female, 30s)
(3) Business/work settings
- I run a restaurant that takes reservations. I use パートナー様 (paatonaa-sama) in reservation emails, but when talking to customers face-to-face it feels unnatural to say パートナー様, so I end up saying 旦那さま (danna-sama) and 奥さま (oku-sama, “wife”) instead. (Female, 40s)
- I’ve used the word パートナー at work, but I was then told, “You can just say 主人 (shujin), you know.” Some people find it weird (or even annoying) that you’re trying so hard, so I’ve gone through a lot of trouble trying to choose my words. Currently, I’ve been using ご家族 (gokazoku, “family”) to refer to the couple as a whole instead. (Female, 40s)
- I don’t want to say ご主人さま (goshujin-sama) or 旦那さま, but my boss makes me. (Male, 30s)
Looking at the chart and these selected responses, we can see that many people still begrudgingly use 旦那さん and ご主人, despite their associations with the concept of “master.” They’ve become established as the standard, polite ways to refer to another’s husband, and it’s difficult to switch without coming across as impolite or unnatural.
What Words Do You Want to See Used Instead of 主人?
Finally, the survey asked respondents to suggest alternatives for 主人 (shujin), especially when referring to other people’s husbands. Some suggested that 夫さん (otto-san) would be a good, neutral term to use. Others argued that it doesn’t feel polite enough for formal situations.
Other possibilities were also contentious. For example, many of those who wanted a gender-neutral term expressed a preference for パートナー (paatonaa), borrowing from English. However, some respondents stated that they’d prefer a native Japanese word, rather than a loanword.
Accommodating everyone’s preferences might require the coinage of a new word: one that’s gender-neutral, equal, affectionate but not impolite, and works regardless of marital status. No word that fits the bill exists yet in the Japanese language.Accommodating everyone's preferences might require the coinage of a new word: one that's gender-neutral, equal, affectionate but not impolite, and works regardless of marital status. No word that fits the bill exists yet in the… Click To Tweet
Perhaps お連れ合い (otsureai) could be a good place to start. One respondent remarked that this word, in particular, evokes a beautiful image—two people, hand in hand, walking through life together. I quite like the sound of that.