What Are the Japanese Names for Grandfather?

Language Has Formal and Informal Terms

Blend Images/Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz

If you know a little about the Japanese language, you may know that san is a common honorific. It's no surprise, then to learn that the Japanese word for grandfather is ojiisan. The informal term, which is what one would call one's own grandfather, is sofu.

Some Japanese children call their grandparents Jiji (from ojiisan) and Baba (from obaasan, Japanese for grandmother).

The almost identical word ojisan means uncle.

Unlike many other Asian cultures, the Japanese do not have different names for maternal and paternal grandparents.

Grandfathers in Traditional Japanese Culture

In traditional Japanese culture, gender roles are fairly rigidly defined. Fathers are responsible for supporting their families and often work very long hours to do so. That leaves the mothers with the responsibility of caring for children and often caring for elderly relatives, which is a very important responsibility as in most Asian cultures. In addition, Japanese mothers have to manage the education of their children, getting them into the best schools possible and ensuring that they perform well.

For many years Japan had a retirement age of 55. Many grandfathers, who had missed out on parenting their own young children, thus had a chance to be with and bond with their grandchildren, often helping out with babysitting.

Modernization has had an impact on Japanese family culture, with more women holding jobs. The retirement age has been raised, too, so some grandfathers must wait a bit before being free to focus on grandparenting.

The Importance of Extended Family

The Japanese have a concept called ie, which can be roughly translated as extended family or "continuing family." The family structure includes several generations and is very hierarchical. It also emphasizes family members either sharing a residence or living very close together. A Japanese saying states that adult children shouldn't live so far from their parents that they can't carry them a bowl of hot soup. Considering the tricky nature of transporting a bowl of soup and the rapidity with which it cools off, that means that the generations need to live quite close together!

Traditionally, Japanese families derive their structure from the male side. For many years, under the system known as primogeniture, assets and responsibilities alike were handed down from the father to the eldest son. When females married, they became a part of their husband's ie, or extended family. Sons other than the eldest son had to make their own way in the world and often left the family home to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

In the modern era, some Japanese still adhere to primogeniture and other traditional practices. Others have adopted more modern ways.

Japanese in the United States

Japanese who come to the United States must adapt to a totally different culture. They have been successful in many different career fields and in many geographical areas. In this sense they have assimilated into the American culture, but they have retained many of their traditional values.

Japanese society has historically been a very group-oriented society. This characteristic could be observed in the early immigrant groups, who often pooled their resources to help each other succeed. The discrimination faced by Japanese living in the United States, culminating in the internment camps of the World War II era, probably contributed to the perpetuation of this group feeling. Even today many Japanese belong to what are known as "voluntary societies" or simply associations. These organizations preserve Japanese culture and fight discrimination. In the Post World War II era, these groups worked to win reparations for those who survived the Japnese internment camps. Their efforts were rewarded in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which contained an official apology and provided financial compensation to survivors. 

Japanese Proverbs

Grandparents in most countries are known for dispensing wisdom. The wisdom of Japanese grandfathers takes a couple of interesting forms.

Yoji jukugo is the name given to idioms made up of four characters. You can't tell this by seeing the English translation, but each idiom consists of four kanji characters. Often extracting the meaning from the four characters can be challenging:

  • "Ten persons, ten colors." This idiom simply points out the incredible variety of human beings.
  • "Not seeing is a flower." The Japanese use "flower" as a symbol of beauty and the imagination. In this context, the saying means that things that are dreamed up by the imagination are beautiful. 
  • "Weak meat; strong eat." The weak will be devoured by the strong.

Some Japanese proverbs are not restricted to four characters. Many echo sentiments found in other languages. For example, the Japanese say, "The child of a frog is a frog." Americans would say, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," or "Like father, like son." The Japanese say, "Fall seven times, stand up eight." This is the same sentiment as, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Other proverbs are uniquely Japanese. For example, a Japanese grandfather might refer to "a duck carrying a leek." This is a symbol of good luck, as the traditional recipe for duck soup calls for leeks, so it's lucky to come across both a duck and a leek. Fun fact to share with the grandchildren: One of the original Pokemon, called Farfetch'd, is a duck carrying a leek.