How Do You Say “My Wife” in Japanese?

December 19, 2011 Juju Kurihara 13 Comments

Other day, I went to have a hair cut. It´d been while since I had a Japanese hair-stylist. He was away for quite a while as he got married and had to wait in Japan until he got a new visa, which took him nearly a year.

We started chatting while he cut my hair. Then he mentioned his wife. He said "my OKUSAN" and somehow this word stuck to my head.

It´s nothing wrong with okusan, it´s just because I hadn´t heard that word so long. Then as I was having a hair cut, I started thinking about this word.


Okusan is one way of saying "my wife" in Japanese and is written 奥さん. Oku means at the back and in this case, back of the house. So okusan refers someone who stays at the back of the house and doesn´t come out to the front, someone hidden. This concept came from Sengoku jidai (戦国時代 / the warring state period in Japan, 1467-1568 approx.). During this period women stayed inside the castle at the very back of it and there, served their master, shujin (主人).

And this custom remained as many Japanese wives call her husband "my shujin (master)" by meaning "my otto (夫 / husband)".

According to the dictionary, oku-san or oku-sama are used by referring to someone else´s wife or to the females who look like they are married. Yes, the key is "looks like" which defined by age. When you go to a grocery shopping and you´ll hear a fishmonger calling the middle aged women "okusan" as they don´t know the name, and this is very habitual.


Then I started thinking about other way of calling their wives. Another common one is kanai (家内), it´s written as inside the house and the meaning came from the person who runs inside the house. This word, too came from women´s role. You may hear men saying "uchi no kanai ga… (うちの家内が...)".  


teishukanpakuNyoubou (女房) is also common. Nyoubou originally was the women in a high status who worked in the court. Bou (房) is a room and these women were given their own room and took care of the Emperor. They were the court ladies in high positions but not the wives of the Emperor. So in theory, it´s not right to call his wife Nyoubou but…. if he consider the woman whom he lives with is just someone who is in charge of him rather than his life company, perhaps it´s OK.


And those husbands who lord over their wives are called Teishu Kanpaku (亭主関白), well in other word, sexists who doesn´t even bring his plate when he finishes eating. Those husbands are still out there in Japan, surprisingly.

But I´ll talk about Japanese men and husbands in another occasion. This time, I stick to the way of saying "my wife" in Japanese.


In Kansai area, you may hear them saying "uchi no yome (うちの嫁)". Yome is a daughter-in-law and grammatically incorrect but especially among Japanese manzai comedians, it´s quite common to say. Or they call their wives kami-san (カミさん), but this word refers to the wife of merchants or the head woman of the place such as ryokan and restaurants.


bowThe right translation of "wife" in Japanese is tsuma (妻). You do hear this word but yet, you hear another names much more often. Historically men were the front of the house and women were the back of the house. Is Japan still a feudal society? Or just the words?

I don´t see my hairstylist so sexist. But who knows. Once he enters the house, he may be a little emperor. Hope slowly but soon, Japanese men can call their wives watashi no tsuma without being embarrassed and realise that their wives can bow properly by themselves.

Okusan, Kanai, Nyoubou, Yome, Kamisan are the words you always hear from Japanese men´s mouth and not something you think about the meaning twice. But when you see how to write, then it might tickle your curiosity to find out the structure of Japanese couples or families.


In the next article, I´ll talk about Japanese "macho" husbands.



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Call her name


  1. Shafan 5 years Reply

    Hi thanks for the Article i really enjoyed and learn.
    I am Iranian and live in England. Sorry My english is not good enough
    Our culture are very similar to japsnese so i understand Japanese culture.
    I think over the years culture has changed so much everywere but Still we are using the same old word.
    I mean for example if a Japanese man call his wife okussn doesnt mean she serves the husband and he is master of the house .
    It is very difficult to understand cultures.
    Thanks again i am glad i found your blog.

  2. concerned 10 years Reply

    I am all for feminism ..but i think getting irritated or feeling uneasy about a culture because its male dominated makes you sound like a bitter old woman . the japanese have their way of doing things and neither you or me can change that …trying to shove your views or ‘holier than thou’ sentiments about your ideal view of society in a passive-aggressive way on others is a petty way to live .

    • juju.kurihara 10 years

      I guess the most important thing is try not to judge according to your cultural background. No society is perfect and we cannot change people. But at the same time it´s good to know how other society works just to open our mentality.

    • Language 7 years

      “I’m all for feminism ..but i think getting irritated…” You dumbass, maybe you ought to look up the definition of feminism – equality of both genders. OBVIOUSLY, the terms かない, おくさん and etc. are sexist and are not meant to show equality of both genders – especially when there is a much more neutral and less offensive word, つま. Also, feeling uneasy about a woman voicing her opinion makes you sound like a bitter, old man.
      If you don’t agree with her, then why are you even on her webpage? Why did you read it all the way through – just so you can write a hateful message?

      Wow, talking about sentimental, look at you and your comments. Your more passive aggressive then she is with your “holier than thou” comment. Who’re you to comment on someone’s webpage, talking about how “sentimental” and “petty” someone is when you’re doing the exact same thing. HIPOCRITE. GTFO this webpage. I bet you’re gay.

  3. 774 11 years Reply

    Oh, oh… You’re so twisted. “Tsuma” is used at very polite situation and it doesn’t include any emotions. We have a lot of variations for a word, for example ‘I’ or ‘you’. Do you think calling “Madam” for middle-aged women is rude? “Oku-san” means “Madam”. Besides, are you sure that Japanese men are bossy towards the women? Where on earth is there the men who give their all salary to their wives and get a little bit of pin money? Japanese culture is heaven for the women. So our unmarried rate is increasing.

    • juju.kurihara 11 years

      Hi, 774. So do you think the rise of unmarried rate is because Japanese men are tired of working for their family? It didn´t occur to me but it´s interesting to look at because I´ve read various articles about women not wanting to get married recently and even those who want to, they are postponing it but it´s normal that men don´t want to get tied with the family.

  4. piyo 11 years Reply

    (Google translation) i am japanese,so english is poor.
    It says the use of traditional and contemporary language. It is a typical example it is easy to understand cultural misunderstanding.

    Japanese are very like the play on words,so change the meaning of words and use more and more.
    The subjection of women to express Japanese culture know,but…..
    Used in that sense people are saying you are very little.Moreover, such a culture now has almost disappeared.Says the only living language knowledge is impossible.

    One refers to the tip.
    Japanese culture, there is something called “hineri”
    Use the word deliberately exaggerated and overstated.Showing affection exaggerated the old vocabulary. Put a sense of familiarity in reverse. Such, through a variety of history, now becomes how.

    Culture is difficult to understand. That is why fun.If you are interested in Japan, please learn more.
    Understanding how to use the Japanese way…..It must be considered as a fundamental way.
    In their words, I think what the people around you and opponent. In Japan, the birth of a reverse I words and ideas of Western. so,that Is easily misunderstood.
    And literal translation of Japanese “wrong” has pointed out many people.To properly understand the Japanese culture, Japan will not only live longer.

  5. nino 11 years Reply

    I think “Teishu-kanpaku” is a custom of the ruling class. When boundaries between the ruling class and the common people were removed by the Meiji Restoration, their custom ware mingled. So Japan seems to be a male‐dominated society at a glance, but the custom of strong women in the common people, that is “kaka-denka”, doesn’t disappear.

    Have you ever watched “Princess Mononoke” directed by Hayao Miyazaki? Strong women, men who are no match for their wives, and domineering samurais, you can find comparison of these three in the movie.

    I also think “Teishu-kanpaku” husbands in modern Japan are influenced by their upbringings. Pehaps, they should have authoritarian fathers.

    • juju.kurihara 11 years

      The forms of the couple are diverse and sometimes it depends on the couple rather than something cultural. We just have the words to discribe them, “teishu kanpaku” and “kakaa denka”. But I´ve seen in some films a big Italian mamán gets her husband by ear on the street and bring him back home. This may be a stereotype but I´m sure this happens everywhere in the world, then also there are many dictatorial men exist out there.

      Young Japanese teishu kanpaku may be influenced by their upbringings in a way. Like some boys whose mother never taught how to wash the dishes or to make fried eggs.

  6. nino 11 years Reply

    “Yome” is a term for married woman. The character of “嫁” also means married woman at Japanese and old Chinese language.

    “Kami-san” is derived from a designation of a person with high position. Do you notice that terms for wife in Japan almost mean women with high position? I think those terms are hiding self‐ridicule of husbands who are no match for their wives.

    There is a stereotype that Japan is a male‐dominated society. Certainly, the social advancement of women is not active in Japan. But, in the common people, It’s normal that wives keep the power in their families traditionally. It is called “Kaka-tenka” against “Teishu-kanpaku”.

    • juju.kurihara 11 years

      It´s interesting that in Japanese society, men have more priority than women but inside the house, many men can´t find their spot even it´s his own house. Japan has a society where “uchi (inside)” and “soto (outside)” are divided quite clearly. But it´s nice to see a “kaka denka” couple and this isn´t depending on the generation. Some young husband can be quite teishu kanpaku. Perhaps it depends on their upbringings?

    • juju.kurihara 11 years

      Curious links, thank you. Japanese eat dogs? In what period? I´ve heard that during the WWII, dogs were taken away by the army in order to feed soldiers but it was towards the end of the war as there was nothing to eat. Anyway, it´s interesting that since 1585, the situation in Europe and Japan has almost gone opposite apart from some things.

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