What Are the Japanese Names for Grandfather?

Language Has Formal and Informal Terms

A Japanese grandfather helps a granddaughter with an origami project. Photo © Blend Images/Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz

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.

Want to know more about grandparent names? Learn the Japanese names for grandmothers. See also a comprehensive list of grandfather names and a list of ethnic grandfather names. You can also find answers to FAQs about grandparent names.

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.

Modernization has had an impact on Japanese family culture, with more women holding jobs, although their pay on average is far less than men's. 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!

Japanese families derive their structure from the male side. Assets and responsibilities alike are handed down from the father to the eldest son, a system known as primogeniture. When females marry, they became a part of their husband's ie, or extended family. Sons other than the eldest son have to make their own way in the world and often leave 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. Although they have been successful in many different areas and have in this sense assimilated into the American culture, they have retained many of their traditional values.

Japanese society has historically been a very group-oriented society. This 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 preserve Japanese culture and fight discrimination. In the Post World War II era, they worked to win reparations for the Japanese who survived the internment camps.

Japanese Proverbs

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

Yojijukugo 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. 
  • "The weak are meat; the strong eat." The weak will be devoured by the strong.

Some Japanese proverbs are versions of English proverbs. 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."

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.