Close friend, best friend, childhood friend, BFF – we describe our friendships in English using adjectives before the word ‘friend’. We can use other words for people we know from work and school such as colleague, acquaintance, peer and so on.
It should come as no surprise that Japanese has more than one word for ‘friend’! Yes, there is a whole world outside of just tomodachi for describing our different friends in life.
The kanji characters for these words can help us understand and memorize the meaning behind each way to say ‘friend’ in Japanese.
For example the kanji character 友（とも/ ゆう・tomo / yuu）found in tomodachi means ‘friend’, and it appears in several words about friendship.
There are many types of ‘friend’ words which don’t use this kanji though, and today we hope you walk away better informed with some new vocab up your sleeve!
友達 / ともだち
Tomodachi (友達 / ともだち) is first up and it’s the one that you probably already know. It’s divided into two kanji characters tomo (友 / とも) which means friend, and dachi (達 / だち) which refers to the plural form of the noun for ‘person’ (more than one).
For example watashi means ‘I’ in Japanese but watashi-tachi (私達 / わたしたち) means ‘we’ or ‘us’. So tomo-dachi literally translates to ‘friends’!
But it actually doesn’t matter whether it’s one, two or more friends you are talking about, tomodachi is both singular and plural.
For example, you might say:
Tomodachi ga shigoto wo shoukai shite kureta.
My friend introduced me to a job.
Or on a travel website, it might say:
Tomodachi to issho ni kyanpu wo tanoshimeru!
Enjoy camping together with friends!
Tomodachi can be used in most situations, but it doesn’t reveal any details about the closeness of the friendship. Tomodachi could be a friend who you just enjoy spending time with, or it could mean someone you’re close to… we’ll never know!
友人 / ゆうじん
Yuujin (友人 / ゆうじん) is the formal version of tomodachi and shares the same first kanji 友 (friend), pronounced here as yuu with its Chinese reading (onyomi). If you’ve learned the Grade 1 Jōyō kanji, you will recognize the next character人 (じん/jin) which means person!
Like tomodachi, yuujin can be both singular or plural, so you can refer to one or many friends using this word. The difference is that yuujin is used in formal situations while tomodachi is a casual word used by children too.
If speaking about a friend in a job interview, work, or at special event, yuujin is more appropriate:
Yuujin wo daihyou shite Yamada-sama, supeechi wo onegai itashi masu.
On behalf of her friend(s), we humbly request Ms. Yamada-sama to make a speech.
Yuujin can be used in casual conversation too, it’s just less common than tomodachi!
親友 / しんゆう
close friend, best friend
Shinyuu (親友 / しんゆう) doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but we know from its kanji characters that this friend is closer than your tomodachi or yuujin.
Shin (親) means ‘intimate’ and as we know tomo / yuu（友）means ‘friend’. While ‘intimate friend’ would sound pretty weird in English, shinyuu can mean close friend or best friend.
Your shinyuu is the friend you have a deep connection with and who is there during the good and bad times. They are special to you!
You can use shinyuu to distinguish this friend from the rest.
大親友 / だいしんゆう
best friend, great friend, BFF
We know shinyuu is a really close friend but daishinyuu (大親友/だいしんゆう) is your BFF (best friend forever)! The first character, dai (大 / だい) means ‘big’ or ‘great’ and emphasizes that this person is indeed your number one friend.
Rie-chan, watashi tachi wa daishinyuu desho?
Rie-chan, we’re best friends / BFF’s right?
仲間 / なかま
mate, friend, pal, peer
Nakama (仲間 / なかま) refers to the relationship between people who do a professional or shared activity together whether its work, a hobby, a club etc.
Nakama has two kanji: 仲 (なか/naka) which means ‘relation’ or ‘relationship’ and 間（ま/ma）which means ‘among’ and ‘between’.
Kare wa sakaa bu no nakama desu.
He’s my mate from the football / soccer club.
Nakama is popular in anime because its group-oriented, and members share a common goal or aspiration.
味方 / みかた
ally, supporter, comrade, partner
Mikata (味方 / みかた) describes a friendship where you are ‘on someone’s side’ or you share the same goal or circumstances. In this way it is similar to nakama, your companion through a shared activity.
Mikata introduces two completely different kanji again!
味 (mi) means taste/flavor but it also means feeling or sense.
方 (kata) means a direction, so we could think of mikata as a sense for the same direction, if that makes it easier to remember!
Most likely said by a guy to his comrade:
Daijoubu, ore wa kimi no mikata da yo!
Don’t worry, I’m on your side no matter what! / It’s okay, I’m your ally no matter what!
同僚 / どうりょう
Douryou is a formal expression that we can use for our coworkers. The kanji 同 (どう / dou) means ‘same’ in English, and 僚 (りょう/ ryou) means an official, a colleague or a companion. Therefore we can think about douryou as people who share the same workplace.
Kinou, douryou to sushi wo tabeta.
Yesterday, I ate sushi with my colleague.
幼馴染 / おさななじみ
Osananajimi is a childhood friend you grew up with and it has an air of nostalgia about it. 幼 (おさな/osana) means ‘childhood’, 馴 (な/na) is the kanji for ‘to get used to’ and 染 (じみ/jimi) means to dye or stain.
While the last kanji is a little random, we could remember osananajimi as a friend who you knew for so long, they’re stuck in your memory like a dye stain on your clothes. How’s that for memorization?
知り合い / しりあい
Shiriai (知り合い / しりあい) combines two words, shiri (知り) meaning ‘to know’ and ai (会い/あい) meaning ‘to meet’. Shiriai translates to ‘acquaintance’ in English, the people you meet in different settings through work or a mutual friend for example.
Kanojo no shiriai ga ooi desu.
She has a large circle of acquaintances / She has many acquaintances.
A similar word to shiriai is chijin (知人/ちじん) which refers to someone whom you know by name and are familiar with.
So, now you know lots of different ways to say friend in Japanese.
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Francesca is a freelance copywriter and teacher, who moved to Tokyo from New Zealand at age 24. A linguistics and ESL major, she spent 3 years teaching at an all-boys high school. Now based in France, she remains a self-confessed Japanophile who loves kanji, cooking, cats and the outdoors.