Japanese symbol for sister

The most common words for “sister” in Japanese are: 

姉 ane – Older sister

imouto – Younger sister

The Japanese language makes a distinction between older and younger siblings, with special words for each.

There is a generic term for sisters 姉妹, which can be read either as “shimai” or “kyoudai”. 

The Japanese language also doesn’t usually make a distinction between plural and singular. So 姉妹 can mean either “sister” or “sisters”. In reality, it is more often used to signify the concept of “sisters” plural, as sisters singular are almost always described as either 姉 ane – older sister or 妹 imouto – Younger sister.

“Sister” vs “sibling”

The Japanese symbol for sister 姉妹 is also read as kyoudai. The word kyoudai can also be written with the symbols 兄弟, which means brother. This word’s first symbol means elder brother and the second one means younger brother.

In this way, you can see that the word “kyoudai” can mean either sister or brother.

How is the word “Sister” pronounced in Japanese?

As noted above, there are several ways that “sister” is pronounced in Japanese but the most common one is pronounced as shimai (姉妹). 

The different ways “Sister” can be expressed in Japanese characters and symbols

It should be mentioned at the outset is that in everyday language Japanese people usually refer to their siblings not as just “brother” or “sister”, but with separate specific words for “older/younger brother/sister” like this:

姉 ane – Older sister

imouto – Younger sister

兄 ani – older brother

弟 otouto – Younger brother

This is further complicated by the fact that Japanese people refer to their own family members slightly differently to how they refer to other people’s family members eg. they use “humble” forms of the words to refer to their own family and “honorific” forms to refer to other people’s family:

Humble forms (for referring to your own family)

姉 ane


兄 ani

弟 otouto

Honorific forms (for referring to someone else’s family)

お姉さん oneesann

妹さん imoutosan

お兄さん oniisan

弟さん otoutosan

Examples of how “Sister” can be expressed in Japanese characters and symbols.

  1. 姉(Ane)

Ane means elder sister, it is commonly used along the suffix chan(~ちゃん), to express affection or warmth, or san(~さん) to express respect or defference. 

The symbol 姉 itself is composed of two radicals; the first one is 女 which is read as Onna and means woman or girl. The second one 市 which is read alone as shi, meaning market, city or town.

Example sentences:


Watashi ni wa mō hitori ane ga iru.

I have another (elder)sister.


Watashi no ane wa maishū, kami wo totonoete morau.

My sister has her hair dressed every week.

  1. 妹(Imōto)

Imōto means younger sister. In a similar way to Ane, it is mostly used with the suffixes ~chan (~ちゃん) or ~san(~さん). 

Like Ane, Imōto also has two radicals, the first one is Onna (女) which means woman and the second  is Imada or shitsiji (未) which means un-, not yet, or hitherto.

Example sentences:


Otoko no ko wa jibun no Imōto wo mikudashi gachide aru.

Boys tend to look down on their younger sister.


Watashi  wa Imōto to seikaku oyobi shūkan ga ookiku kotonaru.

I am widely different from my little sister in character and habits.

  1. 姉妹(Shimai)

Shimai is a combination of two symbols 姉 and 妹 which combine to mean “sisters”. It can also be read as kyoudai

Example sentences:


Futari no shimai wa hissori to kurashite ita.

The two sisters lived very quietly.


Sono futago no shimai wa urifutatsu da.

The twin sisters are like two peas.

  1. シスター(Shisuta)

Written in Katakana, shisuta is mostly used to express “sister” from the church, a nun. 

Example sentences:


Shūdoujo ni natta toki, shisuta teresa no na wo uketa.

When she became a nun, she took the name Sister Teresa.

What words are in the Japanese symbol for “sister” used in?

  1. 姉妹都市(Shimaitoshi)

Means sister city, or a twin town. The first two symbols mean sister, read as shimai, the third symbol is read as to which means metropolis or capital, and the last symbol is read as shi which means market, city or town.

Example sentences:


Tatoeba, Ōsaka wa shanfuranshisuko no shimaitoshi desu.

For example, Osaka is the sister city of San Francisco.

  1. 姉妹校(Shimaikou)

Means sister school. The third symbol is read as kou(校) meaning school.

Example sentence:


Karera no gakkou to watashi no gakkou wa shimaikou desu.

Their school and ours are sister schools.

  1. 義姉(Gishi)

Gishi means sister-in-law. The first symbol 義 is read as Gi which means duty, righteousness, justice, morality, honor, loyalty, and meaning.

Example sentence:


Ani ga kyūsei shita no wa ni nen mae, gishi wa hitori ani no nokoshita chiisana houshokutenten wo kenage ni mamotte kita.

Since my brother passed away suddenly two years ago, my sister-in-law is taking good care of the small jewellery store he left behind.

  1. 姉妹編(Shimaihen)

Companion(sister) volume(to), sequel(to)

Example sentence:


Kare wa shōsetsu no shimaihen wo shipitsuchū da.

He is now writing a sister volume to his novel.

Differences between how the words for “sister” are used in Japan & the West

The word “sister” has a different connotation in Japan than it does in the West. In the West, when two sisters are close in age, they are often thought of as best friends. However, in Japan, the relationship between sisters is much more hierarchical. The older sister is seen as a role model for the younger sister, and the younger sister is expected to obey her older sister’s orders.

Other usages of “sister” in Japan & the West

In Japan, the term for “older sitser” お姉さん onesan is often used to refer to any woman that a person doesn’t know who is not a young girl. 

So someone might say, “hey onesan, do you mind holding this door for a moment?” to a female stranger.

The English word is also occasionally used in a similar way, and it would be possible to say “hey sister, do you mind holding this door for a moment?”, but this is much less common in English than it is in Japanese.

In English, we also sometimes use the word “sister” to mean an “empowered woman”, as in “sisters are doing it for themselves”. The Japanese words for sister are not really used in this way, and they are not used to refer to “women generally”.

Nor are the Japanese words for sister as commonly used to express a more wide “sisterhood” than the word “sister” is in English.

How is “sister” expressed in Chinese?

姐(Jiě) is how “sister” expressed in Chinese language. What we need to do if we want to expressing “elder sister” in Chinese is to add another Jiě(姐) to make it Jiějiě(姐姐). 

Historical of the Chinese character for “sister”

Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *mɯːds): semantic 女 (“female, woman”) + phonetic 未 (OC *mɯds).

Stroke order for writing the characters in Japanese “sister” and associated symbols.

  1. 姉(Ane)
  1. 妹(Imōto)
  1. 姉妹都市(Shimaitoshi)


  1. 姉妹校(Shimaikō)
  1. 義姉(Gishi)
  1. 姉妹編(Shimaihen)


So should you get “sister” done as a tattoo in Japanese lettering?

If you were looking to get the word “sister” done  as a tattoo to emphasise your familial bond with a sister, you would be best off getting either the term 姉 ane – older sister or

妹 imouto – younger sister done depending on which you were.

You could also conceivably get 姉妹, which can be read either as “shimai” or “kyoudai”. That is closer to the English word “Sisters”, which may or may not make sense in isolation,  depending on your interpretation.

Neither of these words has much of the sense of “sister” as an “empowered woman” in the way that the English word “sister” can be interpreted as having.

So, as with all tattoos, you need to be aware of some of the differences in nuance between the different options and how they work in different languages.