Personal Pronouns in Japanese
Subjects pronouns: I, you, he/she, we, you, they
Personal pronouns do exist in Japanese, although their use is quite different from English. Native Japanese speakers choose pronouns according to the context, their gender and age, but also to whom they are addressing: the person’s gender, age and social status, with a wide range of politeness levels.
If the context is clear, personal pronoun is usually omitted. They are however necessary to communicate in Japanese language, or to understand speech nuances when watching movies, dramas or anime. We will introduce the most commonly used and the most useful personal pronouns for beginners.
You will avoid many mistakes and quid pro quos in using watashi (私) to talk about yourself regardless of the situation, your gender or your age.
A more formal version is watakushi (私), favored by politicians. It can be altered in atashi when used by (very young) women.
Elderly people sometimes say washi (儂) or ware (我).
Some pronouns are customarily used by men only:
- Boku (僕) is favored by boys and younger men, but grown men can also say it to express a form of modesty;
- Ore (俺) is used among a group of peers, and / or by lower social status men. If followed by -sama (様), an honorific suffix, it shows a strong ego and marks a great impoliteness.
If you watch historical movies or dramas, you might have heard sessha (拙者), widely used by samurai characters.
In any case, if you are unsure on how to translate "I", just say "watashi." Depending on the situation, the other translations can be perceived as strange, inappropriate or even very rude.
In Japanese language classes, the term anata (あなた, or more informal an'ta あんた; the kanji 貴方 are seldom used nowadays) is often introduced as the Japanese "you." However, its use can be tricky as:
- It means "darling" in the context of a couple;
- If used alone to call out someone, it can be rude.
You should use anata only if you don’t know the name of the person you are talking to. The best way to address another person is to preferably say their name (or first name if you are friends) followed by the honorific suffix -san instead of "anata." For example, for "mister Tanaka," you will say Tanaka-san' (田中さん). Using the other person’s social position or occupation is also appropriate: If Mister Tanaka is a doctor, you can call him Tanaka-sensei (田中先生), if he is an athlete competing for the Olympic Games 🏅 you can call him Tanaka-senshu (田中選手, "champion" Tanaka).
The honorific suffixes don’t mark gender, so you can use them for a man as well as for a woman. Thus Tanaka-san' can also mean "Miss" or "Madame Tanaka."
From less formal to vulgar, "you" can also be translated as:
- Kimi (きみ, seldom 君), usually when addressing young people;
- Omae (おまえ);
- Temee (てめえ, from 手前 / てまえ temae).
He / She: Kare /Kanojo
When talking about another person, you can use the pronouns kare (彼) for boys and men, and kanojo (彼女) for girls and women.
Bear in mind, however, that these pronouns are often used to talk about one’s boyfriend or girlfriend!
A more polite way of speaking consists in using konohito (この人), literally "this person." The part corresponding to "this" can vary according to the physical and / or social distance between you and the person you are talking about (sono その, for an intermediate distance, and ano あの for a further distance). The kanji can be replaced by 方 kata which is a very formal way of talking. Hito and kata can be used for men as well as for women.
Saying their name followed by an honorific suffix is also totally appropriate.
Simply add tatchi (達) after the personal pronoun for "I" to create the plural form:
- Watashi-tatchi (私たち);
- Atashi-tatchi (あたし達);
- Boku-tatchi (僕たち); and,
- Ore-tatchi (俺たち).
Note that ware becomes ware-ware (我々). It is also possible to say bokura (僕ら).
You (plural): Anata-tatchi
In the same way as"we," just add tatchi (達) to anata to create the plural form:
- Anata-tatchi (あなた達), or an'ta-tatchi (あんた達);
- Kimi-tatchi (きみ達); and,
- Omae-tatchi (おまえ達).
If you are referring to a group of persons, and that you know at least one of them, you can use their name. For example, "Mister Tanaka & co" can be translated Tanaka-san-tatchi (田中さんたち).
They: Kare-tatchi / Kanojo-tatchi
It is the same construction as "we" and "you": kare-tatchi (彼達) and kanojo-tatchi (彼女達).
There is also karera (彼ら) for "them" designating men.
To learn more on this topic: an article from Nikkei provides a comprehensive table of the personal pronouns that have been or are still in use in Japanese language. Many are not in use anymore, such as: warawa, soregashi or maro.
Most of Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to speak or understand Japanese, but if you want to try communicating in Miyazaki’s language make sure to carefully choose your words to impress them in a good way!