Anyone who’s walked through Shibuya can tell you: There are a lot of people in Japan.
The nation is densely populated, meaning that, no matter where in Japan you are, you’ll be bumping into and interacting with quite a few people.
But Japan consists of approximately 6,800 islands.
Meanwhile, we (read: the whole world) tend to focus on those main four islands which hold the majority of the population.
Only a mere 430 of these oft-forgotten islands are inhabited…but that’s still more diversity and geographic spread than many people get around to thinking about.
Here comes the big question—do you know how to describe all the different people you’ll encounter while exploring Japan?
Now you probably have an idea of the basics of how to talk about yourself in Japanese, but there will probably be times when you want to talk about someone else. The following grammar and vocabulary is essential if you’d like to talk about someone else’s appearance for whatever reason—maybe you got separated, need to describe them or want to rave about their fabulous personality without having to refer to a dictionary or Japanese-English apps (although they can be very useful).
We’re going to take a look at third-person grammar, including a little about pronouns and vocabulary to describe physical features as well as personality traits, and also sentence patterns for jobs and hobbies.
5 Essential Ways to Describe People in Japanese
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1. Describing People’s Relationships to You
First of all, it would be a good idea to describe how you know this person. Are they a friend, a family member or a classmate? Here’s how to describe these things, and also how to explain that you’ve been separated from them, if applicable.
I can’t find my friend. 私の友達が見つけられません。(わたしの ともだちが みつけられません。)
To change “friend” for another relationship designation, simply take away 友達 and replace it with:
- Mother – お母さん (おかあさん)
- Father – お父さん (おとうさん)
- Grandmother – お婆さん (おばあさん)
- Grandfather – お爺さん (おじいさん)
- Big brother – お兄さん (おにいさん)
- Little brother – 弟 (おとうと)
- Big sister – お姉さん (おねえさん)
- Little sister – 妹 (いもうと)
- Cousin – 従兄弟 (いとこ)
- Classmate – クラスメート (くらすめーと)
- Co-worker – 同僚 (どうりょう)
2. Describing Appearances
Describing someone’s appearance is something you may need to do if you get separated from a friend or a family member and you don’t have a photograph of them on your phone like a normal person (it’s okay; selfies are so 2013). Here are some grammar patterns and vocabulary for this kind of situation.
Race and Gender
A good place to start would be at the very basics. Here are a few ways to describe someone’s gender and race, ethnicity or nationality.
- Woman – 女の人 (おんなのひと)
- Female – 女性 (じょせい)
- Man – 男の人 (おとこのひと)
- Male – 男性 (だんせい)
- White – 白人 (はくじん)
- Black – 黒人 (こくじん)
- Indian – インド人 (いんどじん)
- Asian – アジア人 (あじあじん)
- American – アメリカ人 (あめりかじん)
- French – フランス人 (ふらんすじん)
Their hair is… – 髪の毛は______です (かみのけは_____です)
- Long – 長い (ながい)
- Short – 短い (みじかい)
- Thin – 薄い (うすい)
- Straight – まっすぐ
- Curly – 縮毛 (ちぢれげ)
- Black – 黒い (くろい)
- Brown – 茶色 (ちゃいろ)
- Blond(e) – ブロンド/金髪 (ぶろんど/きんぱつ)
- Red – 赤毛 (あかげ)
- Gray – 白髪 (はくはつ)
He is _____. – 彼は_____です。 (かれは_____です。)
She is _____. – 彼女は_____です。(かのじょは_____です。)
That person is _____. – その人は_____です。(そのひとは_____です。)
- Tall – 背が高い (せが たかい) Note: Remember that they use centimeters in Japan, not feet and inches. It might be a good idea to get used to meters and centimeters if you’re not familiar with them already.
- Short – 背が低い (せが ひくい)
- About_____cm tall. – _____センチぐらい。(_____せんち ぐらい。)
- Slim – 痩せ型/スリム (やせがた/すりむ)
- Fat – とても体格が良い (とても たいかくが よい) (Note: This is a very polite way of saying “fat,” like the English “large” or “big-boned.”)
- Muscular – 筋肉質 (きんにくしつ)
You might feel like your description isn’t detailed enough, and want to add extra information that’ll make the person stand out from the crowd or make them more memorable. Here are a few “extra” phrases that might be useful if they apply to the person you’re describing.
- They’re wearing glasses. – 彼らは眼鏡をかけています。(かれらは めがねをかけています。)
- They have freckles. – 彼らはそばかすがあります。(かれらは そばかすが あります。)
- She has a pink backpack. – 彼女はピンクのリュックサックを持っています。(かのじょは ぴんくの りゅっくさっくを もっています。)
- He/She’s a twin. – 彼/彼女は双子の一人です。(かれ/かのじょは ふたごの ひとりです。)
A useful thing to do when giving a description is to connect the adjectives for a smoother description.
For example, instead of saying 「彼女の髪の毛は長いです。彼女の髪の毛は茶色です。(かのじょの かみのけは ながいです。かのじょの かみのけは ちゃいろです。)」(“Her hair is long. Her hair is brown”) you can make it more natural by saying 「彼女の髪の毛は長くて茶色です。(かのじょの かみのけは ながくて ちゃいろです。)」(“Her hair is long and brown”).
Connecting adjectives is a useful skill when you’re describing anything, and saves time in this kind of situation.
If it’s an い adjective, such as 長い (ながい – long) or 短い (みじかい – short), remove the last い and replace it with くて before the next adjective.
If it’s not an い adjective, such as 赤毛 (あかげ – red), add で after it before the next adjective to connect them. There are some examples below.
- He’s muscular and tall. – 彼は筋肉質で背が高いです。(かれは きんにくしつで せが たかいです。)
- Her hair is long and black. – 彼女の髪の毛は長くて黒いです。 (かのじょのかみのけは ながくて くろいです。)
- He’s short and fat (said in a polite and flattering way). – 彼は背が低くてとても体格が良いです。(かれは せがひくくて とても たいかくが よいです。)
4. Describing Personality
You might want to describe another person’s personality when, for example, you’re showing pictures of your family back home and you want to talk about them, you met someone interesting at a recent event or you’re talking about a friend who has done something nice for you.
If the person you’re talking about is physically there and you’re introducing them, start with 「こちらは_____(さん) です。」 (This is _____.)
Similar to describing appearance above, the simple 「彼/彼女/あの人は_____です。(かれ/かのじょ/あのひとは_____です。)」(He/she/that person is _____.) sentence pattern can be used if you’re using adjectives.
You could also say 「サムは_____(な) 人です。 (さむは_____ (な) ひとです。)」 meaning “Sam is a _____ person.” Here are some useful adjectives to add in the gap. Don’t forget to connect multiple adjectives for a more colorful description.
- Good – いい
- Funny – 面白い (おもしろい)
- Kind – 親切な (しんせつな)
- Gentle – 優しい (やさしい)
- True/Diligent/Hardworking – 真面目な (まじめな)
- Smart/Intelligent – スマート/頭がいい (すまーと/あたまがいい)
It’s always good to say nice things about people, and if you can describe these things in Japanese you’ll create an excellent impression of them, as well as of yourself. Here are some added phrases you can say while describing the person to add a more natural flow.
- “I speak the truth!” – 本当の事です！(ほんとうの ことです！) Great to add some enthusiasm to your description.
- “I’m not just saying this. I really mean it.” お世辞じゃないですよ。(おせじ じゃない ですよ。) The Japanese word お世辞 means “a compliment that is more like flattery and can be ironic” (JapanTimes.co.jp). By emphasizing that you’re not just flattering someone, you’re making it anything nice you say sound nicer and more genuine.
- When describing other people in Japanese, it’s important to mostly be positive, as it is, of course, more polite. In the case that you might want to say something negative about someone, such as a sibling (I know I’ve been in that situation a few times), here are some negative words for you to use (at your own risk! Describing someone in this way isn’t recommended!)
Mean – 意地悪 (いじわる)
Selfish – わがまま
Stupid – ばか
Lazy – 怠け者 (なまけもの)
Boring – つまらない/面白くない (つまらない/おもしろくない)
5. Describing Jobs and Hobbies
As well as gossiping about someone’s appearance and personality, you might want to add extra information about the person such as their jobs and hobbies. Let’s look at turning first-person grammar into third-person grammar.
Unlike English, Japanese doesn’t change much when switching to third person. In English, “I like” becomes “she likes.” “I don’t” becomes “she doesn’t.” This doesn’t happen in Japanese, which makes it pretty simple.
- I like _____. – 私は_____が好きです。(わたしは_____がすきです。) becomes:
He/she/person’s name likes _____. – 彼/彼女/person’s name は_____が好きです。(かれ/かのじょ/person’s name は_____がすきです。)
They like _____. – 彼らは_____がすきです。(かれらは_____がすきです。)
- I am _____. – 私は_____です。(わたしは_____です。) becomes:
He/she/person’s name is _____. – 彼/彼女/person’s name は_____です。 (かれ/かのじょ/person’s name は_____です。)
They are _____. – 彼らは_____です。 (かれらは_____です。) Used for adjectives or nouns.
- I like to _____. – 私は_____する事が好きです。(わたしは_____することが すきです。) becomes:
He/she/person’s name likes to _____. – 彼/彼女/person’s name は_____する事が好きです。(かれ/かのじょ/person’s name は_____することが すきです。)
They like to _____. – 彼らは_____することが好きです。(かれらは_____することが すきです。)
As mentioned above, to describe someone else’s job, you simply change 私 (わたし – I) to 彼ら (かれら – they), 彼 (かれ – he), 彼女 (かのじょ – she) or their name to describe their job. Here are some jobs below for your reference. Start the sentence with the pronouns.
- Kindergarten teacher – 幼稚園の先生 (ようちえんのせんせい)
- Elementary school teacher – 小学校の先生 (しょうがっこうのせんせい)
- Junior high school teacher – 中学校の先生 (ちゅうがっこうのせんせい)
- High school teacher – 高校の先生 (こうこうのせんせい)
- University teacher – 大学の先生 (だいがくのせんせい)
- Security guard – 守衛 (しゅえい)
- Businessman – サラリーマン (さらりーまん)
- Dentist – 歯医者 (はいしゃ)
- Doctor – 医者 (いしゃ)
- Nurse – 看護師 (かんごし)
- Salesperson in a shop – 店の販売員 (みせのはんばいいん)
- Firefighter – 消防士 (しょうぼうし)
- Engineer – エンジニア (えんじにあ)
Here are some hobbies and interests in Japanese for your reference. To say that someone enjoys doing these things, insert any of the following into this sentence: (Name) は_____事が好きです。((Name) は_____ことがすきです。)
- Going jogging – ジョギングする (じょぎんぐする)
- Going swimming – 泳ぐ (およぐ)
- Fishing – 釣りをする (つりをする)
- Reading books – 本を読む (ほんをよむ)
- Watching TV/movies – テレビ/映画を見る (てれび/えいがをみる)
- Playing sports – スポーツする (すぽーつする)
- Listening to music – 音楽を聞く (おんがくをきく)
- Playing guitar/piano/drums – ギター/ピアノ/ドラムを演奏する (ぎたー/ぴあの/どらむをえんそうする)
- Writing blogs – ブログを書く (ぶろぐをかく)
Now you can describe people’s appearance, a little about their personality, their career and what they like to do. You can tell Japanese people more about your family and friends back home, and perhaps introduce someone who can’t introduce themselves in Japanese yet.
It’s a great skill that will help you connect people you’re mutual friends with, and talk about your family to people you might meet. Next time you’re having a conversation in Japanese, try introducing or talking about someone that you know using your new grammar patterns and vocabulary.
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