Beyond Watashi: A Quick Guide to Saying “I” in Japanese
When I first started watching subtitled anime, I felt lost. Characters were using a variety of terms to refer to themselves and the subtitles translated them all to “I.”
Until I began digging deeper into the language, I always thought that watashi was the only way to refer to say “I” in Japanese.
It turns out that the Japanese language offers multiple forms of the personal pronoun.
There’s a term for almost everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should use whatever sounds the coolest.
Let’s dive into some of the most commonly used ways to say “I” in Japanese, the natural way.
- Basic “I” in Japanese: 私 (わたし) — Watashi
- The Feminine Pronoun: 私 (あたし) — Atashi
- The Masculine Pronoun: 俺 (おれ) — Ore
- The (Younger) Masculine Pronoun: 僕 (ぼく) — Boku
- Avoid Using Your First Name
- Don’t Omit the Subject Without Additional Context
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Basic “I” in Japanese: 私 (わたし) — Watashi
One of the first lessons you’ll learn in Japanese is to use the term watashi to refer to yourself in first person. Many traditional textbooks teach learners to use this term because it’s applicable to everyone, no matter what gender or age group you are.
The Japanese word watashi is a genderless term that translates to “I” in English. Japanese language textbooks often suggest it as one of the best overall terms to use to describe yourself.
Although it’s a great term to use when all the other pronouns can be confusing, it’s often seen as feminine. If a group of men is having a conversation using the term ore, the lone male saying watashi may feel slightly left out.
But if you’re still a beginner, there are no repercussions for sticking with the basics.
For the Formal Crowd: 私 (わたくし) — Watakushi
Watashi is a great overall term in either formal or polite situations. However, if you feel that watashi isn’t formal enough, choose watakushi, instead.
Similar to watashi, watakushi is a genderless personal pronoun that can be used in business settings or with respected elders. But in contrast, it’s often used by adults in the workplace. Small children wouldn’t use the term when there are so many other choices.
Watakushi is the ideal, polite term to use at work or when dealing with important contacts. This will ultimately depend on your workplace, and some may not mind if you prefer the more lax pronoun watashi.
Just a warning: watakushi is rare to hear in casual settings. The only time you may hear it is from older women or from haughty characters in anime.
The Feminine Pronoun: 私 (あたし) — Atashi
Although watashi is accepting of everyone, the pronoun atashi is primarily used by women. Japanese doesn’t have helpful articles like the Spanish “el” or “la,” which can make learning about pronouns a little tricky.
The vast majority of those using atashi are women.
It’s also important to note that the kanji for atashi is exactly the same as watashi. If you come across the kanji while reading compelling Japanese content, seeing 私 without context might be confusing. It’ll be difficult to know if the writer meant watashi or atashi.
Luckily, atashi is most commonly written in hiragana as あたし.
Men normally don’t use the term, as it’s seen as a feminine pronoun. However, there’s no rule they can’t, just like women aren’t restricted to using atashi.
For the Formal Crowd: (あたくし) — Atakushi
As mentioned above, the formal version of watashi is watakushi. The same can also be done with the feminine pronoun atashi.
Atakushi is the more formal and polite way of using atashi. Similar to watakushi, it’s uncommon to hear atakushi used during informal settings outside of anime or manga.
The Masculine Pronoun: 俺 (おれ) — Ore
Ore is one of the most popular terms used by men during informal speech. The term is a bit controversial, depending on who the pronoun is used around.
Many men choose to only use ore around their close friends. But, you may wonder, why the secrecy? Why shouldn’t you say ore in front of a teacher or your boss?
That’s because many people consider ore downright rude.
If you’ve ever watched an anime series like “Naruto” or “Bleach,” you’ll notice the main characters saying ore with assertiveness. Using this pronoun is seen as cool, so it makes sense that manga creators would want their powerful protagonists using the confident pronoun.
In manga, you may see ore written in either kanji, hiragana or katakana but they all share the same meaning of “I.”
Kanji: 俺は一番。(おれは いちばん。)
All three of these sentences translate to “I’m the best.”
If you decide to adopt ore in your speech, just be cautious of who you’re using the term around. For example, saying ore in front of your new boss may seem boastful.
Some women also use ore to refer to themselves in a more masculine way, compared to watashi or atashi.
Less Common Variants: おいら (Oira) and おら (Ora)
Oira and Ora are primarily region-specific, but some may recognize the terms used from popular series like “Dragon Ball” and “Crayon Shin-Chan.”
Beware of using these informal terms: They have a slightly negative connotation of being a “country bumpkin.” “Dragon Ball” fans may remember that Goku grew up in the countryside and had some trouble fitting in with modern society.
Both terms are normally written in hiragana without using kanji.
The (Younger) Masculine Pronoun: 僕 (ぼく) — Boku
Boku is a term mostly used by teens and younger men. It’s considered a more casual alternative to the assertive pronoun ore.
A younger man may use boku to refer to himself when speaking with his older friends. The term does give off an air of “youth,” which is why older men choose the pronoun ore instead.
Even Light Yagami from the popular series “Death Note” uses this pronoun to refer to himself:
(ぼくは しんせかいの かみと なる。)
I will be the God of a new world.
While the sentence is assertive, using boku showcases Light’s youth. Light is only in high school, but he has dark goals.
Boku is another predominantly male term that isn’t off-limits to female speakers. Teenage girls may also refer to themselves as boku to their friends. Other popular female entertainers are using the term to appear more masculine. In this case, boku is usually the preferred term over ore.
Boku has also been used by women in songs, but don’t be confused. Some songs are written from a male perspective, but performed by a woman. Other times, the female singer is referring to something said by a male (who may be a boyfriend or love interest.)
The first-person pronoun boku is seen as a predominantly masculine term and use by women is considered rare (for now).
Boku is also used when referring to children as a second-person pronoun instead of anata, since the term anata may come off as rude.
Avoid Using Your First Name
Reading manga targeted toward young elementary school children is a popular way of learning to read Japanese. You may quickly notice that the young characters use their first name, or refer to themselves in third-person. It’s very common that young children, usually those learning the language, will do this before choosing their preferred pronoun.
Imagine the following two sentences are spoken by a young magical girl named Usagi (うさぎ):
(うさぎは けーきが だいすき です。)
(“わたしは けーきが だいすき です。)
Both sentences have the same meaning: “Usagi loves cake.”
Anime fans may also recognize their favorite female characters (usually) referring to themselves in third-person. Although this may seem cute on-screen, it’s typically frowned upon in a meeting with your boss.
If you’re unsure which pronoun to pick, use watashi, and no one will bat an eyelash.
Don’t Omit the Subject Without Additional Context
While it’s important to learn the different varieties of self-identifying pronouns, remember that they’re not always used. Depending on the topic of the conversation, pronouns can be omitted if it’s implied that the subject is yourself.
For example, if someone were to ask you your occupation, you can reply in two different ways using watashi:
(わたしは がくせい です。)
Or omitting 私は:
Both have the same meaning in this context: “I am a student.”
Using a pronoun before every sentence when speaking can also be unnatural. Saying “I” at the start of a sentence gets repetitive. At worst, you don’t want to sound too egotistical by constantly calling attention to yourself.
At the same time, there are times when omitting the subject isn’t possible. Without context, 学生です is unclear. Your friend might wonder if you’re referring to yourself or someone else. Context is everything!
While this guide primarily mentions the most common first-person pronouns, there are several in the Japanese language you won’t find in a textbook. As the language changes, older terms used decades ago are no longer in use today.
It’s also important to note that just because it’s present in anime or manga, doesn’t mean it’s also used in real life.
Although the English language only uses one term, I, to refer to oneself, the Japanese language has a variety of terms available depending on one’s gender and age.
We suggest reviewing each term available and choosing the best one to describe yourself. When in doubt, use watashi!