Hey, you—act casual!
What, you don’t know how?
If you started your Japanese learning adventure in the classroom, chances are pretty good that you learned the semi-polite, neutral way of speaking first.
There are many reasons for this, and it’s definitely important to be able to speak politely if you want to operate in Japanese without accidentally offending anyone.
But once you’re ready to take your Japanese to a higher level, sound like a native and make some native friends, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with casual, informal Japanese.
Many of the more immersive (and more fun) ways to practice Japanese require getting a handle on the informal register: listening to Japanese songs, watching anime, getting hooked dorama and chatting with Japanese friends in person or online.
If you ever intend to live in Japan and make Japanese friends, you’ll need to be able to speak to people informally (once you get to know each other) to avoid coming across as a little awkward and standoffish.
So, When Should You Use Informal Japanese?
It’s important to be aware of when it is and isn’t appropriate to use casual speech in Japanese. An easy way to do this is to begin with one simple rule: If they’re older than you, keep it neutral. If they’re younger, you can probably choose how polite you want to be.
I always speak neutrally the first time I meet someone, no matter who they are. I think it establishes equality and makes people more comfortable, plus you basically can’t go wrong with the neutral voice. But I’m also an extremely friendly person, so I tend to slip into casual speech fairly quickly, at least with people my own age and younger. If you’re shy or unsure, just listen to the way they speak to you and copy! And when in doubt, be polite.
Informal speech can seem impossibly complicated at first, but most people learn it surprisingly quickly because it’s so easy to practice.
I learned it quickly by osmosis, simply by listening to the ways that people speak in movies and dorama (particularly ones starring and/or marketed to young people) and rocking out with modern song lyrics. FluentU is a great resource for learning casual speech by osmosis and practicing it actively.
You can also read Japanese blogs, and of course try to make some Japanese-speaking friends to practice with. When I learned casual speech, my teacher had us write journal entries in Japanese, because of course you wouldn’t write politely in your own diary!
So what should you be looking for to make your Japanese sound less formal and more natural? Are you ready to master Japanese formality like a native speaker? I’m glad you asked!
7 Ways to Use Informal Japanese to Chat Like a Local
1. Master casual form in the present tense
Most students of Japanese will have some familiarity with casual conjugation already, as it’s the how most dictionaries and translators will write verbs and adjectives.
Whatever you call it (plain form, casual form or dictionary form) probably depends on your teacher or textbook, but for the purpose of this article I will call it casual form, casual speech or casual voice.
Those who aren’t yet familiar with the casual form of verbs may need to spend some more time on this, but I’ll cover it briefly here.
First, we’ll split Japanese verbs into three groups: Group 1, Group 2 and Irregular.
Most Group 1 verbs have a -ます stem that ends with an い sound:
- 飲みます (のみます – to drink)
- 書きます (かきます – to write)
- 働きます (はたらきます – to work)
To conjugate Group 1 verbs into casual form, simply drop the -ます and change the い sound to an う sound:
- 飲みます⇒ 飲む (のむ)
- 書きます ⇒ 書く (かく)
- 働きます ⇒ 働く (はたらく)
To turn these casual form verbs into negatives, change the う sound to an あ sound and add ない:
- 飲む ⇒ 飲まない (のまない)
- 書く ⇒ 書かない (かかない)
- 働く ⇒ 働かない (はたらかない)
Please note that when the word ends with an う sound, for example 会う (あう: to meet), instead of あ the sound changes to わ, to make it easier to pronounce. Thus, 会う ⇒ 会わない (あわない)
Group 2 verbs are simpler to conjugate for informal Japanese, but they can be trickier to spot. Most have a -ます stem that ends with an え sound, but not all of them do. Just be sure to check the casual form of all the new verbs you learn!
Some examples of Group 2 verbs are:
- 食べます (たべます – to eat)
- 入れます (いれます – to put in)
- できます (to be able to do/to be made)
To conjugate these verbs for informal Japanese, you simply drop the -ます and add る:
- 食べる (たべる)
- 入れる (いれる)
Drop the -ますand add ない for the negative version:
- 食べない (たべない)
- 入れない (いれない)
Irregular verbs are difficult in that they do not follow any pattern—that’s what makes them irregular!—but once you learn how to conjugate them you’ll use them so much that they’ll soon flow naturally.
Thankfully there are only two irregular verbs, and they’re both very common:
- します (to do)
- 来ます (きます – to come)
To conjugate these in the present tense with a casual voice, here’s what to do:
- します ⇒ する
- 来ます ⇒ 来る (pronounced くる)
In the negative, you simply drop the -ます and add ない:
- します ⇒ しない
- 来ます⇒ 来ない (pronounced こない)
Nouns and adjectives
These are comparatively very easy: they conjugate just the same! Here’s a guide to conjugating adjectives in case you’re unfamiliar with the process.
The only difference in casual Japanese is that the verb that follows them, です, becomes だ. For example:
- Noun: 授業だ (じゅぎょう だ – the class)
- い-adjective: 長い (ながい – long) please note that unless you’re using it for emphasis (example below), だ isn’t ever necessary when following い-adjectives
- な-adjectives: 元気 (だ) (げんきだ – healthy)
だ is a little challenging though, as you need to know when to use it. Unlike です, which seems to end almost every sentence in neutral speech, だ sounds a little rough or masculine by itself. Use だ when speaking in the past tense (which I’ll explain in the next section) or if you’re going to follow it with ね or よ.
- この写真は綺麗だね？ (この しゃしんは きれいだね？) Isn’t this photo beautiful?
- 羨ましいよ！ (うらやましいよ！) Wow, I’m so jealous!
2. Master casual form in the past tense
I’m going to presume some prior knowledge for this section too, so that way we can get to the interesting native speaker stuff!
To use Group 1 verbs in casual past-tense, simply conjugate them the same way you would into て-form—but instead of て, use た.
- 飲んだ (のんだ – drank)
- 持った (もった – brought)
- 行った (いった – went)
For those of you unfamiliar with て-form, here’s a quick explanation of how to conjugate this form.
Group 2 verbs are (again) simpler than Group 1 verbs!
Take off the -ます stem (or the る) and add た.
- 食べた (たべた – ate)
- 出た (でた – exited)
- 着た (きた – wore)
Irregular conjugate into casual past tense the same way as Group 2 verbs. Simply remove the ます-stem and replace it with た.
- します⇒ した (did)
- 来ます⇒ きた (came)
Nouns and adjectives
Talking about nouns or adjectives in past tense is when だ comes into play.
Follow nouns or な-adjectives (the words that you would’ve followed with -でした in polite speech) with だった.
- Noun: 女だった (おんな だった – was a woman)
- な-adjective: 簡単だった (かんたん だった – was easy)
い-adjectives conjugate the same way that they do in neutral past tense, by dropping the い and replacing it with かった—simply lose the です!
- 暑かった (あつかった – was hot)
- すごかった (was fantastic)
- 怖かった (こわかった – was scary)
ない is an い-adjective, so use verbs in plain-negative past tense by ending with –なかった.
- 飲まなかった (のまなかった – did not drink)
- 食べなかった (たべなかった – did not eat)
- 会わなかった (あわなかった – did not meet)
3. Use ちゃう/ちゃった and じゃう/じゃった
These are sentence endings that Japanese learners find quite difficult to understand because it has no English equivalent—and to make matters worse, it’s used in several seemingly unrelated ways.
However, it’s very common among young Japanese, so it’s worth learning, even if (like me) you never have the courage to use it. Once you know it, you’ll probably start hearing it scattered through the speech quite often in movies, dorama and anime.
One of the things that makes Japanese grammar easier to learn than other languages is that there’s no future tense.
The present tense form of the verb is perfectly adequate, but if you want to add some color and strengthen the idea of something happening in the future, use てしまう or ちゃう/じゃう.
ちゃう and じゃう are the casual forms of てしまう (formal form: てしまいます), the verb to mean that something will happen, either “regrettably” or “with determination.”
You can use ちゃう/じゃう the same way you would てしまう: by conjugating the verb you are describing into て-form and adding ちゃう/じゃう.
So to say that you will hang out with someone you don’t really want to see, you would say あの人と遊んじゃう (あのひとと あそんじゃう), or to say that you will finish your homework with a sense of determination you would say 宿題を終わらせちゃう (しゅくだいを おわらせちゃう).
Turn this into past tense, and it takes on a different meaning entirely. The past tense conjugation of the verb, てしまった (formal form: てしまいました), indicates that something did happen and that the result was less than wonderful.
So, to end a sentence with ちゃった or じゃった indicates that the speaker is unhappy or disappointed with the result from whatever happened.
Alternatively, it could give a sense of something being finished, like in English we might say something is “over and done with.” So this sentence ending could indicate disappointment or relief—you can (hopefully) glean the meaning from the context.
Choosing between ちゃう/ちゃった and じゃう/じゃった
So, why are there two different pronunciations of the same sentence ending?
The pronunciation of this phrase depends on what consonant it follows—and now you understand why I’ve been too scared to use this one!
Use じゃう/じゃった if the casual form stem of the verb you are describing ends with:
Here’s an example of how this looks:
- 今晩読んじゃう。 (こんばん よんじゃう。) — “I am going to read tonight,” said with a sense of determination.
Use ちゃう/ちゃった following:
- Group 2 verbs
- Irregular verbs
- Any other Group 1 verb stem consonant
Here’s an example of how this looks:
- カキ食べちゃった．．． (かき たべちゃった．．．- I regret eating those oysters…)
- 明日、本当にしちゃう。 (あした、ほんとうに しちゃう。 – Tomorrow, I really will do it.)
- 急いじゃう。 (いそいじゃう。 – Unfortunately, I have to hurry.)
- ジムに行っちゃった。 (じむに いっちゃった。 – I went to the gym—said with a sense of “got that out of the way.”)
Now, shall we look at some easier Japanese informal language? It’s all usable stuff, I promise! がんばって！
4. Use 〜って
〜って is a very useful sound in casual speech. You can use it in place of the particle と before verbs such as 言う (いう – to say) and 思う (おもう – to think).
- メリーちゃんが寒かったって言った。 (めりーちゃんが さむかった っていった。 – Mary said it was cold.)
- 大学に行きたいって思う 。(だいがくに いきたい っておもう。 – I think I want to go to university.)
You can also use 〜って to end sentences in the place of the verbs そうです and と言っています to indicate that you heard something, or that somebody said something.
- メリーちゃんが寒かったって。 (めりーちゃんが さむかった って。 – Mary said it was cold.)
- テストは難しいって。 (てすとは むずかしい って。 – I heard that the test will be hard.)
5. Use なあ〜
なあ〜 is a funny little sentence-ender that you’ll probably start to notice everywhere. It seems to be used in just about any context, but most commonly as a slightly more pushy version of ね~ as in, “can you believe it?” or “don’t you agree?”
Women and girls should be mindful about using なあ〜 too often, as it can come across as a little rough or crude.
6. Drop particles
If you’re like me and never quite got the hang of when to use を versus が, you’ll love this aspect of informal Japanese. It’s quite common to drop some particles entirely! は, を and が can all be dropped from your sentences when speaking casually, and you’ll still make perfect sense.
Another particle that’s dropped in casual Japanese is the question particle か. Indicate that you’re asking a question in casual Japanese the same way you do in English: with a question mark, or with your intonation.
7. Drop い
When talking about doing something in the present tense in neutral Japanese you’d use しています. The dictionary conjugation of this would logically be している but in conversation it’s common to drop the い to shorten it to してる.
- 海に来てる。 (うみに きてる。 – We are at the beach.)
- 二人付き合ってる。 (ふたりつきあってる。 – Those two are going out.)
You can do this with all verbs to make them run off the tongue a little easier.
8. Try some gender-specific common phrases
Neutral Japanese is basically gender-neutral, but in casual speech there’s a little more freedom for men and women to color and characterize the way they speak. Japanese isn’t gender-specific to the same extent as many other languages. While trends do change quite rapidly, it’s helpful to keep in mind a few idiosyncrasies and turns of phrase that you’re currently more likely to hear from a man or woman’s mouth.
女言葉 (おんな ことば – “women’s words”)
While it isn’t necessary for anyone to use sentence-enders in casual Japanese, girls and women will sometimes end a sentence with わ or の—for example, そのドレス高いわ！ (そのどれす たかいわ！ – That dress is expensive!) or どこで会うの？ (どこで あうの？ – Where shall we meet?)—as well as the gender neutral ね and よ. There are many combinations of syllables that girls and women may use to end sentences including:
…you get the picture. There isn’t really any right or wrong way to use sentence-enders, just whatever rolls naturally! Your meaning should be clear from your intonation. Questions commonly end with either no sentence-ender, or with の or なの.
Women and girls sometimes refer to themselves as あたし rather than 私 (わたし), as it sounds a little more girlish and innocent. Women referring to themselves as 僕 (ぼく) is becoming more common, but still sounds quite tomboyish.
Women can refer to men as あんた in a casual setting, or very informally call “that person” あの人 (あのひと) or あの子 (あのこ). Women are beginning to use 君 (きみ – you) to refer to men more and more frequently. It’s also far more common for women to suffix others’ names with -ちゃん than it is for men, though men can use it for women (and some men) with whom they’re very close.
男言葉 (おとこ ことば – “men’s words”)
Masculine language is really just gender-neutral informal Japanese, as most of the gendered idiosyncrasies were started by girls and women in the Meiji era.
Japanese men speaking casually might end sentences with だ, よ, ね, んだ, a combination of these or none at all. ぞ, ぜ and だぜ are a little old-fashioned now, but I’ve heard them used by men to sound a bit more rough and manly. Men might end a question simply by intonation, or they can use:
Among friends or loved ones men might refer to themselves as 俺 (おれ) rather than the more boyish 僕 (ぼく), or to others as お前 (おまえ).
If this all seems like a lot to learn, there really is no need to worry. Many idiosyncrasies of informal Japanese are really less a matter of studying and memorizing than simply being aware of what is common and what it means.
If you simply speak the same Japanese as you would in neutral voice but shorten your sentence endings to dictionary form, that’s a great start! You’ll already sound warmer and friendlier to the people you know.
Now that you’re aware of these turns of phrase you’ll probably begin to notice them all over the place, and I hope that as you build your confidence you’ll begin to pepper your speech with these little mannerisms and really make spoken Japanese your own!
And One More Thing...
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