My boss was chatting to one of our Japanese coworkers, when suddenly our coworker started laughing.
“I’m sorry,” she spluttered. “But your Japanese is so girly.”
I had to smother a laugh. My boss is a heavyset, six-foot-two British man, and seeing him be called girly was hilarious. He looked completely taken aback before he composed himself, laughed nervously and explained that his Japanese teacher had been a woman.
What made his Japanese girly, exactly? Our coworker was kind enough (or perhaps blunt enough) to point out his feminine language, but most people probably wouldn’t have said anything, and my boss could have floated through life sounding like a schoolgirl without even knowing it.
What kind of Japanese language is “restricted” to males and females? Here’s a list of vocabulary and grammar that’s considered to belong to a certain gender, and whether it’s appropriate to use in formal or informal situations.
6 Times When Male and Female Gendered Language Is Used in Japanese
1. “I” and “Me”
Both men and women can say the formal 私 (わたし), the very formal わたくし or the informal option of simply saying one’s own name.
- In a job interview:
「わたくしの趣味は絵を描くことです。」(わたくしのしゅみは えを かくことです。) – “My hobby is drawing pictures.”
- To a stranger:
「私はツナサンドイッチを注文しました。」(わたしは つなさんどいっちを ちゅうもんしました。) – “I ordered the tuna sandwich.”
- Around family or friends:
「寿司好きなの？なつこも！」(すしすきなの？なつこも！) – “You like sushi? So do I!”
Male language for “I” or “me” can differ depending on age and situation.
Men can say 僕 (ぼく) with their friends, when they’re younger or when they’re of lower social ranking than those around them—though if it’s a formal situation, they’ll most likely stick with 私.
俺 (おれ) is often used by men around their girlfriends or family.
- Around friends:
「僕のせいだ。ごめんね。」(ぼくのせいだ。ごめんね。) – “Sorry, that’s my fault.”
- Around family:
「俺は犬の方が好き。」(おれはいぬのほうがすき。) – “I like dogs better.”
あたし is a shortened form of 私, considered to be cuter than its gender-neutral form.
- Two friends talking to each other:
「カラオケ行きたい！」(からおけいきたい！) – “I want to go to karaoke!”
「あたしも！」- “Me too!”
There are many more archaic “I” words in Japanese, but the ones above are most commonly used nowadays in everyday speech.
For a gender-neutral option, you’ll want to use 貴方 (あなた), 君 (きみ) or the person’s name.
“You” is tricky because, gender aside, different words can suggest different meanings. 貴方 is generally used with one’s husband, but never with a stranger. 君 is rarely used in spoken speech—it only tends to appear in songs and comic books.
- From a wife to her husband:
「貴方、仕事はもう終わったの？」(あなた、しごとは もう おわったの？) – “Did you finish work?”
- Here’s a variation on the above example, where the wife is using her husband’s name, Keisuke, as the subject:
「けいすけ、仕事はもう終わったの？」(けいすけ、しごとは もう おわったの？) – “Did you finish work?”
- This next example is a line taken from the song “1000 Words” by Koda Kumi:
「君の言葉は夢の優しさかな？」(きみの ことばは ゆめの やさしさ かな？) – “I wonder if your words were just the whispers in a soft dream?”
Men can sometimes say お前 (おまえ) which literally means “to the one in front of me.” It’s never used by women, and it’s usually considered rude. You’re probably better off sticking with gender-neutral options.
「お前！ちょっと待て！」(おまえ！ちょっと まて！) – “You! Wait there!”
Sorry, ladies, but there’s no women-only vocabulary for “you.” Here are some extra words, however, for when the speaker doesn’t know the name of the person they’re talking to. They’re considered polite to use with people on your own social level, shopkeepers and so on, but these words are not formal.
- お嬢ちゃん (おじょうちゃん) used for little girls
- お坊ちゃん (おぼっちゃん) used for little boys
- お姉さん (おねえさん) directed at young adult women
- お兄さん (おにいさん) directed at young adult men
- おばさん or お母さん (おかあさん) for a middle-aged woman
- おじさん or お父さん (おとうさん) for a middle-aged man
- お爺さん (おじいさん) or お爺ちゃん (おじいちゃん) for an elderly man
- お婆さん (おばあさん) or お婆ちゃん (おばあちゃん) for an elderly woman
The good news is that, if you get stuck and you’re not sure which subject to use, you can omit the subject completely and the sentence will still make sense. It’s one of the wonderful things about Japanese grammar.
To get someone’s attention or in certain situations, however, it’s much better to use the appropriate subject.
3. “Please Do This”
When using the imperative form (command form), there are both gender-neutral and gendered ways of asking someone to do something.
The formula for creating gender-neutral commands is simple:
Base form verb + て or で (+ ください to be more polite).
ください is usually used in formal sentences.
「これを見てください。」(これをみてください。) – “Look at this, please.”
「ご注意ください。」(ごちゅういください。) – “Please be careful.”
「頑張って。」(がんばって。) – “Do your best.”
「早く勉強して。」(はやくべんきょうして。) – “Hurry up and study.”
An option for males is to take the standard imperative form described above and add「な」or「ろ」at the end. Here are some examples.
「寝てな。」(ねてな。) or「寝てろ。」(ねてろ。) – “Go to sleep.”
「これを見てな。」(これをみてな。) or 「これを見てろ。」(これをみてろ。) – “Look at this.”
「ごはんを食べてな。」(ごはんをたべてな。) or 「ごはんを食べてろ。」(ごはんをたべてろ。) – “Eat your rice.”
Note: In general, 「な」 tends to represent a more neutral version of 「ね」, but it (usually) has the same connotation.
A way to use the imperative form in a way that’s feminine (but not restricted to females) is to sometimes add an extra 「て」 at the end of the standard imperative form. This makes it stronger.
「待ってて！」(まってて！) – “Wait, will you?”
「行ってて！」(いってて！) – “Go, go, go!”
「食べてて！」(たべてて！) – “Go ahead and eat!”
Because adding an extra 「て」 adds emphasis to the command, males sometimes use it too.
4. “Don’t Do That!”
The standard way of taking the imperative form and turning it into the negative is with this formula:
Base form verb – る/す/く (where applicable) + ないで
食べる (たべる) → 食べて！ (たべて！) → 食べないで (たべないで) (eat → eat! (imperative) → don’t eat.)
行く (いく) → 行って！ (いって！) → 行かないで (いかないで) (go → go! (imperative) → don’t go.)
言う (いう) → 言って！ (いって！) → 言わないで (いわないで) (say → say it! (imperative) → don’t say it.)
する → して！→ しないで (do → do it! (imperative) → don’t do it.)
In informal situations, men can alter this slightly. The formula is base form verb + な
「すぐ行くよ。心配するな。」(すぐ いくよ。しんぱいするな。) – “I’m going now. Don’t worry.”
「走って！止まるな！」(はしって！とまるな！) – “Run! Don’t stop!”
Though not strictly female-only, it’s considered gentle, and therefore a little feminine, to add 「ね」 at the end of a (gender-neutral) negative imperative form. 「ね」 is often added when speaking to children or to one’s boyfriend or girlfriend.
「ね」 can also be added onto the positive imperative form, such as 走って (はしって – run), 叫んで (さけんで – shout) and so on.
「まだケーキ食べないでね。」(まだ けーき たべないでね。) – “Don’t eat the cake yet, okay?”
「危ないから走らないでね！」(あぶないから はしらないでね！) – “It’s dangerous, so don’t run!”
「ちょっと待ってね。」(ちょっと まってね。) – “Wait a second, okay?”
Gender-neutral / Female
This one’s simple: 美味しい！（おいしい！）
Bonus point! The kanji for 美味しい means “beautiful flavor.”
「これは美味しいですね。」(これは おいしいですね。) – “This is delicious.”
Another simple word to learn: うまい！
Gender-neutral / Formal
The standard way of saying “let’s (do something)” is by changing the end of the verb:
Base form verb + ましょう。
Informal is slightly different. ましょう becomes よう/こう/もう depending on the last letter of the verb’s base form.
- Base form → formal → informal
食べる (たべる) → 食べましょう (たべましょう) → 食べよう (たべよう) (to eat → let’s eat → let’s eat)
飲む (のむ) → 飲みましょう (のみましょう) → 飲もう (のもう) (to drink → let’s drink → let’s drink)
行く (いく) → 行きましょう (いきましょう) → 行こう (いこう) (to go → let’s go → let’s go)
する → しましょう → しよう (do → let’s do [something] → let’s do [something])
Male / Informal
Men may shorten the “let’s…” form by using the formula:
Base form verb +「ぞ」
- 行こう (いこう) → 行くぞ (いくぞ)
- 飲もう (のもう) → 飲むぞ (のむぞ)
- 行こう (いこう) → 行くぞ (いくぞ)
- する → するぞ
Using gendered language has its time and place, but especially if you’re male, using it can bring you closer to sounding like a native.
The best of luck to you, and がんばって。。。 ね！
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