A Japanese woman paints kanji characters

Gender in Japanese: How It Works and Six Common Uses

One day at work, my British boss was chatting to one of our Japanese coworkers, when suddenly our coworker started laughing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but your Japanese is so girly.”

He looked completely shocked before he composed himself, laughed nervously and explained that indeed his Japanese teacher had been a woman.

What made his Japanese girly, exactly? Our coworker tried but couldn’t explain.

Gender in Japanese is more nuanced than in most languages. Though there’s officially no grammatical gender, depending on your gender, you are indeed restricted to certain words and phrases. 

Here’s an explanation of gender in Japanese and a list of six vocabulary and grammatical situations that are considered gendered.

Contents

How Does Gender Work in Japanese?

In Japanese, gender is expressed through various linguistic elements, including pronouns, honorifics and speech styles. Unlike many Western languages, Japanese does not have grammatical gender (like masculine or feminine nouns) but relies on social and cultural cues to convey gendered meaning. Here are the key ways gender works in Japanese:

  • Pronouns: Japanese has a variety of pronouns that are used differently depending on the speaker’s gender and the relationship between the speakers. For example, the pronoun わたし (watashi) can be used by both men and women, but women can also use あたし (atashi) or うち (uchi) in informal settings. Men can use ぼく (boku) or おれ (ore).
  • Honorifics: Japanese honorifics play a crucial role in expressing politeness and social hierarchy. There are specific honorifics that are often associated with gender. For instance, the honorific -さん (-san) is a neutral and commonly used form of address for both men and women. However, the honorifics -さま (-sama) and -くん (-kun) are sometimes associated more with men, while -ちゃん (-chan) is often used for children, pets, and close female friends.
  • Speech Styles: Japanese has different speech styles based on formality, and some of these styles are associated with gender. For example, the けいご (keigo, or polite language) used in business settings has different expressions for men and women. Additionally, women may use more polite language in casual situations than men.

Six Common Words and Phrases Where Gender Occurs in Japanese

1. “I” and “Me”

Masculine

Masculine language for “I” or “me” can differ depending on age and situation.

Men can say  (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 .

(おれ) is often used by men around their girlfriends or family.

Examples

  • 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.

Feminine

あたし is a shortened form of , considered to be cuter than its gender-neutral form.

Examples

  • 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.

Gender-neutral

Both men and women can say the formal (わたし), the very formal わたくし  or the informal option of simply saying one’s own name.

Examples

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!

2. “You”

Masculine

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.

However, お前 is often included in TV shows and video games, therefore it’s included in this article and worth knowing about.

Examples

お前!ちょっと待て! (おまえ!ちょっと まて!) — You! Wait there!

Feminine

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.

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.

Gender-neutral

For a gender-neutral option, you’ll want to use 貴方[/fluentu-tts](あなた), [fluentu-tts engine="standard" voice="Mizuki"]  (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. is rarely used in spoken speech—it only tends to appear in songs and comic books.

Examples

  • 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?

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?

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.

Masculine

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.

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.

Feminine

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.

Examples

待って (まってて!) — Wait, will you?

行って (いってて!) —  Go, go, go!

食べて (たべてて!) — Go ahead and eat!

Because adding an extra て adds emphasis to the command, males sometimes use it too.

Gender-neutral

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.

Examples

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.

4. “Don’t Do That!”

Masculine

In informal situations, men can alter this slightly. The formula is base form verb + な

Examples

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!

Feminine

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.

Examples

まだケーキ食べないで (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 (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 (ちょっと まってね。) — Wait a second, okay?

Gender-neutral

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

Examples

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.)

5. “Delicious!”

One of the first words you may have learned in Japanese is how to express your appreciation for many of Japan’s wonderful selections of food. Did you know there’s also a masculine way of saying it?

Masculine

Another simple word to learn: うまい!

Example

うまいよ! — Yummy!

Gender-neutral / Feminine

This one’s simple: 美味しい! (おいしい!)

Bonus point! The kanji for 美味しい means “beautiful flavor.”

Examples

  • Formal

これは美味しいですね。 (これは おいしいですね。) — This is delicious.

  • Informal

おいしいな — Delish!

6. “Let’s…”

Male / Informal

Men may shorten the “let’s…” form by using the formula:

Base form verb + ぞ

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.

Examples:

  • 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])

If you want to hear even more about how gender is used in Japanese, watch this informative video:

 

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.

Why not couple your studying with learning more informal Japanese for chatting with your friends and brushing up on your kanji? You can also use FluentU to study gendered language in context through the program’s video library.

がんばって。。。 ね! (Good luck!)

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