The Champion’s Guide to Japanese Pronouns
Japanese is not a big fan of pronouns.
But we English speakers love ’em.
How can we bridge this linguistic gap?
The first step is to recognize that, in Japanese, pronouns are inferred from context rather than directly indicated.
Many beginning Japanese language learners get stuck on this concept.
Instead of progressing, their Japanese sounds repetitive, tiresome and amateur.
The first step to sounding more fluent in Japanese is learning how to cut out excess pronouns unless they’re absolutely necessary. And to do just that, we have an epic guide for you about Japanese pronouns!
The Champion’s Guide to Japanese Pronouns
Why Knowing Japanese Pronoun Usage Makes a Difference
Let’s take a look at the following personal introduction in English and Japanese in order to get a clearer idea of the differences between English and Japanese pronoun usage:
“Hi. My name is Kara. I’m from California. I love cake! What’s your name? Do you like cake too? OMG! Let’s be besties!”
Ignoring that this utterance foreshadows what will likely be a very annoying relationship, it is simple enough.
In Japanese, we’d have the following:
(はじめまして。わたしは からです。わたしは かりふぉるにあから きました。わたしは けーきが だいすきです！あなたの おなまえは なんですか？あなたも けーきが だいすきなの？わあ、わたしたちは しんゆうに なりましょう！)
Okay, so it’s not technically wrong, but it’s cringe-worthily unnatural. How to fix it? The simple solution is to cut all the pronouns.
(はじめまして。から です。かりふぉるにあから きました。けーき がだいすきです！おなまえは なんですか？けーき だいすきなの？わあ、しんゆうに なりましょう！)
Ahhh, that’s better. Really! The most natural way to express this is to take away all the pronouns. Japanese is a language heavily dependent on context. In the context of someone introducing him or herself, it’s obvious who they’re talking about.
In the context of asking a question, like お名前は何ですか？(おなまえは なんですか？- What’s your name?), it is equally obvious that one is speaking to the listener. Thus, amid the contextual nature of Japanese, in an utterance like the one above using 私 (わたし- I) and あなた (you) is in fact redundant. Additionally, although あなた certainly means “you,” it isn’t the type of “you” that can be used for everyone.
First, note that there are different types of “you.” There are in fact dozens of words that can be used just to say “you” (as well as “I,” for that matter), each one different from the others and implying very significant nuances about the relationships between the speaker, who’s being spoken about and whoever the listeners may be.
Yes, such is the minefield of pronouns in Japanese. If you’re asking yourself, “Well then when should I use them? And what type of ‘you’ is the ‘you’ that I can use?” Fret not! It’s next on the menu in this handy guide, which will set you straight on pronoun use.
Know though, that this guide is meant to be general, but not comprehensive. This is because depending on the region of Japan, local dialects will sometimes contain special words only used in said region. Depending on the age, sex and gender identity of the speaker, the usage of the pronouns I’ll introduce may fluctuate.
Additionally, there are even more pronouns in archaic Japanese, which are now not commonly used, but may be used by speakers to add an effect of “old-timey samurai-ness” to speech. For learners of standard, modern Japanese, this list covers 90% of what you need to know, setting you up to better understand the nuanced use of pronouns and use them like a pro.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. I: One’s Own Name – 私 (わたし ・ わたくし ・ あたし), 僕 (ぼく), 俺 (おれ)
Here’s a general rule for saying “I” in Japanese: If it is clear that you are talking about yourself, don’t use 私, or any of the other forms about to be introduced. This is because of the “redundancy” issue introduced in the opening of this post.
私（わたし ・ わたくし ・ あたし）
私 is the standard. If you’re ever in doubt of which word you should use for “I,” fall back on 私. Interestingly, the character 私 actually has three readings. These are わたし, the standard “I”; わたくし, the formal “I” and あたし, which is the female “I.” わたくし, the formal “I,” is used by either sex when addressing a crowd or someone significantly superior to yourself, such as a boss or a customer. あたし has a tone of femininity, and is generally only used by women, but will sometimes be used by homosexual men as well.
僕 is interesting due to its broad range of use. Primarily, 僕 is the “I” used by young children. Typically it is used by boys of elementary to junior high school age. In fact, since young developing children can tend to be self-centered, very young boys have a tendency to emphasize their presence, beginning many sentences with a redundant “僕は…” This leads many parents to tease their children by pretending that the child’s name is “僕,” thus becoming a synonym for “you.”
“I” Pronoun usage example
伯父さんがおいに対して (おじさんが おいに たいして)：僕は元気？(ぼくは げんき？)
(An uncle to his nephew: How ya doing (sport/champ/tiger)?)
Additionally, 僕 is used by men to express humbleness when addressing a large crowd, or in slightly more formal scenarios. It isn’t all too uncommon to see a politician, an academic scholar or a business CEO refer to themselves as 僕.
When speaking to a teacher in or outside of class, male readers of this post could refer to themselves as 僕 and it would be perfectly natural—but female readers steer clear!
俺 is the tough dude’s “I.” High school punks, body builders, yakuza, policemen…these are a few of the mouths from which you’ll commonly hear an 俺. To be fair though, it’s not exclusively a “tough guy” word. In informal situations between people of more or less similar social status, nearly all men will refer to themselves as 俺.
Yet in these contexts as well it retains a bit of a gruff nuance. If you use 俺 with an お婆ちゃん (おばあちゃん – a “grandmother” or “old lady”) from down the street, you may induce a furrowed brow or two. Interestingly, females who identify as being more masculine will also tend to use 俺 when referring to themselves, securing their gender identity toward the masculine side.
Using one’s own name in place of “I”
(ななも あいす たべたい！)
(I want an ice cream too!) [Spoken by a girl named “nana”]
Yes, this is effectively referring yourself in the third person. Though this may carry some contextual baggage in English, it’s actually a fairly common way for Japanese women to refer to themselves. The practice of referring to oneself in the third person in Japanese does carry with it a nuance of juvenility and immaturity, as young Japanese girls almost exclusively refer to themselves this way. However, some women continue to refer to themselves in the third person well into their 20s or 30s, either out of habit or to emphasize an aura of 可愛さ (かわいさ, cuteness) about them.
2. You: Person’s Name – あなた, 君 (きみ), お前 (おまえ)
Similar to the general rule about the use of “I,” if it’s clear from context that you are talking about the person you are talking to, it’s more common to omit the word “you” altogether.
By and far, it’s most common to refer to other people by their own name. Even if they are close friends, the most natural word for “you” in Japanese is just the person’s name (either their family name in formal situations, or their given name in informal situations), followed by either さん (for superiors/equals), 君 (くん – for young boys and subordinates), or ちゃん (for young girls and people you are pretty close with, i.e. friends/family members).
Example of name usage for “you”
(りゅうちゃんも おおさかに いくの？)
(Are you going to Osaka too?) [“you” being a person named りゅう]
(あら？あの れぽーとは せんしゅう、たかしさんに あげましたよ！)
(What? I gave you that report last week!) [“you” being a person named たかし]
君 is used for people of lower social status, most generally children. The use of 君 implies that the person who said it is “above” the person they are referring to. Depending on the context, this could be inferred as arrogance, so don’t start tossing 君s around willy-nilly. At first, only refer to little kids as 君 to be safe, and test out its use as you go.
Quite literally meaning “that which is in front of me,” お前 can ruffle some feathers if used improperly; depending on context it can be very impolite—in fact downright offensive. お前 implies much more overtly that the user is of superior status than the person it’s referring to. It’s typically what coaches will say when talking to their players, or what a 先輩 (せんぱい – “senior students” or “senior workers”) will call their 後輩 (こうはい- “junior students” or “junior workers”). In these contexts it isn’t meant to be offensive, but rather affirms the superior status of the user.
Example of お前 usage
(Coach: Do you want to win? If you want to win, you have to practice hard!)
However, お前 is also often used between men of similar age/status to express camaraderie and closeness. In this context, it’s in fact intended to be somewhat friendly.
(らいしゅうまつ、いそがしい？することなければ、おまえの いえに いって まりおをしようよ!)
(You busy next weekend? If not, let’s go to your house and play Mario!)
Still, many men will use お前 when talking to someone they genuinely dislike, and in such contexts it directly conveys their distaste.
(おまえみたいな やつなんて、かねをはらっても いっしょにのみに いかない！)
(A guy like you, I wouldn’t go out for a drink with you even if you paid me!)
3. He/She: Person’s Name – 彼/彼女 (かれ/かのじょ), あの子 (あのこ), こいつ ・ そいつ ・ あいつ
Similarly with the third person pronouns, if it’s clear who you are talking about, there is no need to constantly say “he/she” in Japanese.
Like “you,” it is most common to refer to someone in the third person by their name. It may feel weird to constantly say a person’s name over and over, but it really is the most natural way.
If you’re not using the person’s name to refer to them as “he/she,” you can instead use 彼 or 彼女, which mean “he” and “she,” respectively. Thankfully, there is no “alternate context” here, they are more or less exactly the same as the English “he” and “she.”
こいつ ・ そいつ ・ あいつ
These three words all can mean “he” or “she,” depending on if you are talking about a man or a woman, but carry a twinge of disrespect along with them. They are combinations of これ ・ それ ・ あれ (this/that/that thing over there) with the word for “guy” or “dude,” which is 奴 (やつ). Thus, こいつ ・ そいつ ・ あいつ respectively mean “this guy,” “that guy” and “that guy over there.” Similar to お前, こいつ can be playful and friendly if said jokingly, or in-your-face threatening if said in seriousness.
Example of “he/she” pronoun usage
(Hajime: OMG! I won the lottery!)
(しょうじ：なに、こいつ！すごい らっきー じゃん！)
(Shouji: What is it with this guy (him)! How lucky!)
Second example of “he/she” pronoun usage
(Kimiko: Apparently Rina is coming tomorrow too.)
(Kanako: Aahhh, she (that chick) is so annoying. I don’t want to see her.)
4. We: 〜達 (たち), 我々 (われわれ)
“We” is pretty simple. Though there are more forms than the two listed here, these two represent the vast majority of “we”s.
Add 達 to any of the first person pronouns, and boom, you’ve got yourself a “we.” The characteristics of the first person pronoun still hold, but instead refer to the speaker and the group with which he or she is identifying.
Examples of 〜達 usage
(わたしたちは はちみつがない せかいに いきたくない！)
(We don’t want to live in a world without honey!)
(おれたちは はちみつさんぎょうをきょうあつてきに しはいするんだぜ！)
(We will dominate the honey industry with an iron fist!) [“we” with a tough, “manly” nuance]
我々 also means “we,” but is used in a more formal context, possibly when giving a speech to a crowd, writing a business document or something of this sort.
(われわれ にほんじんは ちからをあわせ、はちみつぎょうかいを しはいしているひとびとの よくあつと たたかわなければなりません！)
(We Japanese must combine our strength to fight the oppression of those who control the honey industry!)
5. They: 〜達 (たち) ・ ら、彼ら (かれら)
“They” is also pretty straightforward, and its formation is similar to that of “we.”
〜達 (たち) ・ ら
Add 達 or ら to any third person pronoun, and “they” is born. Similar to when adding 達 to a first person pronoun to create “we,” any nuance carried by the third person singular pronoun will be carried into the newly formed “they.” There is a slight difference in the nuance between adding 達 or ら, but it’s not one you need to pay much attention to; 99% of the time they are interchangeable.
Examples of 〜達 ・ ら usage
(まいけるたちは きゅうりの あれるぎーが あるでしょう？)
(They [meaning “Michael + his unnamed associate”] are allergic to cucumbers, no?)
(あいつらは、そういうことに こまかすぎると おもう。ちょっとだけだったら、きゅうりをたべられるんだろう。)
(They’re so particular about things like that. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to eat just a bit of cucumber.)
彼ら, like the singular 彼, is a general “they,” and carries no nuance behind it. Use it unfettered!
Phew! That’s a lot of pronouns, but if you remember these and their usages, you’ll always have the right word when referring to other people. Be sure to keep your ears open, too!