Did you know that there are more than 20 pronouns in Japanese? This article explains their meanings and differences in detail!
(If you prefer slides, you can check my Instagram posts)
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First, I introduce Japanese first-person pronouns (e.g. “I”). There are so many ways of saying “I” in Japanese, and each of them has a very different tone.
私 (わたし, “watashi”)
私 is the most general/common 1st person pronoun, esp. for women (but men use 私, too). It’s also used in writing/formal speech (e.g. essay, column, job interview). In a casual conversation, some girls pronounce it as あたし, and it sounds much more feminine/casual than わたし.
(cf.) There is a Japanese anime named “あたしンち (Atashin’chi)”, which is a casual way of saying 私の家(いえ), meaning “my home”
I study Japanese at university
うち (“ち” is accented) is a casual 1st person pronoun that is predominantly used by young girls (teens~early 20s). It sounds very casual, young and feminine, and is often used in the Kansai region.
It’s not my fault.
* ちゃうし means “じゃないし” in standard Japanese; see also Essential Grammar in Kansai Dialect (関西弁, Kansai ben)
(cf. 1) うち also refers to an in-group member (e.g. family, company, team)
うちの子 (こ) が迷惑(めいわく)かけてすみません
I’m sorry for my/our son/daughter causing trouble to you
(cf. 2) うち also means “one’s house”
Won’t you come to my house?
僕 (ぼく, “boku”)
僕 is one of the most common 1st person pronouns for men. Compared to 俺 (explained below), 僕 sounds more modest, reserved, polite, and a bit smart. In a formal situation (e.g. a job interview), most men use either 私 or 僕.
(cf) Very few women use 僕 (esp. in Anime/Manga to make a unique character). They are called “ボクっ娘（こ）(bokukko)”, and some people seem to have a fetish for them. In texts (e.g. manga), 僕 is often written in katakana (ボク) when it is used by girls.
I don’t know
(Bokukko): I like people like you.
俺 (おれ, “ore”)
俺 is one of the most common 1st person pronouns for men. Compared to 僕, it sounds more casual, masculine, and slightly coarse. Men often use 俺 in a casual conversation with their close friends.
俺は知 (し) らねえな
I don’t know.
自分 (じぶん, “jibun”)
自分 is a 1st person pronoun that sounds masculine, polite, and modest. In the Kansai region, however, it also means “you”, and in this case, it sounds casual and a bit coarse (therefore some people find it rude/overly friendly).
I didn’t say
(In the Kansai region)
Which uni are you in?
(cf.) As you may know, 自分 is more commonly used as “oneself”.
You said you’d do by yourself, didn’t you?
Originally, ワイ is an old-fashioned 1st-person pronoun used by old men in the Kansai region. On the internet, however, it is also used by young people very casually/humorously. Besides, according to some online articles, some teen girls have allegedly started to use it in real life recently, but this is not very common yet.
I won’t go
* 行かへん means 行かない in standard Japanese
(On the internet)
ワイ、大学 (だいがく) で友達 (ともだち)が出来(でき)ず辛(つら)い
I’m pretty sad ’cause I haven’t been able to make any friends at uni
(In a casual conversation among teen girls)
I wanna go, too!
Some young girls use their first name instead of a pronoun to refer to themselves. This sounds very young and casual, and some people have a negative impression of it (like selfish or acting cute). Therefore, it can sound a bit cringy if adults refer to themselves using their name.
I (Yumi) don’t wanna go.
Other 1st Person Pronouns
- 小生 (しょうせい, “shousei”) masculine, very humble
- 私め (わたくしめ, “watakushime”): masculine, overly humble (slavish)
- ワシ (“washi”): masculine, old-fashioned
- 俺様 (おれさま, “ore sama”): masculine, king-ish
- おいら/オラ (“oira/ora”): masculine and childish (e.g. オラ is often used by the anime character “Crayon Shin-Chan”)
- 拙者 (せっしゃ, “sessya”): used by Ninja
- まろ: used by anime characters in the ancient era
- 我輩 (わがはい, “wagahai”): masculine, old, bossy, pompous
* There’s a well-known and traditional Japanese book called “吾輩は猫である” (“I Am a Cat”), written by Soseki Natsume, a famous novelist who was portrayed on the former 1000 yen banknote. This book title is often mentioned to indicate how difficult it can be to translate the nuances of Japanese words into English (i.e. all the Japanese first-person pronouns explained so far end up being translated as “I” in English)
Incidentally, there is a funny story regarding Soseki Natsume; see “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” Could Mean “I love You” in Japanese
Next, I introduce Japanese second-person pronouns (“you”). However, note that all of them do not sound very friendly. In a casual conversation, therefore, it’s better to refer to someone by their (nick)name or simply omit the pronoun.
あなた is the most common 2nd-person pronoun. However, it can sound aloof/distant in a conversation.
(cf.) It is also used as “darling” to call one’s husband. In this case, it sounds very intimate.
Where are you?
Darling, the dinner is ready!
君 is another 2nd-person pronoun. It has a condescending/bossy tone, so it can sound very rude depending on whom you’re talking to.
What did you study at university?
Your talk is interesting.
お前 is a very casual 2nd-person pronoun that sounds aggressive, coarse, and masculine. Usually, it is used in the following situations:
- Among close male friends
“What are you gonna drink?”
- When you are angry/aggressive
(in this case, some women also use it)
“Hey you, I said stop it”
(cf) According to some online surveys, many girls feel really annoyed when their boyfriends call them “お前” because they find it condescending. Therefore, it’s safe not to use お前 especially in the following cases:
- if you are a woman (as its tone is masculine)
- if you refer to a woman
- if you refer to a man who is older than or not close to you
お主（おぬし, “onushi”）/そなた (“sonata”)/そち (“sochi”)
お主/そなた/そち are traditional Japanese 2-nd person pronouns. They have a condescending tone and are often used by high-ranking people in period dramas/animes.
I’ll let your wishes come true.
Lastly, I introduce third-person pronouns (e.g. “he”, “she”). As in 2nd person pronouns, all of them sound a bit aloof/distant in speech, so it’s better to refer to others by their (nick)name.
彼 (かれ, “kare”)/彼女 (かのじょ, “kanojo”)
彼/彼女 are 3rd-person pronouns that mean “he/she”. However, 彼女 is more commonly used as “girlfriend” (and 彼 or 彼氏 (かれし) means “boyfriend”)
彼 (かれ)は子供 (こども) だからねぇ: Well, he is childish, so…
My girlfriend is so cute.
あいつ is a 3rd-person pronoun that contains a coarse (and often hostile, but not always) tone.
あいつのせいで失敗 (しっぱい) した
I failed because of him/her
He/She is unbelievable!
誰かさん (だれかさん, “dareka-san”)
誰かさん literally means “Somebody-san”, and is used when you refer to someone “anonymously” in a sarcastic/ironic way.
Because “somebody-san” came late, we missed the train