West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs

Personal Pronouns

By Josiah Lebowitz

As a note, until I get back on a more regular update schedule, I’m going to forget about each day’s assigned subject and just write about whatever I feel like.

When it comes to Japanese, you can learn a lot about a person by the way they refer to themselves. In English, if you want to talk about yourself you use the word "I" or "me". In Japanese, however, there's a number of different personal pronouns to choose from and, while they all translate to "I" or "me", all of them say something different about the speaker's personality.

I refer to myself as watashi, though I'm thinking of switching to boku.

watashi: Watashi is the sort of general all around good personal pronoun. It's plain but it's safe, simple, and polite no matter the situation.

watakushi: This is a very polite personal pronoun so you don't hear a lot of people using it regularly. Instead, it's mainly used when talking to someone of a much higher station than the speaker (since the speaker wants to be as polite to that person as possible). If someone did use it as their main personal pronoun, however, it would indicate that they're extremely polite and humble, or maybe a really big suck-up.

Young women often refer to themselves as atashi.

atashi: Atashi is considered the "cute" personal pronoun. As such, it's used primarily by girls and young women. While watashi is also commonly used among girls, many use atashi instead to make themselves sound more cute and girly. Males and tougher girls, however, never use it.

boku: Just like atashi is the famine personal pronoun, boku is the masculine one. It's a little tough, a little boyish, and not really polite. While it's primarily used by men of all ages, tomboys and girls who want to sound a bit tougher and more assertive then usual will also use boku. Though doing so is considered rather unladylike.

ore: This one is like a super version of boku. It's manly, it's rough, it's tough, and it's even a little rude. While ore is traditionally the "tough guy" personal pronoun, a lot of boys and young men use it these days in an attempt to sound more masculine and grown up. Though a lot of them will switch to a more polite personal pronoun (such as watashi) when talking to a teacher, boss, or other important person. Girls never use ore unless they're really tough (or at least want to sound that way) and don't care at all about proper manners.

Young children, and some older girls, tend to refer to themselves in the third person.

Third Person: In Japan, very young children often refer to themselves in the third person (perhaps because they haven't figured out personal pronouns yet). But they're not the only ones who do so. It's become popular for some girls and young women to refer to themselves in third person as well (usually using their first name). It's considered a very cute and somewhat childish thing to do which fits right in with Japan's obsession with cute things of all kinds (a subject for a future post) and their general image of childhood being the "ideal" age (as opposed to the US, which generally thinks of the ideal as as early to mid 20's). There's also a bit of a connotation of the speaker not wanting to grow up, since they haven't moved on to more "mature" forms of speech.

As you can see, the personal pronoun someone chooses can say a lot about them. In Japanes books and TV shows, I find it rather interesting to note how each character refers to him or herself and how that reflects on their general attitude and personality, as that subtext is completely lost in English


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