Japanese is famous for dropping pronouns. Once the topic or subject of a conversation is established, it is awkward to continually use the pronoun. And yet, ironically, there are tons of pronouns available for use—even more when considering dialects.
As mentioned above, you could, and in some cases should, avoid using pronouns altogether.
When the context is clear, drop the pronoun. When speaking to a superior, it is best to use the person’s name with an honorific such as さま sama or title such as 先生(せんせい) sensei.
But a few well-placed pronouns can enliven a conversation. Want to sound like a sixteenth-century samurai warrior? There are pronouns for that. Want to sound more masculine? No problem. Like a little girl? Sure.
General Notes on Pronouns
- When one says “I” in English no information is conveyed other than that it is first person singular. In Japanese, however, many pronouns also carry cultural or social status connotations.
- As long as the meaning is clear, Japanese usually omits the pronoun.
ka-ru san wa mise ni ikimashita.
Carl went to the store.
sokode, pan o kaimashita.
There, he purchased bread.
- Once the subject is clear, Carl, “he” is unnecessary in the second sentence even though it is required in English.
- Single words or short sentences usually drop the pronoun as it is assumed the speaker is referring to him or herself.
- Adding the suffix, たち tachi, to the first person pronoun, makes it plural: 私たち watashi tachi we; us.
- The suffix ら ra is a more informal version of たち tachi.
- While you can say 彼女たち kanojo tachi when the room is full of women or girls, the norm is to use 彼ら karera for mixed groups or situations when the gender makeup of the group is unknown.
How to NOT Use Pronouns
You can get by your entire life with only using 私 watashi for “I” and あなた anata for “you,” but not only would that be boring, in some situations it might actually be rude. あなた anata, for example, can, in some cases, be rude since it implies you are stating the listener is equal to or inferior to you. Saying 私 watashi too often can make one sound conceited.
Here are a few ways to get around this:
INSTEAD OF 私 watashi
- Point to yourself when referring to yourself
INSTEAD OF あなた anata
- Use the person’s name with さん san
- Use the person’s title: 先生 sensei (for teachers, doctors, pastors, and other teaching professions); 社長 shachō (for bosses or company presidents)
- そちら sochira literally means “there” and can be used to refer to your listeners
INSTEAD OF PLURAL PRONOUN
- Refer to everyone as みんな or みなさん
- In short, if you can avoid using a pronoun whether through context or substitute, do it.
Now, let’s look at actual pronouns!
+ Everyday Use Pronouns
- 私 watashi—I; me [formal or informal; gender-neutral]
- うち uchi—one’s own… [usually used with の to talk about one’s household: うちの犬 uchi no inu—my (our) dog]
- あなた anata—you [usually said to people on a similar or lower social status; often used by wives to address their husbands like “dear” or “sweetheart”]
- 君 kimi—you [informal; used among friends; the same kanji is used as the name suffix -kun. Often used with 僕 boku.]
- 彼女 kanojo—she; her [can also be used to mean “girlfriend.”]
- 彼 kare—he; him [can also be used to mean “boyfriend.” 彼氏 kareshi always means “boyfriend.”]
+ Formal Pronouns
- 私 watakushi—I; me [more formal then just watashi; uses the same kanji as watashi; gender-neutral]
- 我 ware—I; me [literary style]
- 我ら warera—we [literary style]
- 我が waga—my (or can be plural: our as in 我が社 wagasha—our company) [gender neutral]
- 我々 ware ware—we [formal; used when speaking on behalf of a company or group]
+ Pronouns for Women
あたし atashi—I [a shortened form of watashi used commonly by women]
+ Pronouns for Men
- 俺 ore—I [gives a sense of masculinity; can be rude in some situations]
- 僕 boku—I [used by males of all ages, but particularly with boys. Can be used when calling a boy whose name you don’t know: “hey, kid” or “hey, squirt.” The kanji 僕 shimobe means “servant”]
- 儂 washi—I [often used by older males]
+ Archaic Samurai Edo Period “the Fun” Pronouns
- あっし asshi—I; me [Edo period slang for 私 watashi]
- 拙者 sessha—I; me [used by males; samurai pronoun; the kanji means “clumsy person”]
- 我が輩 wagahai—I; me [used by males; has a nuance of arrogance; Natsume Soseki’s famous book, I am a Cat is called 吾輩は猫である wagahai wa neko de aru.]
- 某 soregashi—I; me [used by males; used by samurai as a first person pronoun, but literally means some unknown person]
- 余 yo—I [used by males] Say this after a good meal: 余は満足じゃ。 yo wa manzoku ja. I am satisfied.
- 己 onore—I; oneself [used by males; humble when used as first person pronoun, but hostile when used as a second person pronoun (see below)]
- 汝 nanji—you [used by males and females]
+ Pronouns for When Upset
- あんた anta—you [rude; a shortened version of あなた anata; used when angry]
- おまえ omae—you [can be rude or can show familiarity similar to 俺 ore. Often used by husbands when speaking to their wives]
- てめえ temee—you [rude; used when angry; used by males; also てまえ temae; kanji: 手前]
- きさま kisama—you [rude; historically, this was a formal pronoun the kanji, 貴様 meaning an honorable person]
- こいつ koitsu—him; her [informal; implies contempt; used to refer to someone nearby]
- あいつ aitsu—him; her [informal; implies contempt; used to refer to someone away from the speaker and listener.]
- おのれ onore—you [used by males; humble when used as first person pronoun, but hostile when used as a second person pronoun]
+ Less Common Pronouns
- おら ora—I [rural feel; used in anime or manga such as Crayon Shinchan and Dragon Ball characters]
- 我ら warera—we [informal; like たち tachi, ら ra is a pluralizing suffix that usually shows familiarity]
+ Plural Suffixes
- ～たち ~tachi [informal: 私たち watashi tachi—we; 君たち kimi tachi—you; can also be added to names、groups, or places: 青木さんたち aoki san tachi—the Aoki’s]
- ～ら ~ra [informal: 彼ら karera—they; あいつら aitsura—they; ]
- ～とも ~tomo [humble; changes to ~domo; わたくしども watakushi domo]
- ～かた ~kata [formal; changes to ~gata; あなたがた anata gata—you (plural; more formal than あなたたち anata tachi]
- あの人 ano hito—he; she [literally, that person; informal to formal]
- あの方 ano kata—he; she [literally, that person; formal / polite]
- あの子 ano ko—she [literally, that child, but usually refers to a girl or young woman]
- 我が社 waga sha—our company [used when representing one’s own company]