Pronouns in the Japanese language are used less frequently than they would be in many other languages, mainly because there is no grammatical requirement to explicitly mention the subject in a sentence. So, pronouns can seldom be translated from English to Japanese on a one-on-one basis.
Most of the Japanese pronouns are not pure: they have other meanings. In English the common pronouns have no other meaning: for example, "I", "you", and "they" have no use except as pronouns. But in Japanese the words used as pronouns have other meanings: for example, 私 means "private" or "personal"; 僕 means "manservant".
The words Japanese speakers use to refer to other people are part of the more encompassing system of Japanese honorifics and should be understood within that frame. The choice of pronoun will depend on the speaker's social status compared to the listener, the subject, and the objects of the statement.
The first person pronouns (e.g. watashi, 私) and second person pronouns (e.g. anata, 貴方) are used in formal situations. In many sentences, when an English speaker would use the pronouns "I" and "you", they are omitted in Japanese. Personal pronouns can be left out when it is clear who the speaker is talking about.
When it is required to state the topic of the sentence for clarity, the particle wa (は) is used, but it is not required when the topic can be inferred from context. Also, there are frequently used verbs that can indicate the subject of the sentence in certain circumstances: for example, kureru (くれる) means "give", but in the sense of "somebody gives something to me or somebody very close to me"; while ageru (あげる) also means "give", but in the sense of "someone gives something to someone (usually not me)". Sentences consisting of a single adjective (often those ending in -shii) are often assumed to have the speaker as the subject. For example, the adjective sabishii can represent a complete sentence meaning "I am lonely."
Thus, the first person pronoun is usually only used when the speaker wants to put a special stress on the fact that they are referring to themself, or if it is necessary to make it clear. In some situations it can be considered uncouth to refer to the listener (second person) by a pronoun. If it is required to state the second person explicitly, the listener's surname suffixed with -san or some other title (like "customer", "teacher", or "boss") is generally used.
Gender differences in spoken Japanese also bring about another challenge as men and women use different pronouns to refer to themselves. Social standing also determines how a person refers to themselves, as well as how a person refers to the person they are talking to.
List of Japanese pronouns[edit | edit source]
The following list is incomplete. There are numerous such pronoun forms that exist in Japanese, which vary by region, dialect, and so forth. This is a list of the most commonly used forms. "It" has no direct equivalent in Japanese.Note that Japanese doesn't generally inflect by case, so, e.g., I is equivalent to me but not myself.
|Romaji||Hiragana||Kanji||Level of speech||Gender||Notes|
- Me -
|watashi||わたし||私||formal, informal (Women)||both||Derived in the 18th century from the first person pronoun 私 (watakushi).
Most common first person pronoun, used by both genders in every occasion that requires politeness but it's used in more casual contexts by women.
厶 (archaic variant)
|very formal||both||The most formal polite version of I, me.
Used in extremely formal settings where high respect and politeness is required.
Originally was read as "し" using the kanji 厶 and was just used in its On'yomi form.
It had the same meaning as the modern chinese word, "Private" (opposite of 公, public), and still is when read in its old form, some words use it like 私費 (しひ) "Private money".
It appeared first to refer to indivuals (as shortened sense of "private individual") in the written style (as in Chinese) during the Muromachi period.
From the Edo period, the word changed to refer to one's personal things, to one's own thoughts to finally refer to oneself.
Eventually, it slowly replaced 我 (ware).
Possible compound of the pronoun 我 (わ, i, me) with the word 宅 (たくHousehold) and the "厶" (し Private) adjective to possibly mean "one's household".
While it's almost certain that the 'wa' in watakusi comes from 我 (wa; i,me), it was a term formerly considered humbling and initially used by women
||very formal||mostly males.||One of the oldest pronouns from old japanese, polite and rigid, very old fashioned.
It uses the same kanji as for Chinese "I, me", wo.
It used to be read as "Wa","A" and "Are", until the Heian period when it just became "Ware".
It comes from the ancient japanese pronoun 我 (WA, i,us) and the suffix れ (re, humbling)
It was the most common first person pronoun until the Edo period, where it was slowly phased out by "Watashi".
Today its use as first person pronoun in conversations is extremely rare, restricted to literal writing (古文) where it's the most common first person pronoun, old songs, quotes, poetry and fiction.
In fiction, characters using Ware are gods, kings and immortal beings of great importance and power.
The 吾 writing of "ware", although has the same meaning and reading, it's more archaic and literal, 我 is more common and is used instead.
There was distintion in the reading of 吾 and 我, in the ancient history, 我 corresponded to 'WA' while 吾 corresponded to 'A', both ancient pronouns that stopped being used in the Kamakura and Heian periods respectively, however, the 吾 kanji remained in use in the form of わが (wa-ga, my/our), and it seems that 吾 was most often paired with verbs and it established a personal connection with the verb (so to indicate something that afflicts the person), while 我 was used as well to indicate 'WA-GA', it was used with nouns only, and established a formal but still affectionate connection with the noun (so to indicate that the noun used with is something that the speaker is familiar with), this difference in usage, comes from the obsolete ancient japanese pronoun 'あが (A-GA, my), that could also mean 'I' as あ (吾) indicated that a person had an informal and personal connection with the noun verb, in expressions like あがきみ (my lord or 'my dear you').
The plural forms (我々、我等) are used normally.
|Wa-ga||わが||我が、吾が||Very formal and old fashioned, somewhat boastful.||Mostly males.||Means "my" or "our" .
It uses the reading of the Old Japanese first person pronoun "Wa" (I, me) and the "ga" particle that was the old possessive particle in old japanese.
It's comparable to the modern
”私の” or "私達の”.
Today used in speeches, short statements and formalities, however, since the expression is literary, the expression wa-ga is used only in fixed phrases and expressions with the most common examples being:
Expressions like 我が本 (my book) are not used unless it's in a fictional character that fits the role of a incantation or demon lord that uses the pronoun 我 (われ）instead of 私.
|Aga||あが||吾が||literary, formely humble and polite||both||It means "my", variant of "Wa-ga" , literal and archaic.
It indicated a personal and informal connection with the noun or verb the speaker refers to, it could also mean 'I'. It's the combination of the archaic first person pronoun from Old Japanese, "A、吾" (I, me) and the old japanese possessive particle, "Ga が" .
It went in disuse during the medieval era, where it was replaced by "Ware/Wa-ga" (我).
It's still used in literal style (古文), in expressions such as
|ore||おれ||俺||informal||exclusively males||Meaning "I, me", Almost exclusively used by men.
One of the oldest pronouns in japanese still being used.
Originally, like in Chinese,俺 was a second person pronoun, similar in use like 爾 (Namuti) that was similarly used to refer to lessers.
From the Kamakura period, 俺 started to be used as a first person pronoun in the west japan.
It was freely used by both genders with no class restriction until the Edo Period, when it started to fall from women's speech and became exclusive to men.
It can be seen as rude depending on the situation.
Establishes a sense of masculinity.
Used with peers or those younger or of lesser status, indicating one's own status.
Among close friends or family, its usage is a sign of familiarity rather than masculinity or superiority.
|Ore-sama||おれさま||俺様||very pompous and rude||pompous and arrogant males||It means "I, me".
It's a very pompous and arrogant first person pronoun, combining the masculine pronoun 俺 (I,me) and the polite suffix 様 (most respectable).
Literally it would mean "Most respectable me/ My magnificent self".
Its usage is restricted in fiction, where it's used by very arrogant, narcissistic and overly confident male characters.
The only time it's used in real life is as self-mocking joke.
Used intentionally it would be extremely unpolite and pompous.
|boku||ぼく||僕||informal and humble||males and rarely females (boyish)||Also meaning "I". Used in giving a sense of casual deference, uses the same kanji for servant (僕, shimobe), especially a male one, from a Sino-Japanese word.|
|washi||わし||儂,私||informal||old males||Western japanese dialect variant of "Watashi", commonly used in Kansai and Kyouto by the elderly.
Originally very common in the 18th century used by women to refer to their friends or in informal contexts.
Eventually it was used by both genders of Kansai.
It's becoming old fashioned, now it's commonly used in fictitious creations to stereotypically represent old male characters.
|atai||あたい||私||very informal||females||Kansai slang of あたし atashi.|
|atashi||あたし||私||informal||females||Often considered cute. Rarely used in written language, but common in conversation, especially among younger women.|
|atakushi||あたくし||私||formal||females||This pronoun is rare, and usually its use is in fiction by snobby/upperclass women.|
|uchi||うち||家||informal||mostly young girls||Means one's own. Often used in the Kansai and Kyūshū dialects. Uses the same kanji for house (家, uchi).|
|(own name)||informal||mostly children and young girls||Used by small children and young girls, considered cute.|
|oira||おいら||俺||informal||both||Slang version of "Ore". May give off sense of more country bumpkin.|
|ora||おら||俺||informal||both||Dialect in Kanto and further north. Gives off sense of country bumpkin. Used among children influenced by main characters in Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan.|
- You -
|anata||あなた||貴方, 貴男, 貴女||formal/informal||both||Literal translation of "you"
The kanji is rarely used. It is not used as much, since, when speaking to someone directly, the name of the addressee is better. When not knowing the name of the person or a stranger, it's better to omit pronouns.
Originally it meant "that direction, that place over there", from older 彼方(Kanata, that direction).
|Commonly used by women to address their husband or lover, in a way roughly equivalent to the English "dear".|
|anta||あんた||informal||both||Slang version of "anata". Slightly more rude and informal. Often expresses anger or contempt towards a person. Generally seen as rude or uneducated.|
|otaku||おたく||お宅, 御宅||formal, polite||both||Polite form of saying "your house", also used as a pronoun to address a person with slight sense of distance but polite. Otaku/Otakku/Otaki/Otakki turned into a slang referring to some type of Otaku/geek/obsessive hobbyist, as they often addressed each other as Otaku.|
|very informal, historically polite.||mainly males.||Extremely informal pronoun, almost exclusively used by men, normally used by higher social class or status to lesser peers. It's rough and sometimes degoratory, especially when used towards elders, teachers or in situations that require politeness and respect. Often used with おれ ore. In case of using it between close friends or a lover, it carries familiarity and closeness.
Historically it was a polite term to address others, it still carries its old meaning in shrines under the reading ごぜん or おんまえ. It literally means "the honorable one in front of me"
|Temae||てまえ||手前||rude and derogatory||mainly males.||Extremely informal and derogatory, unlike Omae, Temae is used to deliberately be rude and insulting to someone.
Historically it was a normal pronoun to address someone in a group. It literally means "The one in front of my hand".
|Temee||てめえ||rude and confrontational||mainly males||Temee, a version of temae that is more rude. Used when the speaker is very angry and carries a tone of hostility.|
|kisama||きさま||貴様||extremely hostile and rude.
Very polite and formal (formerly)
|mainly males.||Second person pronoun,"You".
It literally means "Most respectable and worthy of respect individual", it was comparable to a modern ”貴方様"
Historically, similar to Omae, before the Edo period (1600 CE-1850 CE) it was a very formal and polite pronoun to address superiors and nobles or individuals that required great respect and politeness.
It slowly devolved to a common pronoun to refer to others with respect, to a generic pronoun to finally a very disrespectful pronoun used nowadays just in fights and between enemies or to just insult.
The original meaning of the word has been twisted in ironizing and insulting the listener's honor and reputation, resulting in an extremely hostile and insulting pronoun.
|kimi||きみ||君||informal||both||Informal pronoun to address others of lower status, it carries familiarity and can also be affectionate; formerly very polite.
It's used in romantic songs or to love interests/proposals.
Rude when used with superiors, elders or strangers.
The kanji means lord (archaic) and it's the same kanji for the honorific -kun.
|kika||きか||貴下||informal, to a younger person||both||Informal you, used in older japanese to politely address a subordinate, now used by older men to younger subjects.
It literally means "the respectable one that is below (me)"
|on-sha||おんしゃ||御社||formal, used to the listener representing your company||both||It means "Respectable company" , used in business settings by a person addressing one's company in a polite manner.|
|ki-sha||きしゃ||貴社||formal, similar to "onsha"||both||It means "Most honorable company" that is used in more polite and formal settings to address another's company.|
- He / She -
|ano kata||あのかた||あの方||very formal||both||It means "That individual" (human being) in a honorific and polite manner.|
|ano hito||あのひと||あの人||formal/informal||both||Literally "that person".|
|yatsu||やつ||奴||informal||both||An informal way to address other males, sometimes it's derogatory.|
|koitsu||こいつ||此奴||very informal, implies contempt||both||Denotes a person or material nearby the speaker. Analogous to "this one".|
|soitsu||そいつ||其奴||very informal, implies contempt||both||Denotes a person or material nearby the listener. Analogous to "he/she", "it" or "this/that one".|
|aitsu||あいつ||彼奴||very informal, implies contempt||both||Denotes a person or (less frequently) material far from both the speaker and the listener. Analogous to "he/she" or "that one".|
- He -
|kare||かれ||彼||formal (neutral) and informal (boyfriend)||both||It's the literal translation of "He".
It can also mean boyfriend. Formerly 彼氏 kareshi was its equivalent but now always means boyfriend.
Kare in Old Japanese, was the demonstrative pronoun instead of あれ which was a first person pronoun.
- She -
|kanojo||かのじょ||彼女||formal (neutral) and informal (girlfriend)||both||Literal translation of "she".
It can also mean girlfriend.
- We -
|hei-sha||へいしゃ||弊社||formal and humble||both||Used when representing one's own company. From a Sino-Japanese word meaning "low company" or "humble company".|
|waga-sha||わがしゃ||我が社||Formal and polite, somewhat grand and old fashioned.||both||It means "my company", used by a CEO to give a speech in a formal and rigid tone.
It comes from the archaic Old Japanese first person pronoun, "Wa" (我、i, me) and the old japanese possessive particle, Ga（が）.
- They -
|kare-ra||かれら||彼等||common in spoken Japanese and writing||both||It means "They" in a informal tone.|
- Notable Others -
|Ware-Ware||われわれ||我々||Very Formal||mostly males||It uses the old japanese first person pronoun, "Ware".
It is used when speaking on behalf of a company or group. It's very old fashioned and rigid, used in extremely formal occasions.
It can be compared to an old fashioned version of "Watakushi".
|Ware-ra||われ・ら||我等 吾等||Very formal||Mostly males||It means "We", but in an old fashioned and formal tone. It can be used in formal business settings as alternative to watakushi.|
|Romaji||Hiragana||Kanji||Meaning||Level of speech||Gender||Notes|
- Archaic Pronouns -
|i, me||informal||both||First person pronoun from Proto-japanese and used in Old Japanese.
It was used until the Heian period, when it was replaced by Ware.
It's still used in literary style and fictional settings.
It may have come from the usage of 阿 in chinese, that was a prefix attached to people's names and things, to indicate familiarity and closeness.
After the Heian period, it was only used in the fossilized form of あが (my)
|i,me||informal||both||First person pronoun from Proto-japanese, long form of "A" (I,me).
It was used until the Heian period, when it was replaced by Ware.
Later it became a demonstrative pronoun (that) replacing Kare.
It's still used in literary style as pronoun and fictional settings.
Its fusion with 'WARE' may have depended on the pronuncation of the 'P to W row sound change', a phenomen in which the 'P' row of hiragana (today H) shifted pronuncation first to 'PH', then to 'B' then to 'W', this pronuncation change affected the vowels (even 'A') as they came to be pronounced different as well, like お became 'WO' until the 11th century, when the sound 'WO' dissapeared, and あれ became just 'WARE'
|formal||First person pronoun from Proto-japanese, short form of 我 (ware i,me).
In the Nara period was used as plural pronoun or sometimes reflexively. It was used until the Kamakura period, when it was replaced by the composed form of 'WARE' (i, me oneself).
It's still used in its fossilized form of "wa-ga" (My, our) in extremely formal settings.
It's still used as pronoun in literary style and fictional settings.
|Na||な||汝||you||informal||Archaic second person pronoun from proto-japanese, short form of nare (you, なれ)
It fell from use in Heian period.
Sometimes it was used as reflexive first person pronoun. See Onore 己
|you||informal||Archaic second person pronoun from proto-japanese, long form of na (you, な)
It fell from use in Heian period, replaced by nanji.
It had the same usage of お前 today.
|I||い||汝||you||informal and archaic.||males||Archaic second person pronoun from Old japanese, that was used to those lesser in social scale or age.
Short form of "Imashi".
Comparable to modern お前.
|mashi||まし||汝||you||informal||Archaic second person pronoun from Old japanese, that was used to those lesser in social scale or age.
|Imashi||いまし||汝||you||informal||males||Archaic second person pronoun, that was used to those lesser in social scale or age but it's slightly more polite.
Evolution of "i" (you) and "mashi" (you).
|Mimashi||みまし||汝||you||formal||both||Archaic second person pronoun, most formal and polite form of "I" (You) used in medieval era.
Comparable to 貴方 (you, formal).
|informal||both||Ancient slang of Proto-japanese おの (Myself, Oneself).
It was mainly used as second person pronoun to those equal or lesser.
It was used as insulting and rude pronoun to call others.
Rarely, it was used as reflexive and humble first person pronoun (see 己, onore)
It can use the plurazing 等 (-ra)
|asshi||あっし||私||I||informal||males||Slang form of Watashi (i,me) rarely used in regional dialects by artisans in Kansai.|
|sessha||せっしゃ||拙者||I||Polite and humble.||males||Humble first person pronoun, Used by samurais during the feudal ages. Its meaning is "Clumsy one".
Used nowadays in literal writing, and in fiction it stereotypically represents ninjas and samurai characters.
|waga-hai||わがはい||我が輩,吾輩||I,me||Formal, Arrogant||mostly males||Formal, archaic and highly pompous first person pronoun, it carries a tone of arrogance and egotistical.
Literally "my fellows; my class; my cohort".
Its most famous use is in the novel "I am a cat, 吾輩は猫である。" emphatizing a cat's own pride.
Similar to 俺様, but more archaic.
It comes from a classic chinese "We, us" pronoun that was adopted by japanese nobles and lords as a way to emphatize their social status over others.
|soregashi||それがし||某||I,me||humble and polite||both||Ancient first person pronoun, used by Samurai until the Edo period.
It means "Unknown person".
It was first humble and polite, but it became a rude pronoun.
|me, myself||humble and polite||both||Old first person pronoun, used by samurai.
It means "(Who's that) unknown person".
It was at first a humbling and polite first person pronoun, that over time became rough and rude and became archaic around the late 1800's.
|Warawa||わらわ||妾||I||humble||women||Ancient first person singular pronoun, used historically by women, wives and daughters of a Samurai.
It is humble and polite.
The kanji is the old female archaic kanji for "Child" and corresponds to "Concubine" today.
|yo||よ||余, 予||I||pompous and formal.||males||Archaic first-person singular pronoun, quite pompous and old fashioned. It was used by nobles and lords.
It first appeared as first person pronoun in the Heian Period, as equivalent to 吾 (ware) used regardless of status, gender or age.
It was used by nobles, scholars and high ranking samurai until the Meiji Period.
In fiction is used by kingly characters. Its modern use is quite limited, but can be used in the expression "余は満足じゃ(I am most pleased!)" as joke.
|chin||ちん||朕||I||Formal and royal.||males||Used only by the emperor, mostly before World War II.
The kanji comes from Chinese, that was adopted by the japanese emperor as his exclusive first person pronoun and was passed down as tradition until 1946.
|maro||まろ||麻呂麿||I, me||formal and old fashioned||Males||Extremely old and archaic first person pronoun, used from Heian period, as equivalent to 我 and 吾.
In old japanese, it was previously a title/name of prestige but it became a first person pronoun used by all sexes and social classes, but as of the Kamakura period, its usage among common people ceased and became a pronoun used among aristocratics and nobles.
It fell from use around the Edo period.
|Myself||Humble and polite||both||Reflexive pronoun from proto-japanese, used in the medieval era as polite and humble first person pronoun, but it became replaced by the composed form ONORE after the Heian period.|
|onore||おのれ||己||myself or you||humble (first person)
derogatory (Second person)
|males||Ancient reflexive first person pronoun, from old japanese "Ono" (myself) and "re" (demonstrative suffix) .
The kanji is from classic chinese "Ki", meaning "myself".
It is humble when used as a first person pronoun and hostile when used as a second person pronoun, even though the first person usage is nearly obsolete.
なむち (historical kana)
|you, often translated as "thou"||formal and old fashioned||both||Archaic and old fashioned, second person pronoun that fell out of use around the Heian period.
From Middle Chinese, "ŋgi" (You).
It means 'you' or translated most often as 'thou', as it's an extremely old second person pronoun.
Originally, it was a polite pronoun, due of the usage of 汝 (NA,OJ thou) and むち (muti, precious 貴)
The 爾 writing of nanji fell out of use first. it was read in old japanese as "na" な.
Spelled as なむち namuti in the most ancient texts and later as なむぢ namdi, later なんぢ nandzi to modern なんじ.
It's only used in literal writing and fictional works, or in historical works like man'yo'shu.
|onushi||おぬし||御主||you||males||Used by ninjas and samurais to talk to people of equal or lower rank. Literally means "honorable lord".|
|sonata||そなた||其方 (rarely used)||thou||informal and conscending||both||Originally a mesial deictic pronoun meaning "that side; that way; that direction"; used as a lightly respectful second person pronoun in medieval times, but now used when speaking to an inferior in a pompous and old-fashioned tone.|
|Ore||おれ||爾||you, SOB||rude and offensive||all||Old japanese second person pronoun, used from proto-japanese, possible usage of お (を, but is unknown what it originally meant) and れ suffix.
It was used as extremely rude and offensive pronoun, used similarily to 貴様 and てめえ today.
From the Kamakura period, however, it shifted as first person pronoun, possibly due of the semplification of おのれ (i, myself, you) or a chinese influence (as 俺 is still a pronoun although rare and dialectal in usage in Chinese), and became a first person pronoun in the muromachi period that was used by both men and women of all social classes, hovewer, during the Edo period, the usage of おれ among women ceased, possibly due of shifting to わたし/わし or あたし in the 17th century.
In some areas, it is still used as second person pronoun.