The personal pronoun for the self in Japanese

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The word “I” in English is about the only word we use for ourselves. The only variations are those demanded by grammar, i.e. me or myself.

But referring to yourself in Japanese can be done a whole host of ways: watashi, watakushi, atashi, boku, ore, kochira, sessha, to name a few, and the variations are in no case demanded by grammar, but solely by social situation.

You’ll find “watashi” the most in the textbooks, because that has come to be the standard translation of the English “I,” but it is by no means the word you will usually hear in everyday life.

Watashi is considered a “polite neutral” of “I,” for use with people you have no strong social connection with, unless, generally, you are a woman, when you will use it with friends.

watakushi is a more polite form, and is reserved for formal occasions.

atashi is a cutesy form of watashi, given its childish charm by the loss of the initial w.

boku is the standard form of “I” for males who know each other on what we would call a “first name basis” (although, the same as in English speaking countries up until a couple of generations ago, use of the surname among men is the rule).

ore is a rough and ready expression of “I” that is typically used by sportsmen at one end of the scale, and yakuza at the other end.

Yet, perhaps the most common word of all that you will hear in Japanese expressing the concept of “I” is … precisely nothing! Japanese sentences do not require a personal pronoun if it is clear by the context who is involved.

This happens in English, too, but not to the same degree, as in mother on the phone to daughter Yoko:
Mother: Yoko, where are you?
Yoko: Here.
Mother: No, where are you?
Yoko: At Taro’s place.

Yoko means “I am here” and “I am at Taro’s place,” and we get that no problem. But let’s continue the conversation and see what happens as it would be said in Japanese.

Mother: Said “Don’t go,” no?
Yoko: Big girl now, can go if want.
Mother: Don’t use that tone of voice.
Yoko: What gonna do about it?
Mother: At dinner time tonight will find out.

It is clear even without “I” and “you” who is talking about whom, and in fact to insert the pronoun English-style into every sentence spoken in Japanese would make it sound as unnatural as the above snippet of telephone conversation does in English.

The abbreviation of personal pronouns in Japanese is in keeping with what to an English speaker are other “abbreviations,” such as the lack of an equivalent to “a” or “the” and the virtual lack of the plural form which, again, is usually left to the listener to figure out from context.

There is a lot of philosophizing about the significance of the scarcity of personal pronoun use in Japanese, not least by the Japanese themselves, as attesting to a unique sense of community in which the individual is subsumed, but at least Korean is similar, as is Bahasa Melayu.


Like this blog? Sign up for the JapanVisitor newsletter

Books on Tokyo Japan