Learning the different ways that pronouns are used will help you to get a better understanding of the Japanese and pick up on jokes and nuance you wouldn’t have understood before.
Don’t worry about learning them all at once: practice the most common ones first and the rest you can pick up as you encounter them.
Most Commonly Used I in Japanese: Polite And Normal
Let’s take a look at the most common forms of the pronoun “I” in Japanese: 私 (わたし), 私 (わたくし), 僕 (ぼく), 私 (あたし), 自分 (じぶん), 俺 (おれ). There are dozens upon dozens of words for “I” in Japanese, depending on who you are talking to and what the situation is. The use of the first pronoun “I” vary between gender, age, formality, and even regional dialect.
1. 私 (わたし):
This is the most common and relatively gender-neutral version of “I” and is perfectly acceptable for you to use in almost any situation. This will likely be the first pronoun you learn in your textbook or language class. As a new learner of Japanese, no native speakers will expect you to use a gendered or casual first person pronoun, so don’t feel pressured to mimic your language partners’ personal pronoun use until you feel comfortable with the nuance of the words. However, it is important to note that the use of わたし in casual contexts is usually seen as feminine or sometimes a little too polite. You may consider using ぼく if you identify as masculine.
2. 私 (わたくし):
This is slightly more formal than わたし and is often used in a business context. わたくし is also gender-neutral. Unless you are making a speech in front of a large group of people or you’re using Japanese for business purposes, you don’t need to stress about using this pronoun.
3. 僕 (ぼく):
This is a slightly more casual and masculine form of わたし. ぼく is the most common masculine personal pronoun and can be used by men at any age, though it is most frequently heard by boys. While ぼく is certainly more casual than わたし, it can be safely used in slightly more polite contexts, such as when speaking in front of a teacher or among coworkers at work. However, certainly try to avoid using it in front of superiors at work. You may also occasionally hear girls using the personal pronoun ぼく, but this gives off a sort of tomboyish, anime-lover vibe.
4. 私 (あたし):
This is a more casual and feminine form of わたし. It sounds sweet, cute, and girlish. Primarily used by women, you may occasionally hear a man using it to convey a feminine gender identity and/or queer sexuality.
5. 内・家 (うち):
This personal pronoun is more commonly used by young women, but can be heard from young men as well. It can be used by a person of any gender to mean “we” or “our” as in one’s in-group, whether that is a household, a company, etc. For example, うちの犬 (our dog / the family dog). This pronoun used to be more commonly heard in the Kansai Region but is now much more widespread.
6. 自分 (じぶん):
This is a casual personal pronoun that can be used as a first-person or second-person pronoun depending on the region. Most of the time, it is used as a first-person pronoun that creates a slight sense of distance between the speaker and the listener. It was also originally used by Japanese soldiers to refer to themselves and has gained some popularity amongst members of sports clubs, police, firefighters, etc. It can also be used as a second person pronoun for “you” in the Kansai Region, so don’t be confused if someone asks a question about じぶん – they’re probably asking you about you, not themselves!
As you can see, there is a lot of nuance around gender identity and social standing with many of these pronouns. Suddenly going from using a casual pronoun to a slightly more formal one can change how your conversation partners think you’re viewing them and your relationship to them. This clip from the 2016 body-switch film 君の名は(Your Name) provides a glance at how a sudden change in personal pronoun use can cause major confusion among friends!
I in Japanese: The Casual Forms You May Have Encountered in Anime and Drama
7. 俺 (おれ):
おれ is a casual way of saying I in Japanese. Warning: Don’t try this one at home! This very casual, very masculine personal pronoun is commonly heard among boys in school showing off in front of their friends or from anime protagonists. But, you might protest, I heard plenty of male university students using it when I studied abroad in Japan!
While the pronoun おれ is not as uncommon as it is made out to be by your textbook, it can take a long time for a learner of Japanese to figure out which context it’s appropriate in and how to make the rest of the sentence match its casual, masculine nature. It’s best to observe and implement on your own when you really feel you understand when and how to use it. Until then, go for ぼく.
8. 儂 (わし):
You may have heard old male characters in anime using わし instead of わたし. This is commonly used by older men when speaking to a younger conversation partner.
I in Japanese: Professional Situations
You are far less likely to encounter the following pronouns unless you’re working for a Japanese company and interact with a lot of business e-mails, texts, and situations. It’s worth mentioning that someone whose profession may confer them the use of one of these pronouns is not going to go home to their family at the end of the day and refer to themselves as しょうしょく. The use of these pronouns exists entirely within a professional context.
9. 小職（しょうしょく) :
This first person pronoun is primarily used by low-level government workers. As you can surmise from the use of the kanji character for small (小), this pronoun has a very humble connotation.
A very formal pronoun used to represent the “we” of the company or in-group. Literally, the kanji means “this side.”
11. 本職 (ほんしょく) :
Some professionals such as lawyers or public officials may use this pronoun to refer to themselves.
12. 先生（せんせい）Sensei :
Yes, Sensei is a noun meaning teacher or doctor, but can also be used as a personal pronoun by a teacher to his or her own students or by a doctor to his or her own patients. This is not especially common, however.
13. 作者 (さくしゃ) :
This noun meaning “author” can become a personal pronoun to refer to oneself as an author in the context of an interview or commentary following one’s written literary work.
14. 編集子 (へんしゅうし) :
This can be used as a pronoun for a member of the editorial staff on a publication.
15. 筆者 (ひっしゃ) :
This can be used as a personal pronoun when the author of writing refers to themselves within that writing. This is different from さくしゃ in that ひっしゃ does not refer to being the author of a creative “work,” be it a play, novel, or personal essay.
Old Fashioned I in Japanese
The following pronouns will primarily be read in fiction or heard in period pieces, as they are old-fashioned and no longer used in everyday conversation.
The most famous use of this pronoun is in the title of Natsume Soseki’s novel, I Am a Cat (我輩は猫である). Today this pronoun is primarily seen in literary contexts and will make the speaker sound masculine and a bit haughty.
You might encounter this one in a samurai period piece. This first person pronoun was a humble way for samurai to refer to themselves. It grew more arrogant sounding over time.
This one was used by the emperor prior to WWII. Think of the British royal “we” and you’ll get the idea.
This archaic pronoun was used in ancient times but can now be heard in period pieces among male aristocrats participating in court life.
Don’t mix this one up with the pronoun for “we” 我々 (われわれ) used in business contexts. The singular われ is very old-fashioned and exceedingly polite, so you will likely only encounter it in a literary context.
This pronoun is even older than われ and so will not come up on its own in any modern context outside of a period piece. That said, it is still used in formal contexts in the possessive form when followed by が and the object. For example, 我が家 (わがや) means “my/our house” or 我が社 (わがしゃ) means “my/our company.”
Used primarily by nobles during the Heian period. Similar to われ but a bit more pompous.
The humble pronoun used by women in samurai families. Often used to indicate that a woman is of high standing in period pieces.
24. 拙者（せっしゃ) :
This is commonly heard in samurai flicks as a humble way for samurai to refer to themselves.
25. 此方（こなた) :
An archaic first-person pronoun used by noblewomen. Do you see the similarity to あなた? Literally, こなた originally means “this side” and あなた means “that side.” You can see where the sense of distance comes from when using the term あなた!
Discouraged Way of Saying I in Japanese
26. 俺様 (おれさま):
While you may hear おれ pretty frequently these days, おれさま still sounds like an incredibly arrogant anime character or yakuza thug. If someone is using it with you, they’re probably (hopefully!) making a joke.
While this pronoun seems at first glance to just be a more explicitly feminine version of わたくし, it can also make the speaker sound pompous. So be wary of this one and don’t use it unless you’re confident that it’s appropriate for the context!
Fun Facts: I in Japanese Dialects
To add another layer of flavor to the connotations of personal pronouns in Japanese, you will find that there are many region-specific pronouns as well! Note: not everyone from these regions uses these pronouns.
The Kansai region or the Kinki region
This personal pronoun heard mostly among male speakers from the Kansai region and is used in casual contexts.
Not so commonly heard these days, you may encounter a character in media who is meant to be portrayed as a stereotypically Kansai character using わて. This pronoun is gender-neutral.
Not so commonly heard these days, you may encounter a female character in media who is meant to be portrayed as a stereotypically Kansai character using あて.
The Tohoku region:
Tohoku dialect for わたし.
Tohoku dialect for あたし.
Tohoku dialect for わし.
34. 俺ら (おら):
Kanto version of おいら, a casual masculine personal pronoun that gives off a rural, country-boy vibe.
The Kyushu version of おれ. Used by older men.
The Kyushu version of おれ. Used by men of all ages but often by boys.
Other Words That Are Used in “I”’s place
As we will see in a moment, there are plenty of times where the subject is omitted from the sentence entirely. However, there are also times when Japanese speakers feel they need to include the subject in the sentence but prefer not to use first-person pronouns and instead use someone’s name or title.
Use One’s Own Name
This is like talking in the third-person. This practice tends to be used by very young children (girls and boys, but mostly girls) and sometimes young women (under 20). Luckily, verb conjugation in Japanese doesn’t change based on whether you’re referring to a first-person, second person, or third person, so you don’t have to think too hard about making the verb match the subject!
- I went to the zoo.
- Michiko went to the zoo.
Family Roles (Towards Children)
Sometimes Japanese speakers will refer to themselves and other family members in the same way the children in the family call them. For example, a woman may call herself “ママ (mommy) ” and her husband パパ (daddy). This tends to be done in front of the children.
If there are multiple aunts, uncles, grandpas or grandmas in question, someone might refer to themselves with the title but add their first name as a prefix (e.g. an uncle named Hiroshi may call himself ひろしおじさん). This is like saying Grandpa Joe or Auntie Sue in English.
When Can Japanese Pronouns Be Omitted?
To English-speaking learners of the Japanese language, the abundance of personal pronouns can seem novel, fascinating, and also daunting. Not only are there different ways of referring to the first person based on gender and formality, but there are also times when the pronoun can be omitted altogether!
Let’s take a look at some examples of some simple sentences that function perfectly well without a specific subject or personal pronoun.
- Yesterday, (I) went to the supermarket.
- (I) am a student.
- Will (you) go to work on Saturday, too?
Pronouns are often omitted entirely as long as the meaning of the sentence is still clear. This is especially the case for first and second personal pronouns (“I” and “you”). If you were to introduce yourself, it’s perfectly acceptable to say
- 「私は学生です」 (I am a student) or
- 「私の名前はジョンです。よろしくおねがいします。」 (My name is John. Nice to meet you).
But from context, it’s obvious that when you initiate a conversation with someone and just say
- 「ジョンです。よろしくおねがいします。」([I] am John. Nice to meet you)
that the person you’re referring to as John is yourself. If you began a conversation and said 「ねえ、昨日、遊園地に行っちゃった。」(Hey, yesterday [I] went to an amusement park)
it is probably obvious to your conversation partner that you’re telling them about something that happened to you, not them or a third person altogether.
This can take some getting used to, but it’s even easier to figure out when someone is asking a question. Remember that it’s generally rude to use the second personal pronoun あなた (you) in Japanese. It is far more common and natural to use the person’s name or title or omit the pronoun altogether. So, amongst a group of friends, you might say 「ひろこちゃん、週末は何しているの？」(Hiroko-chan, what will [you] do this weekend?) to specify who you’re talking to, but you still don’t need the “you” pronoun. In a one-on-one conversation, you can just ask your question without any pronoun.
As for third-person pronouns, they are more likely to require contextual establishment as the subject of the sentence at the beginning of the conversation, but this is again done more frequently with a person’s name or title. Actually, the third person pronouns 彼 (“he”) and 彼女 (“she”) can also mean “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” so it’s important to be careful. You might say 「土曜日に彼女と一緒に映画を見るつもりだ」 ([I] plan on going to see a movie with her on Saturday), but it might sound like you’re talking about your girlfriend if this “her” isn’t clearly established beforehand!
You may be feeling like you’re in a pronoun daze after digesting all of this information. Perhaps you even feel jealous that English merely has the universal, gender-neutral “I.” Why can’t it be so simple for Japanese?
While the initial challenge does exist, think of all the language play you can learn to create with all of these pronouns. Expressing your personality and even your gender identity can be so much more nuanced and meaningful with all the possibilities that Japanese provides. Reading Japanese texts and watching anime will become a much richer experience when the hidden meanings behind pronouns become available to you. Get excited and keep on learning!