The Art of Saying “You” in Japanese

The Art of Saying “You” in Japanese

You may already know that  “あなた (anata)” is the second-person pronoun, singular “you” in Japanese.  

However, did you know this is a word that should not be used as frequently as in many languages, such as in English? You must wonder: what could go wrong with addressing someone “you”.

This article explain the two main reasons “あなた” (you in Japanese”) is rarely used in real life and when its use is acceptable.

 

Why You Shouldn’t Say “You” in Japanese 

Reason 1: あなた (anata) Creates a Sense of Distance

The first reason is the sense of distance associated with the word “あなた”. This word comes from “あちらの方” (the person of the other side), which means you think the person you are addressing is not on your side. So if you use “あなた” to address a person, it sounds like you are saying “you are not my companion”. No wonder the listener will feel a sense of distance. Therefore, when talking one-on-one, try to avoid using “あなた”. 

Wait. Why a sense of distance? Then why do characters call their significant others “あなた” in TV shows? 

In fact, it is rare to hear people call their partners “あなた” in the real world. According to the survey carried out by Gennai Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. in 2020, only 1.2% of the female participants use  “あなた” to address their partners, and only 1.5% are called  “あなた” by their husbands at home.

Nickname and name+ちゃん/さん are most frequently used by both wives and husbands.

The result of the survey on how to refer to the spouse, image from Cancam
The result of the survey on how to refer to the spouse, image from Cancam

When dating a Japanese person, using “あなた” to refer to your partner will give him or her the impression that you want to keep your distance. 

In a nutshell, no matter what the occasion is, do not use “あなた” when talking face to face.

 

Reason 2: The Preference of Addressing People By Their Names Plus Suffixes

The norm in Japan is to address each other by their names (usually followed by suffixes) if at all possible. In English, you would not never address the party you’re speaking to by their name, as it would be very confusing and unnatural. But in Japanese, using “you” instead of the other party’s name sounds rude. Therefore, make sure to use the listener’s name if you know it.

Then what should I do if I do not know the other party’s name? Can I use “あなた”? 

The answer is no. It is better to omit the subject rather than use “あなた”.

Japanese speakers often leave out the subject, so it is acceptable to omit it if you do not know the other party’s name. 

One lesson you can take away from this section is that you should try your best to remember the other party’s name when meeting Japanese people. However, if you fail to do so, just omit the subject without hesitation.

Japanese people have the habit of exchanging business card when meeting for the first time
Japanese people have the habit of exchanging business card when meeting for the first time, image from Next Journal

When Can You Use “You” in Japanese?

So does that mean “あなた”, “you” in Japanese, should be avoided of all times?

That’s not necessarily the case, either. 

In the following scenarios, it is okay to use “あなた”. 

  • When there is a sense of distance between the speaker and listener
  • When it is natural not to know the other party’s name

Using “あなた” on such occasions will not make others uncomfortable.

For example, “あなた” is often used in advertisements.

  • あなたの運命が本当に変わる心理学。
     (Psychology that really changes your destiny.)
  • あなたの勉強を応援します 。
    (We will support you in your job search.)

     

    A poster with “あなたを応援します” on it
    Image from VENTO ORIENTALE

On these occasions, there is of course a sense of distance between the advertiser and the consumer. Also, the advertiser would have no way of knowing the name of the consumer. Therefore, in these cases, using “あなた” will not create any sense of violation. If the above two conditions are met, it is proper to use “あなた”.

The theme song of Frozen 2, “Show Yourself” is translated as “見せて、あなたを” in Japanese
Image from Westergaard, Hatenablog

Final Words: The Art of Saying “You” in Japanese

The rules of using あなた may seem a little (or, for some, overly) complicated. My suggestion is if you are not sure whether it’s the proper situation to use “あなた”, then do not use it.(ゝω・)

These subtle cultural differences in Japanese words and their English counterparts can be difficult to learn and master in a short time without living there. Follow LingoDeer’s blog and social media to learn more about languages, culture and learning strategies.  

あなたを応援します。
(We support you.)

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Kaz
Kaz
1 month ago

This is really excellent advice. So many apps and beginner Japanese language guides use ‘anata’ frequently. When I address my neighbour in Japan (with whom I am very friendly) I had to learn to always say her name with the suffix San instead of ‘anata’. When she started to use ‘chan’ with my name that was an indicator that I could do the same with her and that we were now good friends. Thank you Cindyfan for a great explainer.

Adam
Adam
1 month ago

Thank you. I would love to read a follow up post going into the nuance of name suffixes too. ちゃん, くん, さま, and so on.

Jane Huang
Admin
Jane Huang
26 days ago
Reply to  Adam
Emil
Emil
1 month ago

Thank you for clarifying. When studying Japanese in college, I was told by the instructors that あなた is often highly problematic, but not why. I simply assumed the word could be too familiar in many contexts, rather than overly distant (according to your explanation).

In any case, what about the propriaty of 君/”kimi” for “you”?

Japanese learner
Japanese learner
1 month ago

Thanks for explaining this so clearly! I’ve been struggling with this. Please publish more content like this

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