Japanese pronouns (or Japanese deictic classifiers) are words in the Japanese language used to address or refer to present people or things, where present means people or things that can be pointed at. The position of things (far away, nearby) and their role in the current interaction (goods, addresser, addressee, bystander) are features of the meaning of those words. The use of pronouns, especially when referring to oneself and speaking in the first person, vary between gender, formality, dialect and region where Japanese is spoken.
In contrast to present people and things, absent people and things can be referred to only by naming as in Miyazaki, by instantiating a class as in "the house" (in a context where there is only one house) and by presenting things in relation to present, named and sui generis people or things as in "I'm going home", "I'm going to Miyazaki's place", "I'm going to the mayor's place", "I'm going to my mother's place", "I'm going to my mother's friend's place". Functionally, deictic classifiers not only indicate that the referenced person or thing has a spatial position or an interactional role but also classify it to some extent. In addition, Japanese pronouns are restricted by a situation type (register): who is talking to whom, about what, and through which medium (spoken or written, staged or in private). In that sense, when a male is talking to his male friends, the pronoun set that is available to him is different from that which is available when a man of the same age talks to his wife and from that which is available when a woman talks to her husband. These variations in pronoun availability are determined by the register.
In linguistics, generativists and other structuralists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns. As functionalists point out, however, these words function as personal references, demonstratives, and reflexives, just as pronouns do in other languages.
Japanese has a large number of pronouns, differing in use by formality, gender, age, and relative social status of speaker and audience. Further, pronouns are an open class, with existing nouns being used as new pronouns with some frequency. This is ongoing; a recent example is jibun (, self), which is now used by some young men as a casual first-person pronoun.
Pronouns are used less frequently in the Japanese language than in many other languages, mainly because there is no grammatical requirement to include the subject in a sentence. That means that pronouns can seldom be translated from English to Japanese on a one-to-one basis.
The common English personal pronouns, such as "I", "you", and "they", have no other meanings or connotations. However, most Japanese personal pronouns do. Consider for example two words corresponding to the English pronoun "I" (watashi) also means "private" or "personal". ? (boku) carries a masculine impression; it is typically used by males, especially those in their youth.
Japanese words that refer to other people are part of the encompassing system of honorific speech and should be understood within that context. Pronoun choice depends on the speaker's social status (as compared to the listener's) as well as the sentence's subjects and objects.
The first-person pronouns (e.g., watashi, ?) and second-person pronouns (e.g., anata, ) are used in formal contexts (however the latter can be considered rude). In many sentences, pronouns that mean "I" and "you" are omitted in Japanese when the meaning is still clear.
When it is required to state the topic of the sentence for clarity, the particle wa (?) is used, but it is not required when the topic can be inferred from context. Also, there are frequently used verbs that imply the subject and/or indirect object of the sentence in certain contexts: kureru () means "give" in the sense that "somebody other than me gives something to me or to somebody very close to me." Ageru () also means "give", but in the sense that "someone gives something to someone other than me." This often makes pronouns unnecessary, as they can be inferred from context.
In Japanese, a speaker may only directly express their own emotions, as they cannot know the true mental state of anyone else. Thus, in sentences comprising a single adjective (often those ending in -shii), it is often assumed that the speaker is the subject. For example, the adjective sabishii () can represent a complete sentence that means "I am lonely." When speaking of another person's feelings or emotions, sabishis? (?) "seems lonely" would be used instead. Similarly, neko ga hoshii () "I want a cat," as opposed to neko ga hoshigatte iru () "seems to want a cat," when referring to others. Thus, the first-person pronoun is usually not used unless the speaker wants to put a special stress on the fact that they are referring to themselves or if it is necessary to make it clear.
In some contexts, it may be considered uncouth to refer to the listener (second person) by a pronoun. If it is required to state the second person, 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 create another challenge, as men and women refer to themselves with different pronouns. Social standing also determines how people refer to themselves, as well as how they refer to other people.
Japanese first-person pronouns by speakers and situations according to Yuko Saegusa, Concerning the First Personal Pronoun of Native Japanese Speakers (2009)
|Female||To friends||uchi 49%||First name 26%||atashi 15%|
|In the family||First name 33%||atashi 29%||uchi 23%|
|In a class||watashi 86%||atashi 7%||uchi 6%|
|To an unknown visitor||watashi 75%||atashi, first name, uchi 8% each|
|To the class teacher||watashi 66%||First name 13%||atashi 9%|
|Male||To friends||ore 72%||boku 19%||First name 4%|
|In the family||ore 62%||boku 23%||uchi 6%|
|In a class||boku 85%||ore 13%||First name, nickname 1% each|
|To an unknown visitor||boku 64%||ore 26%||First name 4%|
|To the class teacher||boku 67%||ore 27%||First name 3%|
|Female||To friends||uchi 39%||atashi 30%||watashi 22%|
|In the family||atashi 28%||First name 27%||uchi 18%|
|In a class||watashi 89%||atashi 7%||jibun 3%|
|To an unknown visitor||watashi 81%||atashi 10%||jibun 6%|
|To the class teacher||watashi 77%||atashi 17%||jibun 7%|
|Male||To friends||ore 87%||uchi 4%||watashi, jibun 2% each|
|In the family||ore 88%||boku, jibun 5% each|
|In a class||watashi 48%||jibun 28%||boku 22%|
|To an unknown visitor||boku 36%||jibun 29%||watashi 22%|
|To the class teacher||jibun 38%||boku 29%||watashi 22%|
The list is incomplete, as there are numerous Japanese pronoun forms, which vary by region and dialect. This is a list of the most commonly used forms. "It" has no direct equivalent in Japanese (though in some contexts the demonstrative pronoun (sore) is translatable as "it"). Also, Japanese does not generally inflect by case, so, I is equivalent to me.
|Romaji||Hiragana||Kanji||Level of speech||Gender||Notes|
|- I/me -|
|watashi||?||formal/informal||all||In formal or polite contexts, this is gender neutral; in casual speech, it is typically only used by women. Use by men in casual context may be perceived as stiff.|
|watakushi||?||?||very formal||all||The most formal personal pronoun.[better source needed]|
|ware||?, ?||very formal||all||Used in literary style. Also used as rude second person in western dialects.|
|waga||very formal||all||Means "my" or "our". Used in speeches and formalities; waga-sha (our company) or waga-kuni (our country).|
|ore||?||informal||males||Frequently used by men. Establishes a sense of "masculinity". Can be seen as rude depending on the context. Emphasizes one's own status when used with peers and with those who are younger or of lesser status. Among close friends or family, its use conveys familiarity rather than "masculinity" or superiority. It was used also by women until the late Edo period and still is in some dialects. Also oi in Kyushu dialect.|
|boku||?||formal/informal||males||Used by males of all ages; very often used by boys. Perceived as humble, but can also carry an undertone of "feeling young" when used by males of older age. Also used when casually giving deference; "servant" uses the same kanji (? shimobe). Can also be used as a second-person pronoun toward male children (English equivalent - "kid" or "squirt").|
|washi||?||formal/informal||mainly males||Often used in western dialects and fictional settings to stereotypically represent characters of old age. Also wai, a slang version of washi in the Kansai dialect.|
|jibun||formal/informal||mainly males||Literally "oneself"; used as either reflexive or personal pronoun. Can convey a sense of distance when used in the latter way. Also used as casual second person pronoun in the Kansai dialect.|
|atai||very informal||females||Slang version of atashi.|
|atashi||informal||females, rarely males (Edo dialect)||A feminine pronoun that strains from ("watashi"). Rarely used in written language, but common in conversation, especially among younger women.|
|uchi||?, ?||informal||mostly females||Means "one's own". Often used in western dialects especially the Kansai dialect. Generally written in kana. Plural form uchi-ra is used by both genders. Singular form is also used by both sexes when talking about the household, e.g., "uchi no neko" ("my/our cat"), "uchi no chichi-oya" ("my father"); also used in less formal business speech to mean "our company", e.g., "uchi wa sandai no rekk?sha ga aru" ("we (our company) have three tow-trucks").|
|(own name)||informal||all||Used by small children and young women, considered cute and childish.|
|oira||informal||males||Similar to ? ore, but more casual. Evokes a person with a rural background, a "country bumpkin".|
|ora||informal||all||Dialect in Kanto and further north. Similar to oira, but more rural. Famous as used by main characters in Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan among children. Also ura in some dialects.|
|wate||informal||all||Dated Kansai dialect. Also ate (somewhat feminine).|
|sh?sei||formal, written||males||Used among academic colleagues. Lit. "your pupil".|
|- you (singular) -|
|(name and honorific)||formality depends on the honorific used||all|
|anata||, ,||formal/informal||all||The kanji are very rarely used. The only second person pronoun comparable to English "you", yet still not used as often in this universal way by native speakers, as it can be considered having a condescending undertone, especially towards superiors.[better source needed] For expressing "you" in formal contexts, using the person's name with an honorific is more typical. More commonly, anata may be used when having no information about the addressed person; also often used as "you" in commercials, when not referring to a particular person. Furthermore, commonly used by women to address their husband or lover, in a way roughly equivalent to the English "dear".|
|anta||informal||all||Contraction of anata. Can express contempt, anger or familiarity towards a person. Generally seen as rude or uneducated when used in formal contexts.|
|otaku||,||formal, polite||all||A polite way of saying "your house", also used as a pronoun to address a person with slight sense of distance. Otaku/otakki/ota turned into a slang term referring to a type of geek/obsessive hobbyist, as they often addressed each other as otaku.|
|omae||very informal||all||Similar to anta, but used by men with more frequency. Expresses the speaker's higher status or age, or a very casual relationship among peers. Often used with ore. Very rude if said to elders. Commonly used by men to address their wife or lover, paralleling the female use of "anata".|
||rude and confrontational||mainly males||Literal meaning "the one in front of my hand". Tem?, a reduction of temae, is more rude. Used when the speaker is very angry. Originally used for a humble first person. The Kanji are seldom used with this meaning, as unrelated to its use as a pronoun, can also mean "before", "this side", "one's standpoint" or "one's appearance".|
|kisama||extremely hostile and rude||mainly males||Historically very formal, but has developed in an ironic sense to show the speaker's extreme hostility / outrage towards the addressee.|
|kimi||?||informal||all||The kanji means "lord" (archaic) and is also used to write -kun. Informal to subordinates; can also be affectionate; formerly very polite. Among peers typically used with ? boku. Often seen as rude or assuming when used with superiors, elders or strangers.|
|kika||informal, to a younger person||all|
|kikan||very formal, used to address government officials, military personnel, etc.||all|
|on-sha||?||formal, used to the listener representing your company||all||only used in spoken language.|
|ki-sha||formal, similar to onsha||all||only used in written language as opposed to onsha|
|- he / she -|
|ano kata||?||very formal||all||Sometimes pronounced ano hou, but with the same kanji. ? means "direction," and is more formal by avoiding referring to the actual person in question.|
|ano hito||?||formal/informal||all||Literally "that person".|
|yatsu||?||informal||all||A thing (very informal), dude, guy.|
|koitsu, koyatsu||,||very informal, implies contempt||all||Denotes a person or material nearby the speaker. Analogous to "he/she" or "this one".|
|soitsu, soyatsu||,||very informal, implies contempt||all||Denotes a person or material nearby the listener. Analogous to "he/she" or "that one".|
|aitsu, ayatsu||,||very informal, implies contempt||all||Denotes a person or (less frequently) material far from both the speaker and the listener. Analogous to "he/she" or "that one".|
|- he -|
|kare||?||formal (neutral) and informal (boyfriend)||all||Can also mean "boyfriend". Formerly kareshi was its equivalent, but this now always means "boyfriend".|
|- she -|
|kanojo||?||formal (neutral) and informal (girlfriend)||all||Originally created from kano on'na "that female" as an equivalent to female pronouns in European languages. Can also mean "girlfriend".|
|- we (see also list of pluralising suffixes, below) -|
|ware-ware||?||formal||all||Mostly used when speaking on behalf of a company or group.|
|ware-ra||informal||all||Used in literary style. ware is never used with -tachi.|
|hei-sha||?||formal and humble||all||Used when representing one's own company. From a Sino-Japanese word meaning "low company" or "humble company".|
|waga-sha||?||formal||all||Used when representing one's own company.|
|- they (see also list of pluralising suffixes, below) -|
|kare-ra||common in spoken Japanese and writing||all|
|Romaji||Hiragana||Kanji||Meaning||Level of speech||Gender||Notes|
|asshi||?||I||males||Slang version of watashi. From the Edo period.|
|sessha||?||I||males||Used by samurai during the feudal ages (and often also by ninja in fictionalized portrayals). From a Sino-Japanese word meaning "one who is clumsy".|
|wagahai||?||,||I||males||Literally "my fellows; my class; my cohort", but used in a somewhat pompous manner as a first-person singular pronoun.|
|soregashi||?||?||I||males||Literally "So-and-so", a nameless expression. Similar to sessha.|
|warawa||?||I||females||Literally "child". Mainly used by women in samurai family. Today, it is used in fictional settings to represent archaic noble female characters.|
|wachiki||I||females||Used by geisha and oiran in Edo period. Also achiki and watchi.|
|yo||?||?, ?||I||males||Archaic first-person singular pronoun.|
|chin||?||I||males||Used only by the emperor, mostly before World War II.|
|maro||, ?||I||males||Used as a universal first-person pronoun in ancient times. Today, it is used in fictional settings to represent Court noble male characters.|
|onore||?||I or you||males||The word onore, as well as the kanji used to transcribe it, literally means "oneself". It is humble when used as a first person pronoun and hostile (on the level of temee or temae) when used as a second person pronoun.|
|kei||?||you||males||Second person pronoun, used mostly by males. Used among peers to denote light respect, and by a superior addressing his subjects and retainers in a familiar manner. Like ? kimi, this can also be used as an honorific (pronounced as kyou), in which case it's equivalent to "lord/lady" or "sir/dame".|
|nanji||?, less commonly also ?||you, often translated as "thou"||all||Spelled as namuchi in the most ancient texts and later as nanchi or nanji.|
|onushi||,||you||all||Used by elders and samurai to talk to people of equal or lower rank, as well as by fictional ninja. Literally means "master".|
|sonata||(rarely used)||you||all||Originally a mesial deictic pronoun meaning "that side; that way; that direction"; used as a lightly respectful second person pronoun in previous eras, but now used when speaking to an inferior in a pompous and old-fashioned tone.|
|sochi||(rarely used)||you||all||Similar to sonata. Literally means "that way". (Sochira and kochira, sometimes shortened to sotchi and kotchi, are still sometimes used to mean roughly "you" and "I, we", e.g. kochira koso in response to thanks or an apology means literally "this side is the one" but idiomatically "no, I (or we) thank/apologize to you"; especially common on the telephone, analogous to phrases like "on this end" and "on your end" in English.)|
Suffixes are added to pronouns to make them plural.
|Romaji||Hiragana||Kanji||Level of speech||Notes|
||Also can be attached to names to indicate that person and the group they are with (Ryuichi-tachi = "Ryuichi and friends").|
||?||formal (ex. ?, anata-gata)||More polite than ? tachi. gata is the rendaku form.|
|domo||?||humble (ex. , watakushi-domo)||Casts some aspersion on the mentioned group, so it can be rude. domo is the rendaku form.|
|ra||?||?||informal (ex. , karera. , ore-ra. , yatsu-ra. ?, aitsu-ra)||Used with informal pronouns. Frequently used with hostile words. Sometimes used for light humble as domo (ex. , watashi-ra)|
Demonstrative words, whether functioning as pronouns, adjectives or adverbs, fall into four groups. Words beginning with ko- indicate something close to the speaker (so-called proximal demonstratives). Those beginning with so- indicate separation from the speaker or closeness to the listener (medial), while those beginning with a- indicate greater distance (distal). Interrogative words, used in questions, begin with do-.
Demonstratives are normally written in hiragana.
|kore||this thing / these things (near speaker)|
|sore||that thing / those things (near listener)|
|are||that thing / those things (distant from both speaker and listener)|
|kochira or kotchi||/||this / here (near speaker)|
|sochira or sotchi||/||that / there (near listener)|
|achira or atchi||/||that / there (distant from both speaker and listener)|
|dochira or dotchi||/||what / where|
Japanese has only one word corresponding to reflexive pronouns such as myself, yourself, or themselves in English. The word (jibun) means "one's self" and may be used for human beings or some animals. It is not used for cold-blooded animals or inanimate objects.