What's new

TYJ Japanese pronouns

This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese

8.1. Pronouns

You might think learning pronouns after learning verbs and adjectives is strange, because many language courses begin with the pronouns. But as far as Japanese is concerned, you don't have to learn pronouns first, because there is no grammatical difference between pronouns and common nouns in Japanese. There is more than one word to mean yourself like you often have more than one word to mean other things.

Here is a list of pronouns commonly used in Japanese textbooks. Remember cases are shown by postpositions, so there is no inflexion of nouns and pronouns in Japanese.

Romanization:wa ta si
Meaning:I (the speaker)

Romanization:a na ta
Meaning:singular you (the addressee)

Now that you know the words for I and singular you , you can make typical sentences in textbooks like this:

Romanization:Wa ta si wa Ni ho n zi n de su .
Structure:(noun, I) (topic marker) (noun, Japan) (suffix, person) (copula, is + polite)
Meaning:I am a Japanese.

Romanization:A na ta wa A me ri ka zi n de su .
Structure:(noun, singular you) (topic marker) (noun, America*1) (suffix, person) (copula, is + polite)
Meaning:You are an American.

*1: Being an imported word, the Japanese word for America is written with katakana, not hiragana.

The pronoun わたし "watashi" is commonly used in formal situations. But the pronoun あなた "anata" is not commonly used, because using the name of the addressee is much better than using pronouns both in colloquial Japanese and in formal Japanese.

There are some other pronouns available. The list below is the tip of the iceberg; Japanese has dozens of pronouns.

Romanization:bo ku

This is a boyish polite pronoun for the speaker. Many schoolboys and some young adults use it in formal situations.

Romanization:o re

This is an impolite colloquial pronoun for the speaker. Many men prefer it in informal situations.

Romanization:a ta si

This is a girlish colloquial pronoun for the speaker. It is not so commonly used.

Romanization:ki mi
Meaning:you (singular)

This is an impolite colloquial pronoun for the addressee. Some men prefer it in informal situations. It is used with おれ "ore".

As you see, some Japanese pronouns indicate the speaker's position and sex. (Using gender for male and female is misleading in linguistics.) But this does not necessarily mean Japanese is male-centric. The language provides choice, and which word you use is entirely up to you.

You also have several choices for we and plural you. I have told that Japanese doesn't care about singular and plural, but pronouns are exceptional. Using singular pronouns for plural people is strange and vice versa.

The suffixes たち "tati" and (ra) "ra" are used for plural pronouns. These are common suffixes for people, not only for pronouns.

Romanization:wa ta si ta ti

Romanization:bo ku ta ti

You can use ら instead of たち, but the latter is more common.

It is no problem to use あなたたち "anatatati" for the addressees, but the polite plural suffix がた "gata" is more commonly used like this:

Romanization:wa na ta ga ta
Meaning:you (plural)

The polite plural suffix has a feeling of respect, so you cannot use it for yourselves.

Other than these, there is another word for a group of speakers:

Romanization:wa re wa re

This pronoun consists of the word われ "ware", which is an ancient pronoun for the speaker.

Pronouns for the third person are scarcely used in Japanese because using a person's name is always preferred.

Romanization:ka re

Romanization:ka no zyo

I don't think these words are often used. In fact, かのじょ was invented only a hundred years ago. Before that かれ was used for both men and women. Japanese is grammatically far less sensitive to the difference between male and female than European languages in the sense that it has no gender based on sex, but Japanese people invented the word for she to make translating European books easier when they started the modernisation of Japan.

Meanwhile, the following phrases are also used:

Romanization:a no hi to
Structure:(demonstrative adjective, that) (noun, person)
Meaning:that person (adult)

Romanization:a no ko
Structure:(demonstrative adjective, that) (noun, child)
Meaning:that child

You can use a more polite word かた LH "kata", which is the same as the polite plural suffix がた "gata".

Romanization:a no ka ta
Structure:(demonstrative adjective, that) (noun, person, polite)
Meaning:that person (adult, polite)

I will explain demonstratives later.

The way to make plurals is the same as that of the speaker and the addressee. Use たち and ら like the following:

Romanization:ka re ra
Meaning:they (men)

Romanization:ka no zyo ra
Meaning:they (women)

For some unknown reason, かれたち "karetati" is not used at all, while using かのじょたち "kanozyotati" is no problem. You can also use あのひとたち "ano hitotati", which is nonsexist. Of course, using a person's name is always better.

The word さん "san" is a well-known suffix to call a person politely. It can be used for given names, and it is used not only for individuals but also for groups of people such as companies when politeness is required. It is not as formal as English Mr. and Ms., so you usually use it for co-workers. Japanese people call close friends by family names, nicknames, and given names, without using さん.

I don't use the words first name and last name, because the given name is placed after the family name in Japanese, which comes from the head-last rule. Remember the word order of the genitive marker の "no". My name たかすぎ しんじ "Takasugi Sinzi" means たかすぎのしんじ "Takasugi no Sinzi". In English, the given name is placed before the family name because of its head-first rule. John Smith means John of Smith. Japanese people know the English name order, so they don't change the order of English names. Hungarians may have a problem because they place their family name first but Japanese people expect all European people to have the English name order.

The Japanese word for name is なまえ "namae", but it also means the given name. The family name is みょうじ "myôzi". Since the word なまえ means either a name or a given name, you can use the phrase したのなまえ "sita no namae", which means the lower name, to mean the given name. You can use the phrase うえのなまえ "ue no namae", which means the upper name, for the family name. Japanese is written vertically from top to bottom, so the upper name means the family name and the lower name means the given name. It is similar to calling the given name first name in English.
Next article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Demonstratives in Japanese
Previous article in the series 'Teach Yourself Japanese': Questions in Japanese
About author
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

I work as a display engineer.

One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.


There are no comments to display.

Article information

Article read time
5 min read
Last update

More in Language

More from Takasugi

Top Bottom