How Not Using
Makes Your Japanese Better
Japanese pronouns are just plain confusing. There are polite pronouns, rude ones, and everything in between.
The toughest thing of all, though, is that a good Japanese speaker should use as few pronouns as possible. In many cases, you don't mention any them at all. You usually figure out whom a sentence is about just by the context.
The 10 "Musts" of Japanese Pronouns
You still need to know the right pronouns to use. Here are the basic ones you need to know. If you get these, you're covered 95% of the time:
- Watashi—This is the most common way to say "I" or "me". It is polite, and you can pretty much always use it. This is a unisex term.
- Watashi-tachi—Generally, if you see "tachi" at the end of a pronoun, it means that it's a plural. So in this case, watashi-tachi means "we".
- Boku—Means the same as watashi. The only difference is that boku is strictly used by males, and is somewhat informal. Don't use this one if you are meeting the Emperor.
- Boku-tachi—Yep, you guessed it. Boku-tachi is a male, slightly informal way of saying "we".
- Anata—Means "you". This is a really tricky term, but the big rule here is NOT to use it when speaking to someone who is your senior, teacher, boss…you get the idea. As a rule of thumb, substitute "you" with someone's last name (with -san) or their title.
- Kare—"He". This is one of those terms you should use sparingly, because the situation usually doesn't require you to clarify "he" versus "she". Be careful, though-in many contexts, this can also mean "boyfriend".
- Kanojo—"She". No need to use this one too much, either. As you probably picked up, this can also mean "girlfriend".
- Kare-ra—Means "they", referring to people only.
- Sore-ra—Also means "they", but instead refers to inanimate objects.
- Minna-san—Means "everybody", as a plural "you". A good time to use this is when addressing several people. This is very polite.
Another Twist of Japanese Grammar
That takes care of the big ones you need to know, but a huge part of Japanese pronouns is knowing what's meant when no pronouns are used.
A general but extremely useful rule of thumb is that if someone is asking you a question, the question is probably about you, though the Japanese pronoun meaning "you" isn't actually used.
The only really common exception to this is if the question is an invitation of some kind, like asking "shall we do such-and-such?"
Naturally, if someone is making a statement and NOT asking a question, the statement is probably about the speaker.
Another general way to tell if you are the topic of a sentence is if the person you are talking to is obviously giving some sort of compliment. It's impolite to toot one's own horn in Japan, so if you hear the particle "ne" at the end of a sentence, or if any laudatory adjectives are used, chances are you are the one being talked about.
Do's and Don'ts of Japanese Pronouns
Here are some ways of using pronouns. You should get in the habit of OR avoid the following:
- Whenever in doubt, address people by their position or last name (with the respectful suffix). An example is to address your sensei as "sensei", or if no title like that is applicable, you might call someone older than you "Yamamoto-san".
- Get familiar with both the humble and polite titles a person may have. As with Japanese verbs, saying "your mother" should be respectful, whereas saying "my mother" should be more humble.
- Do NOT refer to anyone but your extremely close friends or family by his/her first names.
- Never refer to someone whose relationship to you is obvious (your boss, sensei, etc) by saying anata. This would come across as crude.
Did you know...
In Japan, it is not customary to hold doors open for others. Too many people would walk through the door, belaboring the person holding it.