Who am I? 14 ways to say 'I' in Japanese

TOKYO —

Long ago, when the majority of the Japanese vocabulary I knew came from reverse engineering the English subtitles on anime tapes, I was patting myself on the back for having figured out that “watashi” means “I.” So imagine my shock and disappointment when I came across a different scene showing a character so overcome with emotion he’d been reduced to stammering, with the subtitles saying, “I…I…I…,” even though he never once said watashi.

Nine times out of ten, you can make money betting against my deductive reasoning skills, but this was one of those rare occasions where my conclusion had been right, as watashi does indeed translate as “I.” It’s just that “I” doesn’t always equal “watashi,” because Japanese has over a dozen pronouns you can use to talk about yourself.

Let’s take a look at some of the many first-person pronouns Japanese speakers have had throughout history, along with the years in which they were or became part of the everyday vernacular.

1. ‘watashi’ (17th century-present)

According to linguists, the rise to prominence of “watashi” is a fairly recent trend. The word only gained traction in the Edo Period, which started in 1603. These days, “watashi” is indeed Japan’s most versatile term for the self. While it’s a bit stuffy sounding for conversations among males who are close friends, it’s a word that both men and women, young and old, make use of frequently. Its very recent descendant, “atashi,” is strictly for young women, though.

2. ‘watakushi’ (14th century-present)

Even “watashi’s” more formal predecessor, “watakushi,” only stretches back to Japan’s lengthy civil war of the Muromachi Period. Despite its many years of use, “watakushi” doesn’t really have an old-fashioned ring to it. Instead, you’ll hear it used in extremely polite conversation. It’s more likely to be used by women of elegant upbringing, but men also say “watakushi” when they’re making formal speeches in front of a large group, or when speaking to someone several rungs above them on the corporate ladder.

3. ‘boku’ (19th century-present)

The informal “boku” is one of the most recent words for “I” to work its way into everyday speech. That said, it’s got a somewhat limited range of use, as Japan’s central Kansai region has always given “boku” a lukewarm reaction.

In recent years, a handful of actresses and female vocalists have referred to themselves as “boku,” usually to show off their down-to-earth or rough-and-tumble side. It’s primarily used by males though, and more specifically young boys. That’s because past a certain age, most men instead switch over to the next word on our list.

4. ‘ore’ (12th century-present)

“Ore,” the most masculine way to say “I” on our list so far, actually has a surprisingly long history. Unlike “boku,” this is just for the guys, and its somewhat rough tone means it’s reserved for informal situations where you’re talking to friends or other social situations where you don’t have to worry about anyone getting their feathers ruffled.

5. ‘washi’ (14th century-present)

While “washi” is still barely hanging on, its days are clearly numbered. The word is readily understood, but these days, saying “washi” is just about the surest way to mark yourself as being a senior citizen. Linguistically, the pond of “washi”-sayers isn’t being restocked in any significant way, so it’s likely the pronoun will be gone within a few generations

6. ‘oira’ (17th century-present)

Although it really hasn’t been around that long, “oira” also seems to be on the way out. It’s got a distinct backwater, almost hillbilly sound to it, making it just the sort of speech pattern that gets stamped out as the mass media gets more massive in scale. Like “washi,” “oira’s” role in the language is probably winding down.

7. ‘atakushi’ (19th century-1950s)

Perhaps the shortest-lived member of Japan’s pronoun pantheon, the feminine “atakushi” came into fashion after the Meiji restoration that ended the country’s centuries of enforced international isolation, and only stuck around until about the end of World War II.

8. ‘temae’ (14th century-1950s)

Not to be confused with “teme” (a vulgur way of saying “you”), “temae” also fell out of favor in the postwar period, although it had a longer run than “atakushi.”

9. ‘sessha’ (14th century-19th century)

Watch enough period dramas, and you’ll eventually come across the antiquated yet noble-sounding “sessha.” How old school is it? Some Japanese-English dictionaries define it as “I (primarily used by samurai).”

10. ‘warawa’ (12th century-19th century)

Now we’re getting to the point where even native Japanese speakers might not catch what the speaker’s getting at. If anyone actually says “warawa” to you, there’s a chance he’s actually a time traveler.

11. ‘soregashi’ (12th century-19th century)

“Soregashi” is yet another litmus test you can use to catch interloping spies from the past who have come to steal our modern technology and delicious processed snack foods.

12. ‘maro’ (8th century-16th century)

It’s been so long since anyone used the word “maro” when talking about themselves that to most modern listeners it sounds more like a cute name for a pet than a first-person pronoun.

13. ‘wa’ (8th century-14th century)

Today, “wa” gets used in compound nouns to mean “Japanese,” as in “washoku”/Japanese food or “washitsu”/Japanese-style room. Long ago, though, it also meant “I.”

14. ‘a’ (8th century-12th century)

And last, we come to ‘a,” a word that’s short and sweet but also happens to sound exactly like a stutter or expression of surprise in Japanese, so we can see why it’s been almost a thousand years since this was the preferred way of speaking.

With so many ways just to say “I,” it’s easy to see why learners of Japanese often get tripped up by pronouns early on. Thankfully, Japanese doesn’t differentiate between the words “I” and “me,” so you can make any of these “to me” just by tacking “ni” onto the end (“watashi” becomes “watashi ni,” for example).

Source: Kinisoku

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  • 1

    GyGene

    Washi ga neeee... ワシがね。。。

  • 4

    kimuzukashiiiii

    or ... Atashi!

    I cant believe they have missed out the whole 3rd person kids. Which is how almost all people under 15 speak here. They all say "Yuko chan pinku iro ga suki" when Yuko is themselves. No kids say I.

  • 1

    CrazyJoe

    Watakushi, watashi, atashi, atai, watai, wacchi, wate, and uchi to name a few.

  • 6

    cleo

    It isn't only little kids who call themselves by name, though the connection to the younger generation is strong. When he's speaking to the grandkids, Mr Cleo calls himself 'guranpa.'

    Since the birth of her little sister, our older granddaughter has taken to calling herself 'o-nechan'.

    Young ladies of a certain character refer to themselves by name when talking to their sugar daddies.

    Civil servants, especially police officers, refer to themselves as 'honkan' in professional situations.

    Authors refer to themselves as 'hissha' in writing.

  • 3

    bfg4987

    My wife's grandmother calls herself 'Ora'

    Young ladies of a certain character refer to themselves by name when talking to their sugar daddies.

    This is actually pretty widespread and it's not limited to just the morons. Might be a regional thing, but a lot of girls around where I am do this, mostly late teens to early twenties.

  • 4

    lucabrasi

    British people use the third-person took though it tends to sound a bit posh:

    "Put the shotgun down, Jeremy or Mummy will get very cross."

  • 1

    poppler

    @cleo Does your husband call himself Jack? That's very different from calling himself grandpa.

    I just learned that young people call themselves by their own name recently. We hired a 15 year old girl to help around the office and she'll say, "Jessica's going to the conbini." It sounds strange to my ears.

  • 1

    bfg4987

    I just learned that young people call themselves by their own name recently. We hired a 15 year old girl to help around the office and she'll say, "Jessica's going to the conbini." It sounds strange to my ears.

    In my experience, they primarily do this as a sort of transition. Like, for example, a group of friends will be discussing where they want to go for dinner, and when it comes to a girl who has a different opinion, she'll start with "Sakura wa ne..."

  • 1

    goodchoice

    So many ways to say "I", yet the Japanese use them so little, that the subject of sentences can be confusing.

    In English, we have me, myself and I and we use them like they are going out of style. But the clarity is welcome.

  • 1

    kimuzukashiiiii

    British people use the third-person took though it tends to sound a bit posh: "Put the shotgun down, Jeremy or Mummy will get very cross."

    I laughed at that. I do it all the time...

  • 0

    Stephen Knight

    I've seen more older (40s-50s) women referring to themselves by name lately and thought it was just a social media affectation, until I met a couple of "friends" from Facebook and they were doing it in real life too... 15-20, fine, I suppose it can be charming, but women my age? It just comes across as creepy (especially when they add a "-chan" to it.)

    Maybe they picked it up from Nakajima Miyuki, who affects the same manner of third-person address with her stage character.

  • 1

    GalapagosnoGairaishu

    If you add dialects, you get a lot more, like "oidon" (Kagoshima). The list left off 吾輩 (wagahai), which is used in the title of Natsume Soseki's famous book, Wagahai wa neko de aru (I am a cat). There are also plenty of euphemisms such as 小生 (shosei), "small life"; 本人 (honnin), "this person" and こちら (kochira), similar to honnin. Back in the 1960s the Stars & Stripes bookstores on the US military bases used to sell a little booklet giving 100 ways to say I in Japanese. Wonder if I can find a copy on eBay....

  • 0

    Laguna

    Remember an old story (perhaps apocryphal) of a Western businessman who, having been called "kimi" by a taxi driver, realized he had been slighted and responded, "Ore wa 'anata,' omae wa 'kimi'."

  • 0

    GalapagosnoGairaishu

    This link has 100 words for I in Japanese: http://japaneselevelup.com/100-ways-to-say-i-in-japanese/ They may have even been lifted from that old book I mentioned.

  • -1

    GalapagosnoGairaishu

    This link has 100 words for I in Japanese: http://japaneselevelup.com/100-ways-to-say-i-in-japanese/ They may have even been lifted from that old book I mentioned.

  • 2

    smithinjapan

    I used to sometimes use "Washi" intentionally to get a laugh out of the people I was talking to. Now that I'm getting older though, I get less laughs... haha.

  • 0

    ThonTaddeo

    I don't think washi is quite finished yet; men in Western Japan particularly the rural areas surrounding Hiroshima, say it on occasion. What's weird is that in the world of manga and anime, that area's speech patterns as a whole are used only by older men, even if such men aren't necessarily from that area of Japan. It's something that has always bothered me.

  • 0

    avigator

    It has a lot to say about the state of mind of the natives.

  • 2

    FightingViking

    I believe the Emperor used to say "Tchin" when referring to himself.

  • 0

    Fox Cloud Lelean

    Fourteen ways to say I? I'm not surprised actually. There are many ways of saying "you" as well, I understand, with "teme" and "kisama" being the most offensive that I'm currently aware of. Interesting nonetheless, and worth taking note of. However, I've read some comments here talking about people (namely youngsters) referring to themselves in the 3rd person. Um, since when? I've never encountered that, except with parents talking to young children (like in the given example earlier: "Put the shotgun down Jeremy, or mummy will get angry). That's the only instance I've encountered it. Is this a Japanese phenomenon?

  • 1

    soldier2

    And if you happen to be Lord Voldemort, ore-sama.

  • 2

    Strangerland

    There are many ways of saying "you" as well, I understand, with "teme" and "kisama" being the most offensive that I'm currently aware of.

    I think if you called someone kisama, they'd be more likely to giggle than be offended.

    I've read some comments here talking about people (namely youngsters) referring to themselves in the 3rd person. Um, since when?

    For as long as I've been here, and I didn't get the impression it was a new phenomenon then. I hear kids doing this at my kid's kindergarten all the time.

  • 2

    lucabrasi

    Best advice I ever got from my Japanese teacher was that the use of any word except "watashi", whether by a foreigner or Japanese, man or woman, would annoy somebody, somewhere at some time.

    "Ore" makes you sound like a thug, "boku" like a little boy and "atashi" like a little girl.

    At least, that's 俺のopinion.... ; )

  • 1

    highball7

    For some reason, I love the Kyoto accents and the phrasing they use. Some people say they're more pompous but there is a sense of elegance to the way the speak.

  • 4

    Strangerland

    "Ore" makes you sound like a thug, "boku" like a little boy and "atashi" like a little girl.

    Ore makes you look like a thug if you use it in inappropriate situations, but if you use it situation-appropriately, it's fine.

    Boku makes you sound like a little boy for the most part, however it can be used among male co-workers without such a nuance. I don't use it, and haven't used it at all since my first year here, but in my old company, my male co-workers regularly used it.

  • 1

    timtak

    You can also use "boku" to mean "you" when speaking to a little boy as in questions like"boku ha nan nen sei?" "What year (of primary school) are you in?" when asked by an older woman. An women can use boku to sound intimate as in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSNUYa0alRQ In view of these multiple expressions of "I" which are used depending upon the context, the essayist and Christian resident of Paris in the late 60's Arimasa Mori argued that there is no linguistic third person point of view in Japan, I is always defined solely in the context of the communication dyad, and means therefore, "you for you" (omae no omae). Words, like those above, are merely for other people.

    I think Mori is right, but, he is unaware that in Japan there is felt to be a third person 'eye of the world,' so the face that you are is not a mere appearance for the people that can see you, but who you are, and hence Japanese finger pointing to the nose to express self, the obsession with selfies, the ubiquity of shame even in private, Watsuji's persona or mask as self, having all the gear and no idea, the relative lack of obesity, and all the Japanese creativity in the visual domain.

  • 1

    Serrano

    "ore"

    If you say it a second time right after you say it the first time, apparently you can get some old lady to think you are her son and that you are in big trouble and you need money.

    "Japan’s lengthy civil war of the Muromachi Period"

    Whose fault was that?

  • 0

    JoiceRojo

    I knew about Watachi, atashi, Ore and boku. I've had forgotten "sessha" that was the way Rurouni Kenshin spoke in the anime...

    When I think of my language, I believe we have only one "Yo", the difference is that many times we don't use pronouns because the verb tells you who the person is talking

    For example:

    I Have = Yo tengo = tengo You have = Tu tienes = tienes etc.

    That way we have lots and lots of ways to say "I" because it is given by the verb that goes in the sentence, the only difference is the use of "Me" and "Mine" ("mi" and "mío") I understand that "mine" is something like "watashi no" and "to me" "watashi ni"

  • -1

    Strangerland

    I believe we have only one "Yo", the difference is that many times we don't use pronouns because the verb tells you who the person is talking

    That's not a difference, in that 9 times out of 10, the pronoun is unnecessary in Japanese as well, as the verb conjugation indicates the subject. Actually, ignoring accent, one of the quickest ways to identify an English-speaker's Japanese is that they unnecessarily add watashi/boku/ore to the beginning of more sentences than is necessary.

  • -1

    Debio

    'Wa' is not the wa from washoku. 和食 as the author suggested. It is another reading of 我 and it is used everyday by people of all ages and genders still in Aomori. It is also one of the oldest ways to say I. Watashi and boku are for you imperial city folk.

    'Wai' わい is also used very often in the countryside, especially Tohoku where junior high school students even use it.

    私たち ' we' is わいど waido and you is な na.

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