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).
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