In this article, we’ll break down all the Japanese pronouns and their uses.
Quite frankly, there are more Japanese pronouns than you can throw a stick at! Even a big stick. Well, if we’re being fair, although there are plenty of pronouns, not all of them are frequented these days.
In fact, some pronouns in Japanese are altogether never used. Others may be used very rarely or only in specific circumstances. What’s more, some commonly used English pronouns don’t even have a Japanese equivalent!
- 1 Japanese Pronouns
- 2 Japanese Pronouns for Beginners
- 3 Personal Pronouns in Japanese
- 4 Possessive Japanese Pronouns
- 5 Reflexive Japanese Pronouns
- 6 Objective Japanese Pronouns
- 7 Interrogative Japanese Pronouns
- 8 Reciprocal Japanese Pronouns
- 9 Relative Japanese Pronouns
Oh yeah – before further explaining the pronouns in Japanese, we should define what pronouns are in the first place! In short, a pronoun is a word used in place of a noun or noun phrase.
The most common pronouns are I, he, she, it, they, and we. At least that’s the first association most people make when they think of pronouns.
Those are all known as personal pronouns since they take the place of a person (or thing). In reality, there are several categories of pronouns: personal, reflexive, indefinite, demonstrative, possessive, relative, interrogative, reciprocal, and intensive.
Pronouns are important because they make language smooth and sexy. It just wouldn’t sound right to say, “the book was big, and the book was green with bold letters on the back of the book.” So we break out the pronouns.
As we go through the different types of pronouns in Japanese, we’ll break them down into respective categories. From there, we’ll highlight the purpose and when each should be used. So sit back, relax, and get ready to learn some pronouns in Japanese.
“Pronouns” in Japanese
The word “pronouns” in Japanese is だいめいし (dai meishi).
Japanese Pronouns for Beginners
You’ll notice that with pronouns in Japanese, ample importance is placed on the distinction between different levels of formality. Not only that, but sometimes pronouns in Japanese also point to one’s overall social status, age, gender, relationship to the speaker, gender, and more.
For as long as there is Japanese culture, there are levels of formality and social status. It’s inescapable. That’s probably the biggest reason why there are so many pronouns in Japanese in the first place.
Ironically enough, oftentimes, these pronouns are omitted since the language relies heavily on creating clarity through context.
Personal Pronouns in Japanese
Personal pronouns are quite different from English. Native Japanese speakers choose pronouns according to the context, their gender, and age, but also to whom they are addressing: the person’s gender, age, and social status, with a wide range of politeness levels.
They are, however, necessary to communicate in the Japanese language or to understand speech nuances when watching movies, dramas, or anime.
“I” in Japanese
There are different ways to say the personal pronoun “I” in Japanese. There are formal, standard, and informal versions. The usage of these pronouns all depends on when and who you’re speaking with. There’s also a cute and very formal or old-fashion way to say “I” in Japanese.
- わたし (watashi | 私)
Meaning/Usage: This is the most common way to say “I” in Japanese. It can be used in both formal and informal situations but is mostly formal. In casual contexts, it’s almost always used by women alone.
- わたくし (watakushi | 私)
Meaning/Usage: This is a very formal way to say “I.” It’s often used in serious and official circumstances.
- あたし (atashi)
Meaning/Usage: This is a more cute version of わたし (watashi) used by females in informal speech to sound cute and childish. Never used in writing. It’s mostly used by younger women. あたし (atashi) can also sound assertive and strong-natured.
- われ (ware | 我)
Gender: Mostly males
Meaning/Usage: This is a very formal and old-fashioned way to address oneself in Japanese. It sounds very humble and polite. Almost exclusively used by males. While it has almost no use among everyday folks in Japan, it’s often heard in anime or used for songs or book titles.
- ぼく (boku | 僕)
Meaning/Usage: An informal way for males to address themselves. It’s mostly used by younger males or to sound boyish and childish in speech.
- おれ (ore | 俺)
Meaning/Usage: A super informal way for males to address themselves. Mostly used amongst friends and family. It carries the feeling of being very masculine.
- (One’s own name)
Gender: Mostly females
Meaning/Usage: Unlike English, you can use your own name to refer to yourself in Japanese. It’s used by young girls or adult women who want to sound super cute.
“You” in Japanese
The personal pronoun “You” in Japanese has a number of ways to be expressed, similar to the pronoun “I.” “You” in Japanese also have formal, standard, and informal versions.
- あなた (anata)
Meaning/Usage: Beginners learning Japanese will learn this as the first word to mean “you.” It’s a neutral word used by both genders in formal and informal contexts. While it does mean “you,” it comes off a bit coldly and sounds as if you don’t know the person to whom you’re speaking.
For this reason, it’s usually omitted when forming sentences, and the person’s actual name is used in its place. On the flip side, it’s also used as a term of endearment by women in couples, meaning something like “dear.”
- あんた (anta)
Meaning/Usage: This is a shortened version of あなた (anata). It’s used very informally and can signify contempt or rebellion. It is used in Kansai a lot.
- きみ (kimi | 君)
Meaning/Usage: This is quite the versatile pronoun. In the past, it was a very polite way to address someone. It still sounds polite and even affectionate when used these days – often found in love songs.
But, it can insinuate an address toward one whom you consider lower than yourself. Thus, it’s seen as very rude when used toward superiors and elders.
- おまえ (omae | お前)
Gender: Mainly males
Meaning/Usage: If you’re an anime fan, you’ve heard this one before. It’s an informal way to address close ones, particularly those who are your junior. It carries a feeling of assertiveness and superiority.
Even so, it’s normal in the appropriate casual settings. Using it with a superior would sound super rude and cocky. It’s also used by men in the same way あなた (anata) is used by women to address their special someone.
- おたく (otaku | お宅)
Meaning/Usage: I’m sure you know this word to mean some sort of geek/obsessive, someone who gives all of their time to their hobby. Well, you are correct – that’s the slang definition for otaku.
- きさま (kisama | 貴様)
Meaning/Usage: It originates as a polite way to address another and literally means “your humble house.” Nowadays, it’s pretty obsolete except perhaps by some military personnel. きさま (kisama | 貴様 ) is an extremely disrespectful word used to address another. It translates more as “you low bastard” than anything else.
In the old days, it possessed an opposite meaning and was used to show great respect. It’s never used in general conversation these days. It’s often heard in Edo-period dramas or shows.
“He/She” in Japanese
The Japanese personal pronouns for “he” and “she” have formal, standard, and informal versions. The pronouns “he” and “she” can also use the same Japanese pronoun in some cases.
- かれ (kare | 彼)
Meaning/Usage: This is how to say “he” in Japanese. It’s used quite often and can be used to refer to a male of any age. It also means boyfriend.
- かのじょ (kanojo | 彼女)
Meaning/Usage: This is how to say “she” in Japanese. Used very often to refer to a female of any age or status. It also means girlfriend.
- やつ (yatsu)
Meaning/Usage: Here’s a more informal way to say he or she. It’s usually used for males.
- あのひと (ano hito | あの人)
Meaning/Usage: Here’s a neutral way to speak of someone. It literally translates as “that person.” Depending on the tone of voice, it can be used with contempt toward some “nameless” person.
- あのかた ( ano kata | あの方)
Meaning/Usage: This is just like あの人 (ano hito) but is used in more respectful and formal contexts.
“It” in Japanese
There are a number of Japanese personal pronouns for “it.” These pronouns can be used to express “this,” “that,” “those,” and “these.”
- これ (kore)
Meaning/Usage: This word means “this” or “those” and is used to talk about things that are close to the speaker.
- それ (sore)
Meaning/Usage: This word means “that” or “these” and is used to talk about things that are far from the speaker but near to the listener.
- あれ (are)
Meaning/Usage: This word means “that” or “these” and is used to talk about things that are far away from both the speaker and listener.
These are also known as demonstrative pronouns, which are used to point to something specific in a sentence. There is usually a high level of ambiguity in Japanese when it comes to pluralization unless an intentional specification is made.
はな（hana | 花) could mean one flower or one thousand flowers. In the same vein, あれは 花です(are wa hana desu) could mean “that is a flower” or “those are flowers.” As we said before, context plays a key role for Japanese speakers.
Note: When addressing objects in Japanese, specificity about the object’s location is required. For that reason, the object’s location was always mentioned.
“We” in Japanese
“We” in Japanese can be expressed in two ways. There’s a neutral and formal word for the personal pronoun “we.”
- わたしたち (Watashi tachi | 私たち)
Meaning/Usage: Used by both genders to mean “we.” It’s a neutral word used in all situations and statuses.
- われわれ (Ware ware | 我々)
Gender: Mostly males
Meaning/Usage: This is an extremely formal way to say “we.” It’s mostly used by company executives who are referring to the company itself.
Note: The suffix -たち (tachi) can be used at the end of many different words and refers to the collective that is with the root word. For example, ぼくたち (Boku tachi | 僕たち) is another way to say we. The word for “I” has changed from わたし (Watashi |私) to ぼく (boku| 僕）, but the definition remains the same all throughout. If you want to say “you all,” you may use the words あなたたち (Anata tachi) or 君たち (Kimi tachi).
“They” in Japanese
Unlike the other pronouns, “they” in Japanese have only one word for it.
- かれら (Karera | 彼等 / 彼ら)
Meaning/Usage: The Japanese word for “they.” It’s used in all situations, both formal and informal.
Note: The suffix ら (ra | 等）is similar to たち (tachi) except each is only used in certain circumstances. Overall, たち (tachi) is more flexible and has more uses. In this case, you’ll notice the character for かれ (kare | 彼) or “he” preceding the suffix ら (ra), translating as “he and the others” or “them.” This word is not gender-specific.
Possessive Japanese Pronouns
A possessive pronoun is used to show possession or ownership. The marker of possession in the Japanese language is the character の (no). It’s that simple. While English uses words like mine, yours, her, etc., Japanese just adds の (no) to the personal pronoun.
Take a look:
- わたしの (Watashi no | 私の) – Mine
- あなたの ( Anata no | あなたの) – Yours
- かのじょの (Kanojo no | 彼女の) – Her
- かれの (Kare no | 彼の) – His
- わたしたちの (Watashitachi no | 私たちの) – Ours
- かれらの ( Karera no | 彼らの) – Theirs
の (no) can be added to the end of any word to denote possession.
Note: When referring to something that belongs to an “it” in Japanese, the specific word is used. For example, つくえのあし (机の足 | The table’s leg ) *ねこのしょくじ (猫の食事 | The cat’s meal).
Reflexive Japanese Pronouns
Reflexive pronouns are marked using the suffix じしん (Jishin |～自身). The two components of this word are literally “oneself” and “somebody” or “body” in general. These words are used by both genders for all occasions.
- じぶんじしん (Jibun jishin | 自分自身) – myself
- あなたじしん (Anata jishin | あなた自身) – yourself
- かれじしん (Kare jishin | 彼自身) – himself
- かのじょじしん (Kanojo jishin | 彼女自身) –herself
- かれらじしん (Karera jishin | 彼ら自身) – themself / themselves
- わたしたちじしん (Watashitachi jishin | 私たち自身) – ourself / ourselves
Note that when saying “myself,” the word じぶん (Ji bun | 自分) is used instead of わたし (Watashi | 私). This is almost always the case. じぶん (Jibun) means “one’s own” and is reflexive toward the subject of a sentence. For this reason, it’s often used even when referring to others.
Here’s an example:
- こへいさんはじぶんのおかねときっぷをかいました。 (Kohei san wa jibun no okane to kippu wo kaimashita. | 小平さんは自分のお金と切符を買いました。) – Kohei (san) bought the ticket with his own money.
Objective Japanese Pronouns
There is no distinction between object pronouns and subject pronouns in Japanese. That means that there are no words for “us,” “we,” “them,” “me,” and “him.”
The word “her” exists, but only as a possessive pronoun and not an object pronoun. Objects and subjects are distinguished in Japanese using something called particles. The particle を (o) marks direct objects.
Here are some examples:
- かのじょはわたしをみた。 / わたしはかのじょをみた。 (Kanojo ha watashi wo mita. / Watashi ha kanojo wo mita. | 彼女は私を見た。 / 私は彼女を見た。) – She saw me. / I saw her.
- わたしたちはかれらをさがしました。(Watachi tachi ha karera wo sagashimashita. | 私たちは彼らを探しました。) – We looked for them.
Interrogative Japanese Pronouns
Interrogative pronouns make asking questions easy. They are used for both direct and indirect questions.
There are five interrogative pronouns in English: who, whom, whose, what, and which. Here are the interrogative pronouns in Japanese. They are used the same way across genders and different levels of formality:
- なに (nani | 何) – what
- どれ (dore | ドレ) – which
- だれ (dare | 誰) – who
- だれの (dare no | 誰の) – whose
Note that there is no direct way to say “whom” in Japanese and that the use of the particle の (no) is relied on to convey the term “whose.” だれ (dare | 誰) would also be used to say “whom” in Japanese, followed by the appropriate particle for the context.
Reciprocal Japanese Pronouns
Reciprocal pronouns are used to express a mutual action or mutual relationship. They’re not only used to prevent repetition but also to reinforce a sense of collectivism within the action.
There are only a couple in English and one equivalent in Japanese. They are used across both genders at all levels of formality.
Here is the reciprocal Japanese pronoun:
- おたがい (otagai | お互い)
This is how to say “each other” or “one another” in Japanese. Depending on the particle which follows the pronoun, the meaning will change.
Relative Japanese Pronouns
Relative pronouns are used to refer to nouns that were mentioned previously. They can also be used to join two sentences together.
Some common English relative pronouns are that, which, who, and whom. Japanese, on the other hand, does not have specific words which take the place of relative pronouns.
Such an effect would be accomplished by using a verb in its infinite form or adjective to modify a noun. The sentence’s context would then provide context to the would-be relative pronoun equivalent.
Here are a couple of examples:
- おかあさんがのるでんしゃ (Okaasan ga noru densha. | お母さんが乗る電車。) – The train which mom rides.
- ともだちのだいきらいなしょくじ (Tomodachi no daikiraina shokuji. | 友達の大嫌いな食事。) – Meals that/which my friend hates.
This article introduced you to a variety of common pronouns in Japanese and their appropriate usage. You should now have a larger vocabulary and a better understanding of how to use Japanese pronouns. This will undoubtedly improve your overall Japanese language skills!