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 inflection of nouns and pronouns in Japanese.

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

Kana: (a)(na)(ta)
Romanization:anata
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:

Kana: (wa)(ta)(si)(ha)    (ni)(ho)(n)(zi)(n)(de)(su)(period)
Romanization: Watasiwa Nihonzindesu.
Structure: noun
(I)
topic
marker
noun
(Japan)
suffix
(person)
copula
(is + polite)
Meaning:I am a Japanese.

Kana: (a)(na)(ta)(ha)    (a)(me)(ri)(ka)(zi)(n)(de)(su)(period)
Romanization: Anatawa Amerikazindesu.
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 (wa)(ta)(si) "watashi" is commonly used in formal situations. But the pronoun (a)(na)(ta) "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.

Kana: (bo)(ku)
Romanization:boku
Meaning:I

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


Kana: (o)(re)
Romanization:ore
Meaning:I

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


Kana: (a)(ta)(si)
Romanization:atasi
Meaning:I

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


Kana: (ki)(mi)
Romanization:kimi
Meaning:you (singular)

This is a colloquial pronoun for the addressee. Using it seems to me snobbish. It is not good to use it for people who have higher position than you. It is often used with (bo)(ku) "boku".


Kana: (o)(ma)(e)
Romanization:omae
Meaning:you (singular)

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


As you see, some Japanese pronouns clearly 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 simply provides choice, and which word you use is totally 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 (ta)(ti) "tati" and (ra) "ra" are used for plural pronouns. These are common suffixes for people, not only for pronouns.

Kana: (wa)(ta)(si)(ta)(ti)
Romanization:watasitati
Meaning:we


Kana: (bo)(ku)(ta)(ti)
Romanization:bokutati
Meaning:we


You can use (ra) instead of (ta)(ti), but the latter is more common.

It is no problem to use (a)(na)(ta)(ta)(ti) "anatatati" for the addressees, but the polite plural suffix (ga)(ta) "gata" is more commonly used like this:

Kana: (a)(na)(ta)(ga)(ta)
Romanization:anatagata
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 the speakers:

Kana: (wa)(re)(wa)(re)
Romanization:wareware
Meaning:we

This pronoun consists of the word (wa)(re) "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.

Kana: (ka)(re)
Romanization:kare
Meaning:he

Kana: (ka)(no)(zi)(small yo)
Romanization:kanozyo
Meaning:she

I don't think these words are often used. In fact (ka)(no)(zi)(small yo) was invented only 100 years ago. Before that (ka)(re) 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 modernization of Japan.

Meanwhile, the following phrases are also used:

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

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

You can use a politer word (ka)(ta) LH' "kata", which is the same as the polite plural suffix (ga)(ta) "gata".

Kana: (a)(no)    (ka)(ta)
Romanization:anokata
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 (ta)(ti) and (ra) like the following:

Kana: (ka)(re)(ra)
Romanization:karera
Meaning:they (men)

Kana: (ka)(no)(zi)(small yo)(ra)
Romanization:kanozyora
Meaning:they (women)

For some unknown reason, (ka)(re)(ta)(ti) "karetati" is not used at all, while using (ka)(no)(zi)(small yo)(ta)(ti) "kanozyotati" is no problem. You can also use (a)(no) (hi)(to)(ta)(ti) "ano hitotati", which is nonsexist. Of course using a person's name is always better.


The word (sa)(n) "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 (sa)(n).

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 (no) "no". My name (ta)(ka)(su)(gi) (si)(n)(zi) "Takasugi Sinzi" means (ta)(ka)(su)(gi)(no) (si)(n)(zi) "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 (na)(ma)(e) "namae", but it also means the given name. The family name is (mi)(small yo)(u)(zi) "myôzi". Since the word (na)(ma)(e) means either a name or a given name, you can use the phrase (si)(ta)(no)(na)(ma)(e) "sita no namae", which means the lower name, to clearly mean the given name. You can use the phrase (u)(e)(no) (na)(ma)(e) "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.


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