An often misunderstood perception about the Japanese language is that it’s long-winded and excessively polite. True, there’s an entire lexicon devoted to politeness, called keigo (敬語, the language of reverence) and in Kyoto, there’s such a thing as kyūtei kotoba (宮廷言葉, palatial language) — spoken almost exclusively among established families of imperial blood, and most of it indecipherable to the lower classes. But that’s only one aspect of a diverse and ever-morphing language equipped with infinite shades of nuances and tiny, detailed quirks. And one of those details is seen (and heard) in the use of pronouns.
Pronouns are a surefire indication of when a person is about to switch conversational lanes from polite to casual, formal to intimate. Men especially will make the changeover from boku (僕) to ore (俺) in referring to themselves. And when they’re ready to forego formalities with a woman, they’ll change from using kimi (君) or anata (貴方) — both are polite terms that mean “you” — to omae (お前). A third person will be referred to as aitsu (アイツ) and when a man is angry or upset with that person, s/he will be called ano yarō (あの野郎, that rascal). My grandmother used to warn the girls in the family to listen to changes in a man’s conversational tone; a guy who got too casual too soon was not to be trusted, but an overly polite male was often cold and hypocritical. Interestingly, Haruki Murakami’s male characters almost always go by boku instead of ore and it matches their sensitivity and particular narcissism.
Tastes differ. One of my girlfriends, Ayako, shies away from men who say ore and claims no one had ever dared call her omae in her entire life. Ayako is a purebred ojōsama (お嬢様, daughter from a high-class family) who had attended a prestigious joshikō (女子校, girls’ school) from kindergarten through college and views most males as annoying Neanderthals. She herself uses watashi (私) for “I” and never the feminine atashi, a subtle but telling difference. On the other hand Mari, who is batsuichi (バツイチ, divorced once), falls for the same variety of ore-ore otoko (おれおれ男, a man who says me, me) ever since her marriage to a gentle, nonassertive guy fell apart six years ago. These ah, prehistoric cave men don’t always make her happy but according to Mari: “Ore-ore otoko wa kakkoii” (「おれおれ男はかっこいい」 “the me-me-guy is cool”). Mari is very accommodating that way.
She could also be on to something. Men who say “ore” give off an unmistakable otokokusasa (男臭さ, whiff of masculinity), something increasingly hard to detect in this age of anemic sōshoku danshi (草食男子, herbivore boys, i.e., weak men) that say stuff like: “bokutte anmari renai toka tokuijanakute” (「僕ってあんまり恋愛とか得意じゃなくて」 “I’m not that good at stuff like relationships”) and think that’s a perfectly acceptable statement — jōdanjya nai yo (冗談じゃないよ, it’s no joke)! The ore-ore-otoko, for his part, may be a handful but at least he has guts, and will eat them too. Speaking from a woman’s viewpoint, these otoko may enrage you to the point of seizure and ultimately break your heart. But you always know where you are with them.
Coming from the same headquarters but another department are the men who only utter two pronouns: ore and jibun (自分, oneself). Often hailing from the Kansai area, they’re so self-oriented they make little distinction between “oneself” and other “ones.” Such a sentence in action may go like this: “Jibun, tabako sūdaro. Jibun to isshoni kinen shinaika?” (「自分、タバコすうだろう。自分と一緒に禁煙しないか」 literally, “One smokes, doesn’t one. Why doesn’t one quit the habit together?”) Very confusing, and often infuriating. One of my brothers is like that (a holdover from his days as a judo athlete) and has lost several girlfriends through his excessive Japanese machismo. Thankfully, he is now married to a lovely woman who keeps her sanity intact by never listening to a word he says.
Still, my brother’s star is on the rise. The ore-ore-otoko and his jargon are now considered fashionable. Men, and in many cases even women, will use ore or jibun to describe aspects of their personality, and to mark the boundaries where they can be strong and self-assertive or honorable and disciplined. Restaurants carry items like ore no hanbāgu (俺のハンバーグ, my hamburger) or ore no karē (俺のカレー, my curry) to stress the fact that these are no fancy, calorie slashed diet dishes but genuine, hefty fare that “jibun” can really sink one’s teeth into.
In my book, the current ore-ore-otoko par extraordinaire is soccer player Keisuke Honda. He left Japan to play for a Moscow team but returns periodically to give interviews and wow the press with yet another pair in a series of Prada jeans. Ore or jibun crops up in his interviews at a rate of once every four seconds. Very likely he’s never uttered boku, or ever eaten a meal under 1,000 calories in his entire life. Now that’s a man.