So many “you” and “I” words, but best used sparingly

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Anata-ga kono kaisha-ni ōbo-shita dōki-wo itte-kudasai (Please tell us what motivated you to apply to this firm)

Situation 1: Section chief Mr. Okubo is interviewing a job applicant.

大久保: ワンさん、あなたがこの会社に応募した動機を言ってください。

ワン: はい、わたくしはアジアで健康ビジネスを広げたいと思っていたので . . . 。

Okubo: Wan-san, anata-ga kono kaisha-ni ōbo-shita dōki-wo itte-kudasai.

Wang: Hai, watakushi-wa Ajia-de kenkō-bijinesu-wo hirogetai-to omotte-ita-node . . .

Okubo: Mr. Wang, could you tell us your motive for applying to this company?

Wang: Yes. I’ve been thinking about developing a health business in Asia, so . . .

Today we will introduce the proper use of “you” and “I” in Japanese. There are a handful of words that mean “you,” such as あなた, きみ and おまえ, but these are not used as often as their English equivalent. Instead of “you,” a person’s family name or given name with the suffix -さん (such as たなかさん), or their position name — such as 先生 (せんせい, teacher) or 課長 (かちょう, section chief) — is often used. In most other cases, these words are omitted. If あなた is used to address superiors, it sounds impolite. In spoken language, the speaker often addresses one’s unfamiliar junior as あなた, in situations such as job interviews or a TV announcer’s question to passers-by. On casual occasions, like when addressing their husband, lover, child or close friends, some middle-aged and senior women use あなた. Men sometimes use きみ or おまえ instead. おまえ sounds ruder than きみ, but young males use it a lot. あなた and きみ are seldom used among young people these days except in lyrics or poems, and a person’s name or おまえ (only by males) is used instead. Example: ユカのバッグ、いいね。どこで買(か)ったの? (Your (=Yuka’s) bag is nice. Where did you buy it?)

Situation 2: On Sunday. Mrs. Shiba is going to the supermarket to do some shopping.

妻: 私、夕食の買い物に行きたいんだけど。

夫: じゃ、ぼくは、じゅんの面倒を見ながら、掃除をしておくよ。

Tsuma: Watashi, yūshoku-no kaimono-ni ikitai-n-da-kedo.

Otto: Ja, boku-wa Jun-no mendō-wo minagara, sōji-wo shite-oku-yo.

Wife: I want to go shopping to get something for dinner.

Husband: I’ll take care of baby Jun while I clean the house.

わたし, which means “I,” is used broadly, but male speakers tend to use it only in formal situations, such as in business conversations. わたくしis a more formal version of わたし. In casual conversation, ぼくor おれ is used by boys and men when they are speaking with equals or juniors, such as close friends or family members. おれ sounds ruder and more masculine than ぼく but is often used. あたし is used by some girls and women in casual situations. Therefore, わたし and あなた, ぼくand きみ, おれ and おまえ are equal pairs. Example: おれは知(し)らないけど、おまえ、知ってる? (I don’t know it, but how about you?). These words are omitted if it is obvious from the context. When judging how to refer to yourself and others in conversations with Japanese speakers, listen out for these words as clues.

Bonus Dialogue: High school student Mitsuo and his younger sister Takako, a junior high school student, are chatting.

たか子: お兄(にい)ちゃんは「ぼく」って言ったり、「おれ」って言(い)ったりしてるね。

光男: うん、その時(とき)によって使(つか)い分(わ)けているから。

たか子: でも、私(わたし)は「おれ」って言(い)う人(ひと)より、「ぼく」って言う人のほうがやさしそうな感(かん)じがする。

光男: 「おれ」のほうがふつうだよ。

たか子: でも、先生(せんせい)の前(まえ)では「ぼく」って言っているでしょ?

光男: まあね。先生は、「目上(めうえ)の人には『ぼく』って言いなさい」って言うんだよ。

たか子: 男子(だんし)は大変(たいへん)ね。いろいろ言いかたを変(か)えなきゃならないから。

光男: そうだなあ。でも、女子(じょし)は服(ふく)で気(き)を使うから、同(おな)じかな。

Takako: You sometimes use “boku” and sometimes use “ore“(when you refer to yourself), right?

Mitsuo: Yeah, I use them depending on the occasion.

Takako: But I think a person who uses “boku” seems gentler than one who uses “ore.”

Mitsuo: It’s more natural to use “ore.”

Takako: But, you say “boku” in front of your teacher.

Mitsuo: Yeah. Our teacher says to use “boku” to our superiors.

Takako: Boys have it tough. You have to watch what you say.

Mitsuo: You’re right. But girls worry about what they wear. That’s as tough as what boys have to deal with, I think.