Immersive interactions are a critical part of learning Japanese. One that I’m reminded of just now, as I sit down to write, took place at a Yokohama craft beer bar more than 10 years ago, but it’s still so vivid in my mind.

I was at the venue’s anniversary party and the crowd was small enough that everyone made friends easily and talked with each other in small groups over the course of the night.

I was 26 at the time and there with a couple of young friends. We were talking with a few women in their early 40s. I don’t remember the specific conversation, but my Japanese friend at one point in the conversation needed to ask the women what kind of work they did, so he paused for a moment, searching for the correct way to address them directly, and said, お姉さんたちはどんな仕事をしていますか (O-nēsan-tachi wa donna shigoto o shite imasu ka, What kind of work do you young women do)?

The women laughed, impressed with my friend’s polite choice of お姉さん, which is also the word for “older sister.” They were older than us but not quite at the level of おばさん (obasan, middle-aged women), and it would have been presumptuous to address them that way.

This experience engrained an important lesson in my mind: Compared to English, Japanese uses “words of personal reference” much less often, so when you do use them, you should be very careful what the words themselves imply.

“Words of personal reference” is what the textbook “Japanese: The Spoken Language” calls the category of words that includes pronouns, names and anything else used to refer to people in some way.

Yes, this includes all the variations of “I”—including but not limited to 私 (watashi), ぼく (boku) and 俺 (ore) — and “you” — including but not limited to あなた (anata), 君 (kimi) and お前 (omae).

Often the other language in a sentence will render these words of reference completely unnecessary. For example, the subjects of お邪魔します (o-jama shimasu, pardon me for entering your space, lit. “I will be a bother”) and お越しになります (o-koshi ni narimasu, you come) are immediately self apparent; the former uses a 謙譲語 (kenjōgo, humble polite speech) pattern, in which the speaker humbles themself, and the latter uses a 尊敬語 (sonkeigo, honorific polite speech) pattern, in which the speaker honors the person they address. There’s never a need to refer to the person through a specific word because the verbs themselves already refer to the person.

But there are times when you must refer to a specific person, either to differentiate them from others or to get their attention. So what do you do in this situation?

The short answer is to find the most appropriate, polite word possible. Often this is a surname with the appropriate 敬称 (keishō, honorific). If you are referring to someone named Tanaka, then 田中さん (Tanaka-san), is a perfectly good way to say “you,” “your,” “he,” “his,” “she” or “her,” depending on the circumstances.

For example, 田中さんの家では毎朝ご飯を食べますか (Tanaka-san no ie de wa maiasa gohan o tabemasu ka) could mean both “At your house, do you eat rice every morning?” or “At his/her house, do they eat rice every morning?” depending on the context of the conversation.

Things get a little more complicated if you need to use a word of reference with a stranger whose name you don’t know. Often in this case, people fall into categories.

お客様 (o-kyaku-sama, customer/visitor) is one category that frequently defines a personal interaction in Japan and is a polite way to address someone, especially if you’re at work and talking with someone over the phone.

You can even use this to ask for the person’s name: お客様のお名前をお伺いしてもよろしいでしょうか (O-kyaku-sama no o-namae o o-ukagai-shite mo yoroshii deshō ka, May I ask for your [the customer’s] name?). With the name in hand, any necessary references are easier and more natural moving forward.

As is apparent from the first example I gave, お姉さん and お兄さん (o-nīsan, young man/older brother) are two other useful categories for younger people, and おばさん and おじさん (ojisan, middle-aged man) for older people, but be cautious deploying them: The age breakdown between the two sets of terms is contested, even by Japanese. The minefield only expands when you add the terms おばあさん (o-bāsan, older woman) and おじいさん (o-jīsan, older man) into the mix.

And remember to be mindful of example sentences you can borrow. Watch and listen to the way that Japanese refer to each other and themselves, and soon enough you may find you don’t need pesky pronouns as much as you first thought you did.

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