Until you finally get used to Japanese and feel comfortable deploying all its various words and phrases fluently, it can be helpful to find conceptual expedients to use as crutches in the short term.

If one of these crutches can help you solve two problems, that’s all the better, and I’d like to share a particular trick that’s helped me better understand both the lack of explicit pronoun use in Japanese as well as 敬語 (keigo, polite speech), two of the language’s most intimidating features.

First, let me provide some background: Japanese rarely uses explicit pronouns. For example, when you’re saying goodbye to someone as you leave the house for the day, the appropriate Japanese phrase is 行ってきます (itte-kimasu). This literally means “I’m going” or could even be interpreted as “I’ll see you later” or “I’ll be back.” There’s no sign of a pronoun in the Japanese — no “I” (私 [watashi], 僕 [boku], 俺 [ore] or あたし [atashi]) or “you” (あなた [anata] or 君 [kimi]) — but it’s absolutely clear who is doing the going and who they will see when they return. The vast number of pronoun-less Japanese sentences are equally clear with their meaning.