You may have learned that “I” is 私 (watashi). And while this is a handy all-around term to use when referring to yourself, a 2019 survey showed that over 30% of Japanese women and around 70% of Japanese men don’t regularly use it.
To make things even more confusing, people do or don’t use 私 entirely depending on the situation. While 80% of women in their 50s expected to use 私 to address colleagues or acquaintances their own age, just 30% expected to use it for people they met for the first time. Meanwhile, 60% of men in their 50s expected to use it when meeting a young person for the first time. But that percentage dropped to 40% of the time when they were meeting someone their own age.
Japanese dictionaries and resources list over 30 different words for just one in English: “I”. Every word expresses different nuances about how the speaker views themselves and what their relationship is to the person they’re speaking with. There’s わたし (watashi), わたくし (watakushi), あたし (atashi), 僕 (boku), 吾輩 (wagahai), 俺 (ore), うち (uchi), 儂 (washi), 麿 (maro) and 自分 (jibun), just to name a few. So how to know which one to use?
First, you will need to understand how 一人称代名詞 (ichininshō daimeishi, first-person pronouns) are used in Japanese in general. On the simple side, there’s no distinction between “I” and “me” — you can use the same pronouns, whether you’re saying 私はエリックです (Watashi wa Erikku desu, I am Eric), 私をエリックと呼んでください (Watashi o Erikku to yonde kudasai, Please call me Eric) or even 私の名前はエリックです (Watashi no namae wa Erikku desu, My name is Eric).
On the more confusing side, Japanese speakers rarely use pronouns to begin with. Saying 私はエリックです, while acceptable, is much less common than simply saying エリックです, skipping the pronoun altogether. Japanese simply does not grammatically require pronouns, and the subject of sentences is often inferred based on context.
Prior to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), people rarely saw themselves as distinguishable from the group they were a part of, whether an 家 (ie, house/family) or 村 (mura, village). This quality of Japanese culture led to a lesser focus on the 個人 (kojin, individual). It also means that pronoun usage has changed dramatically over time. For example, a 2011 analysis of a series of articles published in 1887-88 showed that the most frequently used pronoun by a wide margin was 吾⼈ (gojin, I) followed by 余 (yo, I).
Below are the seven most common first-person pronouns used today along with their nuances:
- わたし: A semi-formal, gender-neutral option that can be utilized in a variety of formal and casual settings. Used more by women.
- わたくし: A more formal version of わたし. Best used in official situations or when speaking to one’s elder or superior.
- あたし: A feminine, cutesy version of わたし. Used almost exclusively by young women.
- 僕: A polite and somewhat masculine pronoun with connotations of being boyish and cultured. Mainly used by young men.
- 俺: A strongly masculine option that can be taken as harsh or vulgar, and one of the most popular options for men.
- うち: A relatively new and trending pronoun for younger women that originated in Kansai subculture.
- 自分: A gender-neutral first-person pronoun that can be used in semi-formal and informal situations, which gives off impressions of seriousness and humility.
A 2014 survey of college students, while slightly outdated, reveals key information on how people naturally use these various pronouns. Of college-aged men, 76% used 俺 most often, 11% used 僕, with 4.5% each using 私 and 自分. Despite the overwhelming dominance of 俺, the survey showed that these same men would rarely use it with someone they are meeting for the first time or to teachers, instead opting for 私, 僕 or 自分.
Of college-aged women, 42% used うち, 36% わたし and 4% to 8% used each of あたし, 自分 and 僕. Around 4% of young women also referred to themselves by their own name, or their own name plus the diminutive ちゃん, creating a particularly cutesy and feminine first-person reference. However, it’s again worth noting that usage of 私 skyrocketed to 80% when speaking to teachers, with respective declines in every other pronoun.
Look at the following three scenarios in which we express the phrase “I’ll take care of it, so please don’t worry,” each of which give off a completely different impression due to the chosen pronouns:
- Masculine and brash, probably among colleagues or acquaintances: 俺がするから、気にしないでください (Ore ga suru kara, ki ni shinaide kudasai)
- Highly formal, probably at work or to a superior: わたくしが致しますので、どうかお気になさらないでください (Watakushi ga itashimasu node, dōka o-ki ni nasaranaide kudasai)
- Feminine and cutesy, probably among young women or to a boyfriend: えみがするから、気にしないで (Emi [one’s name] ga suru kara, ki ni shinai de)
There are a few other niche pronouns that could be useful to know. 儂 (washi) is often used in manga, film and anime by old men: 儂が面倒みてやる (Washi ga mendō mite yaru, I’ll take care of you [old man speech]). 吾輩 (wagahai) is an older pronoun for men that carries a certain weightiness and self-import, as seen in the title of Natsume Soseki’s “吾輩は猫である” (“Wagahai wa neko de aru,” “I Am A Cat”).
When using 一人称代名詞, the most important part is to remember to change your pronoun according to the situation. Young men used one or two pronouns on average, and young women used two or three. So which pronoun will you choose?