Welcome back to Lost in Honyaku, where we help you get the most out of your anime-watching experience! There are many aspects of Japanese that just can’t be translated into English, and so you may end up missing out on great little tidbits that help to really define what makes every character unique.
This time we are going to look at something that the Japanese language has a whole myriad of! Unlike honorifics, these will never pop up in the subtitles- so you’ll have to really listen for them! They are words that will usually be translated into the same two words in English – ‘I’ and ‘me’. Yup, Japanese has a whole bunch of first-person pronouns that differ depending on the character and the situation.
Before we start, there are a few little things to take note of~ ⭐︎
- Japanese has a tendency to omit personal pronouns, so you may see ‘I’ or ‘me’ in the subtitles yet not hear any of the Japanese pronouns.
- The pronouns one uses may change depending on the formality of the situation, so there may be times a character actually uses a different pronoun. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- This article only scratches the surface of Japanese first-person pronouns.
- There is no distinction between subject and object pronouns in Japanese (In English, ‘I’ is a subject pronoun and ‘me’ is an object pronoun)
- Most importantly, the usage of pronouns in anime and manga differs greatly to that of real Japanese people. That’s kind of the point of this column, though (๑•́ ₃ •̀๑)
Got it? Great! Let’s go!
The following five examples are the most commonly heard first-person pronouns in modern standard Japanese. Sounds like a good place to start!
This is the most basic of basic first-person pronouns. It’s used in formal conversation and can be used by both men and women. It’s very rare to hear male protagonists use this; it just doesn’t have any punch to it.
Male examples: L and Nia from Death Note ・ Cecil from Uta no Prince Sama
Female examples: Pretty much any typical female character. Sorry!
A much more formal version of watashi. Usually used by butlers and servants, or high-class young ladies.
Examples: Satoko Hojo from Higurashi no Naku Koro ni ・ Cecilia Alcott from Infinite Stratos, oh ho ho ho
A slightly more feminised version of watashi. It may be heard used by women in casual conversation. When used by men it usually defines them as being a stereotypical gay character or a cross-dresser, oh my.
Male Examples: Arashi Narukami from Ensemble Stars! ・ Ringo Tsukimiya from Uta no Prince Sama (only when cross-dressing, though!)
Female Examples: Usagi Tsukino from Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon ・ Nana Osaki from NANA
A slightly more masculine alternative to watashi, boku is most commonly associated with young boys. It is also heard by grown men in formal conversation. It’s often used to define female characters as being tomboys- a trend that is known as bokukko in Japanese and quite rare in real life.
Male examples: Allen Walker from D.Gray-man ・ Son Gohan from Dragonball
Female Examples: Utena Tenjo from Revolutionary Girl Utena ・ Makoto (Sailor Jupiter) and Haruka (Sailor Uranus) from Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon
Super masculine, and not used in formal situations (unless the character is super rough around the edges of course). Although it’s not unheard of for older women in the Tohoku region of Japan to use this, a female character speaking in standard Japanese and using ore is usually seen as rough, gruff, and generally un-ladylike. Lovely.
Male examples: Pretty much any male protagonist (~_~)
Female Examples: Akane Kimidori from Dr. Slump ・ Rin from Spirited Away
~A LITTLE MORE~
Now we’ll introduce a few pronouns that are less common. Many of these are archaic so you may hear them in historical anime or by… slightly odd characters if the anime has a modern day setting.
Usually associated with the title of Natsume Soseki’s ‘I am a Cat’ (Wagahai wa Neko Dearu), this is quite an archaic, presumptuous way to refer to oneself. A character who uses this may be smug, arrogant or just plain weird.
Examples: The Millennium Earl from D.Gray-man ・ Rei Sakuma from Ensemble Stars
Associated with Samurai or Ninja characters. You might hear this in shows set in feudal Japan, but if the setting is modern day Japan…then we may have a weirdo on our hands.
Examples: Kenshin Himura from Rurouni Kenshin ・ Shinobu Sengoku from Ensemble Stars! (definitely one of the latter)
The standard for female characters from the Kansai region of Japan. Uchi is sometimes used by girls who are speaking in standard Japanese, although it may make them seem a little bit simple or naive.
Examples: Rinko Yamato from My Love Story!! ・ Mikan Sakura from Gakuen Alice
Most commonly used by old male characters. Even some characters that may have used ore when they were young have switched to washi when they have turned elderly.
Examples: Joseph Joestar: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (when older) ・ Nurarihyon from Nurarihyon no Mago
Remember how in the last column we learned that ~sama is used to show a lot of respect? Can you imagine using it on yourself? That’s right, characters who use ore-sama are usually arrogant and pompous. Their blood is hot, hot, hot.
Examples: Hoshi / Star from Arakawa Under the Bridge ・ Hanamichi Sakuragi from Slam Dunk
A variation of ore, ora is seen as being a little bit more country, and less rock and roll.
Examples: Son Goku and ChiChi from Dragonball ・ Shinnosuke from Crayon Shin-chan
Probably the strangest pronoun on the list. Mii, from the English word ‘me’ is often used by foreign characters (never mind it not making any sense) or characters who are just downright insane. It completely disregards the fact that ‘me’ can never be used as a subject pronoun in English, but, hey, whatever.
Examples: Iyami from Osomatsu-kun / Osomatsu-san ・ Shining Saotome from Uta no Prince-sama
Own name (自分の名前)
Instead of using a pronoun, there are characters who may use their own name to refer to themselves. Although acceptable amongst children, older women who do this are often defined as burikko (i.e.: women who try very hard to be cute and child-like). Sometimes one may describe these characters as….annoying 😀 (sorry, that might just be me…)
Examples: Misa from Death Note ・ Juvia from Fairy Tail
Knowing these Japanese Pronouns Will Make a Difference
So that’s it for now, guys. We hope you can hear some of these words next time you are watching something in Japanese! Maybe even your image of some characters will change as well?! See you next time!