Japanese Pronouns in Anime

      1 Comment on Japanese Pronouns in Anime

At the moment it seems that the two most popular posts on this blog are the ones about how to pick up subtle points that don’t survive the translation to anime subtitles–even if you don’t understand Japanese (Japanese Honorifics in Anime and Japanese Family Titles in Anime.) So here are my notes on Japanese pronouns [1], which also can convey a lot of information about the characters in ways that are not easy to include in the subtitles. Once again, this will probably seem very elementary to long-term anime fans, or to anyone who actually speaks Japanese.

First Person Pronouns (I)

English has only one way to say “I” or “me”. Japanese has a lot of ways, and the choice of pronoun says a lot about how the speaker feels about himself. Here are the most common.

  • watashi Polite and formal. May be used by either sex, but male anime characters tend to avoid it. In anime it is mostly restricted to men who either very high ranking, weak or evil.
  • watakushi (pronounced watak’shi.) Old-fashioned pronunciation of watashi. It sounds very formal.
  • atashi Shortened form of watashi, less formal and very feminine. In anime, if you hear a boy say “atashi”, you can be pretty sure he is actually a girl is disguise. Flamboyant male homosexuals are the only exception; they use it all the time.
  • atakushi (Pronounced atak’shi.) Old-fashioned form of atashi.
  • boku Less formal masculine form. It sounds boyish, but is often used by older men, especially when speaking to women or children. In most shounen anime series these days there is one girl who calls herself boku; this is supposed to be cute and tomboyish. In real life it is rare for women to use this.
  • ore (Two syllables: “or-eh”.) Coarse, tough-sounding masculine form, suitable only for the most informal situations. Anime characters use this all the time, which is one reason why foreigners are sometimes warned not to learn Japanese by listening to anime.

    For a woman to use ore is absolutely fall-down-and-die hilarious. Anime writers presumably want to take advantage of this, but they usually won’t dare show a Japanese woman using the word. Expect to hear it from men disguised as women, men magically transformed into women, or (more rarely) foreign barbarian women.

  • washi Masculine form, used by high-ranking old men. In anime this is sometimes used by wise old women.
  • ware (Two syllables: “wa-reh”) Used by high-ranking characters; sounds somewhat pompous.
  • waga Means “my” or “our” [2]. Like ware, this sounds formal and rather pompous.
  • uchi Feminine, Kansai dialect [3]. (This dialect is used mostly by comic characters.)
  • <one ‘s own name> Grammatically correct, but childish. In anime this is often used by “cute” teenage girls.

The following are pretty obscure, but may be used by walk-on characters.

  • atai Slang for atashi, feminine and very informal. Implies alienation.
  • ora or oira Northern rural dialects; sounds uncultured.

Don’t expect to hear these pronouns in every sentence where the subtitles say “I”. In Japanese the subject of a sentence is commonly omitted if it can be deduced from context.

Choice of Personal Pronoun

Japanese speakers normally adjust their choice of personal pronoun based on where they are and who they are speaking to. However anime characters tend to just pick one pronoun and stick with it. This seems to be a literary convention, a quick and easy way to signal something about a character’s personality with a single word. (However it’s fairly common for female characters to switch between watashi and atashi.)

Usually the hero will call himself ore and the heroine will use atashi. A nice trick is to create a “team” in which each member uses a different pronoun. Start with two lead characters who say ore and atashi. They will recruit some friends: a boy who says boku and a girl who says watashi. Round it off with a rich girl who says watakushi or a cute girl who uses her own name, and you’re all set. All sorts of combinations are possible. (For a classic example, see the transformation sequences in the later episodes of Shugo Chara.) [4]

Occasionally characters will switch pronouns after a life-changing event. For example, a timid boy who grows up to be a mighty warrior will probably switch from boku to ore.

UPDATE: See also Kaori Shoji’s article on how Japanese women view men who use ore as opposed to boku.

First Person Plural

While Japanese has no true plurals, nouns and pronouns can be “pluralized” by adding a suffix like -tachi or -ra, which mean something like “group including”.

Common words for “we” are watashitachi (pronounced watash’tachi), atashitachi (atash’tachi), bokutachi, bokura and orera.

Ware is pluralized as wareware. This serves as a rather pompous way of saying “my organization.”

Any gender implications apply only to the speaker. If a group consists of four men and one woman, the woman will refer to the group as atashitachi, while one of the men might call it bokura.

Second Person Pronouns (You)

Japanese speakers say “you” much less often than English speakers. Not only is the subject left out of many sentences, but in any case the preferred way to address someone is by name (with appropriate honorific) or by title. Still there are some cases where a pronoun is needed. These are the most common:

  • anata Formal, used by people who don’t know each other well. It can be a bit insulting if used to address a superior (in general, higher-ranking people should always be addressed by title.) Anata is also an old-fashioned way for wives to address their husbands; that usage is usually translated as “dear.”
  • anta Informal. Suggests irritation or impatience, especially when used by women.
  • kimi Informal. Commonly used to address inferiors, e.g. a professor speaking to a student. May also be used to address “intimate equals” such as close friends or lovers. It should never be used to address a superior.
  • omae (“oh-mah-eh”) Informal and tough-sounding, commonly used by men who say ore. This makes the speaker sound tough, but it is not necessarily offensive to the listener, and may even be affectionate. Obviously it should never be used with superiors.

    In anime this may also be used by tough, older women. In real life if a woman calls you this, you may be in trouble. Most women won’t use such coarse language unless they are really angry.

  • temee Offensive, like “You bastard/bitch!” This is used all the time in action-oriented anime. It is rarely heard in real life and should be avoided.
  • kisama Worse than temee. A good way to start a fight in a bar.
  • otaku Originally polite and formal. It has become associated with obsessive anime and manga fans, after some of them started using it in imitation of popular samurai shows.

Second Person Plural

Second person pronouns can be pluralized just like first person pronouns: anatatachi, antatachi, kimitachi, omaera, temeera, or kisamara. However the preferred way to address a group of people is minna-san (“everyone”), or minna-sama if you want to be extra polite.

Third Person Pronouns (He, She, It)

Once again, the preferred way to refer to a third person is by name with honorific, or by title. Still there are situations where that won’t work. Here are some alternatives:

  • ano hito Literally “that person over there.” Formal. Less common variants are sono hito “that person nearby” and kono hito “this person right here”.
  • ano ko “That child over there.” This can be used affectionately for young adults. Also sono ko and kono ko.
  • ano kata “That gentleman/lady over there.” Very formal (and thus rarely heard in anime.)
  • kochira “Right here.” Very formal, generally used when making introductions.
  • aitsu “That guy over there.” Informal, not very respectful, refers to either sex. Also soitsu “that guy nearby” or koitsu “this guy right here”.
  • kyatsu or kayatsu Like aitsu, but only for males.
  • yatsu Like aitsu but even less respectful.
  • kare “He.” Formal, originally coined for translating “he” and other gender-specific pronouns in foreign texts. Used informally to mean “boyfriend.”
  • kanojo “She.” Formal, originally coined for translating “she” and other gender-specific pronouns in foreign texts. Used informally to mean “girlfriend.”
  • kore “This thing.” Equivalent to “it.” As in English, it is offensive to refer to a human being this way. Also sore “that thing” and are “that thing over there.”

Third Person Plurals

Most of these can be pluralized like the other pronouns. Common ways to say “they” include ano hitotachi and karera.

Reflexive Pronouns

There is not much information that you can glean here because there is only one reflexive pronoun: jibun. This serves for “myself”, “yourself”, “himself”, “herself”, etc.


[1] Some linguists say that Japanese doesn’t actually have any pronouns, and all the words I discuss here are really nouns. One difference from English pronouns is that in Japanese you can say things like “this I” which English grammar does not allow. (Phrases like “kono watashi wa” are typically translated as “It is I who shall…”, or something similar.)

[2] The other pronouns can be made possessive by adding the possessive particle no, e.g. watashi no for “my”.

[3] The possessive form uchi no may be used by non-Kansai speakers of both sexes in a way that is normally translated as “my”. Uchi normally means one’s home, family, or some group to which one belongs such as a class or company. Thus uchi no haha means “my family’s mother”, i.e. “my mother”, and uchi no sensei means “my class’s teacher.”

[4] “Atashi no kokoro, ANRAKU! Boku no kokoro ANRAKU! Watashi no kokoro ANRAKU! Yaya no kokoro ANRAKU!”

1 thought on “Japanese Pronouns in Anime

  1. Author

    This was very comprehensive, I don’t have anything major to add.

    One small note, “so-/sono/soko” is not “nearby”, but rather “close to the listener”. The difference is especially noticeable when people talk by technological means.

    Oh, and there’s also a split between formality and politeness that has no equivalent in English. E.g. “kissama” is formal, but insulting. In English, if we want to insult someone, we have to be rude.

Comments are closed.