You learned in the sentence structure lesson that Japanese sentences do not always require subjects, as the subjects are often implied in the context of the sentence. Personal pronouns as subjects are therefore often omitted from sentences. However, to make the context clear, you will frequently hear personal pronouns used as subjects.
Also, personal pronouns are often used as sentence objects (the receiver of an action—“send a package to me,” for example) and as possessives. (“My” or “your,” for example, is literally translated as “of me” or “of you.”) The best part for the Japanese as a second language learner is that there is no difference between the subject version of the personal pronoun and the object version. In other words, “I” is the same as “me,” “we” is the same as “us,” “he” is the same as “him,” “she” is the same as “her,” and “they” is the same as “them.”
If you’ve been studying our other Japanese grammar lessons, you’ve probably noticed an overall pattern: There is more emphasis placed on the level of formality than anything else. So while there is no difference between “I” and “me” or “we” and “us” for example, there is a difference between which word to use depending on the situation.
A speaker selects which personal pronoun to use based on the level of formality. In other words, personal pronoun choice depends on the speaker and the person to whom the speaker is talking. A young woman may call herself “atashi” around her close friends, but she would use the neutrally polite “watashi” around her boss. If she were introduced to a famous teacher for whom she has a lot of respect, she would use the very formal “watakushi.”
Some personal pronouns are gender-exclusive. For example, while a man would still use “watashi” and “watakushi” to refer to himself in situations that call for it, he would never use “atashi,” which is a feminine casual way to refer to oneself. He could, however, use the humble casual form of “I,” “boku,” or the form a little more audacious, “ore.” These are exclusively male forms of self-address. On the rare occasion you hear a person using a personal pronoun not intended for his or her gender, the person is making a statement about his or her personality.
This chart lists a selection (there are plenty more!) of the most frequently used singular pronouns, listed from most polite to most casual. You may encounter these pronouns in spoken Japanese, but you should be safe using the bolded terms, which are polite but not overly polite:
|I/me||watakushi (extremely formal, either gender)
watashi (formal, either gender)
uchi (somewhat formal, either gender)
atashi (casual, female)
boku (casual, male)
ore (extremely casual, male)
|you (singular)||otaku (extremely formal, either gender)
anata (formal, either gender)
omae (casual, males speaking to females)
kimi (extremely casual, males speaking to females, elders speaking to younger people, etc.)
anta (extremely casual, either gender)
|he/him||ano kata (extremely formal)
ano hito (formal)
|she/her||ano kata (extremely formal)
ano hito (formal)
How do you get the plural forms of these pronouns? Just add “-tachi” (if speaking politely) to the singular form of the pronoun. Thus “we” is “watashitachi,” “you (plural)” is “anatatachi,” and “they [all males or all females]” is “karetachi” while “they [all females]” is “kanojotachi.”
You may also hear the suffix “-gata” used with “anata.” (“Anatagata.”) This is an extremely formal version of “you [plural].” The suffix “-ra” is an extremely casual suffix added to some personal pronouns to make them plural, such as “aitsura,” “karera,” etc.
“It” or “they [plural inanimate objects]” do not have direct Japanese translations, although they have some nearly equivalent pronouns. However, let’s leave those aside for now!
Although you won’t use personal pronouns in Japanese as often as you do in English, it is essential that you learn them. Be sure to understand the different levels of formality. When in doubt, use the formal form.