If you’re a Japanese TV drama or anime lover, you might have noticed the wide variety of Japanese pronouns. Ordinary textbooks usually teach you only two of them: わたし (watashi) and ぼく (boku). Are these enough? They might be if you’re learning basic Japanese just to survive a short time in Japan. But if you hope to understand your favorite dramas or anime much more deeply, you’d better learn some more. Here’s why.

If you have studied the Japanese language at all, you will have learned the pronoun わたし (watashi). わたしis used to mean “I” by both men and women of all ages. For example, わたしはジョンです。(Watashi wa John desu: I am John.) Learning わたし (watashi) for “I” is enough for beginners. In the real world, however, you would be surprised how many choices you have in Japanese to refer to yourself, unlike in English or many other languages! And it might be hard to believe that a Japanese person might switch pronouns depending on the situation, their mood, or even their personality! Let’s take a look at some examples from the drama Switch Girl.

This drama is a lot of fun, but I’d like to ask you to try NOT to think that all the Japanese high school students are as crazy as the characters in this drama!! Anyway, let’s focus on the boys’ lines now. Were you able to get the second boy’s line?

見せていただけるならせっしゃ脳内一生、ヘビーローテーションするでござ る

(Misete itadakerunonara, sessha, nonai de issho, hebiroteshon surudegozaru.)

Hmm, this line is not easy to understand. He is saying, “If she lets me see them (underwear), I will play the image over and over (“heavy rotation”) in my brain for the rest of my life.” The point is that he called himself せっしゃ (sessha). This is one of the Japanese pronouns for “I.” Have you ever heard it? Probably not! That’s because this pronoun is an archaic one which was used by samurai long ago. Well then why did he call himself せっしゃ (sessha)? Is he a samurai? Of course not. He probably chose to call himself せっしゃ (sessha) because he wanted to show his respect for the girl (or her underwear?!) by talking in a ridiculously formal way like a samurai.

Okay, this character’s lines might be a little extreme, but it illustrates that Japanese people change pronouns depending on the situation. The next example might be easier to understand. There’s a poor boy who thinks he was attacked by the girls (the boy who wears glasses).

He looked at the girls and said,

・・・ぼく?!(Boku?!: Me?!)

Some Japanese textbooks (including our site, Nihongo Master) teach this pronoun ぼく (boku) as an alternative pronoun for men/boys to use. It is totally okay for men to use it in both casual and formal situations. But here, this ぼく (boku) is used to emphasize the boy’s personality! How can we tell that, and what kind of personality is being emphasized? If you keep watching the drama, you’ll notice that most of the male students – especially the “cool” guys – call themselves おれ (ore), not ぼく (boku). ぼく (boku) is fine for men of all situations to use in formal situations, but it can sound too “cute” and “immature” when it’s used in a casual setting.

And, you know, boys at this age would normally do everything NOT to be looked upon as “cute” and “immature”! Now, you may begin to understand what kind of personality this boy is supposed to have. By calling himself ぼく (boku) when speaking to his classmates, he doesn’t look very “cool” and “mature,” unfortunately.

So, by now you may have started to understand that each Japanese pronoun can give a sense of the personality of the speaker or how he/she wants to be looked upon by others in casual situations. In addition to ぼく (boku) and おれ (ore), you may hear the following pronouns being spoken by guys in an anime or a TV drama. It’s good to know what kind of personality these pronouns indicate!

わし (washi): used by older men; sounds “mature” and “calm”

おれさま (oresama): さま (sama) is an honorific title.

So, by adding this title to a pronoun referring to oneself, this sounds like the person has a rather large ego and doesn’t sound very nice and sweet.

じぶん (jibun): can be used in formal settings, too. This is often preferred by a “military-style” man.

おいら (oira) or おら (ora): sounds “easy-going” and “casual” (but this pronoun is hardly used nowadays except for in some anime)

How about girls? They can also change pronouns depending on the situation. In a formal situation or if the woman is a “mature” girl, she uses わたし (watashi). But when a woman wants to add some “cuteness,” she may call herself あたし (atashi). And if a woman wants to be looked upon as “elegant,” she could call herself わたくし (watakushi). We’ve introduced some pronouns here, but this is not all of them! Next time when you watch a Japanese TV drama or an anime, why not try to spot the pronouns? You may discover some more. By knowing the pronouns and the personality and nuance they carry, you will enjoy the drama or anime with a deeper understanding of the characters! Oh, but don’t forget to use わたし (watashi) when speaking in a formal situation. As long as you know that, you’re totally free to switch pronouns depending on your mood or the situation!

Nihongo Master

Guest Post By Masako Hashikawa of Nihongo Master

Nihongo Master is the best online destination to Learn Japanese Online. Score points, gain achievements and rank against others as you become the next Nihongo Master! Next time you watch Japanese drama on DramaFever, skip the subtitles. Learn Japanese Online now!