If you’ve spent any time at all learning Japanese, you’ve likely noticed that mastering even the basics requires understanding a lot of moving parts.
The good news is that the Japanese language tends to be very consistent—that means that once you understand how one part of a sentence works, you can count on it to keep behaving that way.
Pronouns in Japanese are the same. While Japanese pronouns function very differently than they might in English—including not appearing at all sometimes!—they are simple to use once you buckle down and get a grasp on them.
To use Japanese pronouns correctly, you’ll need to consider not only personal pronouns but also Japanese demonstrative and indefinite pronouns too. Don't worry – you already know what these are in English, even if you don't know the jargon!
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What Does A Pronoun Do?
Before you begin learning about pronouns, it’s important to make sure that you’re on the right page regarding what a pronoun actually is.
A pronoun is a word that refers to either a person or another agent in a sentence or utterance. In other words, things like “I”, “she”, “that”, and “everyone” are all pronouns (albeit of different kinds).
They are nouns that indicate what (or whom) you’re speaking about, but they’re not as specific as proper nouns. They’re the difference between “that’s a dog” and “Hachiko is a dog.”
What Are Pronouns?
In English, you can expect to use pronouns often, especially when talking about yourself. In fact, it’s almost impossible to discuss what happened to you, what you’re thinking about, or what you plan to do without using the pronoun “I.”
However, in Japanese, many pieces of a sentence can—and often are—omitted while still being understood, and pronouns are some of the most commonly omitted. You will find that pronouns such as “I” and “you” are much more rarely used compared to English, because they can be left out of the sentence entirely.
However, if you find this hard to wrap your mind around, don’t worry; you can definitely include them yourself, and you will not be incorrect. Just be aware that many native speakers will elect not to use “I” or “you” often simply to save time and avoid sounding redundant.
Another important difference between pronouns in English and Japanese is that Japanese pronouns are laden with much more information than their English counterparts.
When you say “I” in English, the only thing the listener or reader knows is that you are referring to yourself. In Japanese, “I” can take many forms that change based upon everything from the age and gender of the speaker to their job or social position. You can learn a lot about someone based only on the pronoun they use!
This also means that you should give some consideration for what pronouns you use for others; using an informal one on your boss may earn you a surprised double-take.
Cultural and Social Implications of Different Japanese Pronouns
In Japanese culture, the use of pronouns can convey various social and cultural implications. The choice of pronoun can indicate one's gender, age, social status, and even personality traits. It is a reflection of the individual's identity and their relationship with others.
For example, the use of the first-person pronoun “watashi” is considered polite and formal in most situations. It is commonly used by both men and women in business settings and also in public speeches or formal occasions. On the other hand, the first-person pronoun “boku” is typically used by young men and boys and is often considered less formal and more casual.
The use of second-person pronouns also carries cultural and social implications. The most common second-person pronoun, “anata,” is often considered too direct and impolite in Japanese culture. Instead, people often use titles or names, such as “sensei” for teachers, “san” for acquaintances, or “chan” for close friends or children.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend of using gender-neutral pronouns in Japan, such as “ore” or “atai”. These pronouns are used to avoid gender-based assumptions and to promote inclusivity and diversity.
Personal Pronouns In Japanese
Personal pronouns are those that, as the name suggests, refer to people. In English, these would be “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”, and “myself”, in addition to these same pronoun forms for “you”, “he”, “she”, “it”, “we”, the plural “you”, and “they”.
All of these words exist to help people explain their own existence in relation to themselves and other people.
In Japanese, most people will elect not to use the first person pronoun”I” or “you”. Simply speak or write the sentence as normal, but omit the “I” or “you” at the beginning.
However, if you would like to use these pronouns—which is not incorrect; it only takes longer—your general best bets are as follows:
The simplest way to ensure that you do not offend or confuse anyone when using “I” is to use watashi, the all-purpose “I.”
It’s formal enough to be used with those of higher rank than you, but it’s not so formal that it sounds odd among friends. If you would like to be exceptionally formal, such as talking to someone of great importance, you can change this to watakushi 私 instead.
Among your friends, you can actually differentiate yourself! If you're a girl, you can use atashi instead, and boys use boku to refer to themselves with “I.”
It can be odd to use anata regularly in conversation; more commonly, Japanese speakers will opt to address the person by their name instead.
However, if you would like to use “you,” the most acceptable form across the board is anata. While words like kimi and omae also mean “you,” they are only used for those lower ranking than you and can convey an informal or even angry tone.
When it comes to “he” and “she,” it’s as simple as memorizing that kare means “he” and kanojo means “she.” These are the words to use, and there are not really any alternatives for you to choose between!
You should keep in mind that there are dozens of pronouns for the third person in Japanese, and many aren't ever used.
There is no distinction between “he” and “she” pronouns. The third-person singular pronoun kare 彼 is often translated as “he” in English, but it can also be used to refer to a woman in certain contexts, such as in formal writing or when the gender of the person being referred to is unknown or irrelevant.
Similarly, the third-person singular pronoun kanojo 彼女 is often translated as “she” in English, but it can also be used to refer to a man in certain contexts.
It's important to note that the use of gender-neutral language is becoming increasingly common in Japan, particularly among younger generations. Some people use alternative pronouns such as die ディー or ai アイto refer to themselves or others in a gender-neutral way. Additionally, some companies and organizations have started to use gender-neutral language in their communications and materials.
Here's a breakdown of some of the ways you could translate “he” or “she” into Japanese.
Keep in mind they aren't used in the same way as English, and many Japanese people will just refer to someone by using their name.
|Word Kanji Formality Use|
|ano kata あの方 very formal used for both genders|
|ano hito あの人 neutral means “that person”|
|yatsu 奴 very informal means a thing, guy, dude|
|kare 彼 informal means boyfriend|
|kanojo 彼女 informal means girlfriend|
How Do I Make a Japanese Pronoun Possessive or Plural?
The particle no typically shows possession in Japanese, and it works with pronouns too. If you want to use the possessive form to say my in Japanese, you would say “I (possessive),” which would be watashi no.
This works across all of the pronouns you’ve learned in the same way!
Most of the time, you will not need to pluralize what you say; Japanese does not place heavy emphasis on whether something is singular or plural like English does.
However, if you feel that you need to use the plural form for something, you may add –tachi to the end (watashitachi > we, anatatachi > you all).
Demonstrative Pronouns In Japanese
Demonstrative pronouns, as their name may suggest, demonstrate things. They indicate where items or people are in relation to the world around them and the speaker.
The most common demonstrative pronouns are “this”, “that”, “these”, and “those”, but “here”, “there”, and “over there” can be included too.
Japanese, like English, operates using an understanding of distance relative to the speaker when creating demonstrative pronouns. This means that things close by will begin with ko-, things further away with so-, and things quite far away with a-.
To see this in action, consider:
- Kore これ (This)
- Sore それ (That)
- Are あれ (That over there)
- Koko ここ(Here)
- Soko そこ (There)
- Asoko あそこ (Way over there)
You can see that the words change in predictable ways based on the distance of the object or point of interest from the speaker (or relative to the listener).
Indefinite Pronouns In Japanese
You use indefinite pronouns all the time, even if you don’t realize it. You use them to talk about people, amounts, or just general things that are not particularly defined. Think of “anything”, “everyone”, and “something”.
They can also be used to express generalizations or to avoid specifying a particular person or thing.
Take a look at the following list of pronouns to boost your vocabulary and Japanese language skills:
- Minna 皆 (Everyone)
- Doko demo どこでも (Everywhere)
- Subete 全て (Everything)
- Dareka 誰か (Someone)
- Dokoka どこか (Somewhere)
- Nanika 何か (Something)
- Dare demo 誰でも (Anyone)
- Doko demo どこでも (Anywhere)
- Nan demo 何でも (Anything)
As you can see, many of these pronouns rely on particles like ka, the question particle, to slightly alter their meaning.
Japanese Question Words
Did you know that even question words are pronouns? They are called interrogative pronouns, and they introduce some type of question in both English and Japanese.
Japanese has a set of question words known as “doubutsu words,” which are used to ask questions about things, people, places, and time.
If you look closely, you can even see that these question words are used to create many of the pronouns listed above!
Here are some of the most common examples of pronouns that you can learn!
- Dare 誰 (Who)
- Nani 何 (What)
- Itsu いつ (When)
- Doko どこ (Where)
- Naze (or you may use doushite) なぜ/どうして (Why)
- Dore どれ (Which)
These question words are typically placed at the beginning of a sentence, followed by the particle ga が or wo を, depending on the word.
Japanese question words don't always have an exact equivalent in English, and their usage can vary depending on the context and situation.
Mastering Japanese Pronouns Comes With Practice
As you continue to expand your knowledge of Japanese, it can feel overwhelming to determine which aspects you should learn next.
Pronouns are a vital part of expressing basic information about yourself, your situation, and others, so they should be among the first items that you focus on.
However, some are more important than others; consider prioritizing personal pronouns and interrogative pronouns (question words) first so that you can establish a strong baseline for simple communication.
After that, you can work on demonstrative pronouns to give your speech more depth and context, followed by indefinite pronouns to refine the details. You don't need to learn all the Japanese pronouns at once!
The best way to learn any language, Japanese included, is to immerse yourself. In the StoryLearning® method, that means reading stories in Japanese at your level. Check out these Japanese books for inspiration.
You can also engage in real Japanese conversations and take note of which words you wish that you had access to; this can be a great indicator of where you should turn your attention next!