Today I’m going to talk about how to say “I” in Japanese. As it turns out, there are a ton of different ways to say this one simple word and the right choice will depend primarily on two things:
- Who you are (a man, woman, old, young, etc.)
- Who you are speaking to (your wife, boss, friend, etc.)
But since I don’t want to overwhelm you with every single possible variant of the word, and also since there are a few that are obsolete anyway, I’ve narrowed it down to the 13 most useful and common versions of the first person singular pronoun.
Read on to learn the most essential Japanese words for “I” and when it’s appropriate to use each one.
Polite Ways To Say “I”
By far the most common way to say “I” in Japanese is with the word 私 (watashi). This word is gender-neutral which means that both men and women use it.
It is also considered polite, which accounts for the many different situations in which it’s applicable.
When you’re speaking to someone who is roughly the same social status as you, and you’re not close to them, then 私 is almost always the best word to use. A good example might be a co-worker, or a stranger that you stop to ask for directions.
It’s also a good idea to use it when speaking to people who are your superiors at the work place since it shows them respect.
In fact, most people who learn Japanese as a foreign language are taught to use 私 for this exact reason. If you are a non-Japanese person, then you can safely use this word for all situations and you’ll be okay.
If you want to become really good at Japanese however, then you’ll want to learn the other words for “I” as well since they all contain different nuances and using them correctly will make you sound more natural.
The next word is わたくし (watakushi) and is almost identical to the first one in how it sounds, but there is an additional く (ku) sound included.
Interestingly enough, the kanji for this word is also 私 which is the exact same one as the first word!
But to keep this article from becoming confusing, I will use hiragana when talking about わたくし (watakushi) and kanji when talking about 私 (watashi).
The difference between these two words (besides the pronunciation) is that わたくし is a much more formal word. If you are conducting business in Japanese, then this is a better choice to use as it is seen as being more professional.
In other words, when you are speaking to current or potential clients (or suppliers) then わたくし is a good choice to use.
I’ve also found that わたくし is used more often by older people than the current generations. Perhaps it has to do with a lot of Japanese literature using this word predominantly (like in Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki).
The first Japanese phrasebook I ever used was published in 1985 and it taught わたくし for “I” exclusively.
So if you use わたくし instead of 私 for normal situations, then it will be perfectly fine. Japanese people will know what you’re saying, and it will just seem like you’re being extra polite with them.
The key point about わたくし is that this word is going to be the best choice to use when you are in formal situations such as business dealing, talking with politicians, or formal events like giving a speech.
Gendered Ways To Say “I”
The Japanese language has certain differences in the way that women speak and the way that men speak. One of those differences is in the selection of personal pronouns.
There are two words that are uniquely male and one that is specifically female.
The first male word is 僕 (boku) and it is an informal word that often gets used when guys are talking to their friends, their family, or anyone else they can speak to casually.
This word brings with is kind of a “boyish” feeling to it which is important to keep in mind for when we compare it to the other male word.
This other man-word is 俺 (ore) which is considered a vulgar way to refer to oneself. It gives off the image of a rough or macho man who is confident in himself and doesn’t care what others think (otherwise he’d use more polite language).
Sometimes in anime you’ll hear a male character say something like the following:
- boku… janakute. ore “nani nani”
- I… no. I “blah blah”
It doesn’t really make sense from an English speaker’s perspective because the guy starting saying “I” and then stopped himself to make a correction, and then he just said “I” again.
But in Japanese the character was initially starting his sentence with just a casual word to refer to himself, but then he made a correction so that he could sound more manly whenever he finished the sentence.
Something that I should mention now is that you will occasionally hear a girl use the word 僕 which gives her a sort of “tomboyish” feel to her. Generally speaking, she is still a girl but has decided to use a boy-like way of speaking.
Speaking of girls, the female word is あたし (atashi) which is actually pretty close in pronunciation to the first word we covered in this post.
This female word is informal just like 僕 is, but the word あたし also has a young girl feeling to it. Usually it would be someone in their teens or early twenties who is using it when speaking to her boyfriend or close girl friends.
That being said, it is much more common for Japanese women to use 私 for “I” in nearly all situations.
Anime / Manga Ways To Say “I”
If you enjoy watching anime and reading manga like I do, then there are some other Japanese words that you will need to learn.
These don’t typically get used in real life, but since stories contain characters that are larger than life, there’s a pretty good chance that you will run into several of these words.
The first word is 拙者 (sessha) which is how samurai say “I” in old books, movies, etc.
I don’t know how accurate this actually is from a historical standpoint, but what I can say is that any time there is a samurai in a show they typically use several “samurai” words that help the viewer know that this character comes from the Japanese warrior class.
The next word on our list is 吾輩 (wagahai) and if you look it up in an online English-Japanese dictionary you will see a little note that says “Male term or language, nuance of arrogance.”
The key part there is the note on “arrogance” and if you keep that in mind you can see how this word makes perfect sense in the title of the well-known book I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki.
- wagahai wa neko de aru
- I Am a Cat
Anyone who has owned a cat knows, or anyone who has tried and failed to win a cat’s attention knows, that cats pretty much act like they are heaven’s gift to humanity. Hence, the “nuance of arrogance” in the word selection of the book’s title.
The next word might actually appear in real life if you’re visiting with an old man. It is わし (washi) and typically gets used in anime or manga by the old wise man who passes on hidden techniques to the protagonist.
A good example would me Master Roshi from the Dragon Ball series. He uses わし when he says “I” in the Japanese version.
As for encountering it with actual Japanese men, you might hear it if you’re visiting the country as it’s often a dialectical thing.
Speaking of country men, that brings us to the next word オイラ (oira) which is actually more of a parody thing rather than real life.
The only time I’ve actually ever seen this word used was when playing Persona 4 and the shadow Jack Frost used it when he was talking to me after a battle.
Finally (for this section at least), we get to 己 (onore). Again, this is a word that doesn’t really get used in real life, but might appear when you’re reading a comic or watching TV.
The difference with this word is that 己 is archaic, so you’re more likely to see it used when the story is set in the Medieval Times instead of something more modern.
Uniquely Japanese Ways To Say “I”
This section is going to change just a little from the preceding ones and instead focus on a couple of ways that Japanese people in particular communicate that personal pronoun word in a uniquely Japanese way.
The first way is that they actually don’t say it at all!
This might sound a little weird from an English speaker’s perspective since we actually have to use the word “I” every single time we refer to ourselves, but things are a little different in the Land of the Rising Sun.
One of the hallmarks of the Japanese language is omission and ambiguity. What this means is that Japanese people focus on what is not said, just as much as they focus on what is actually said by people.
How does that apply to today’s lesson?
Basically, when you’re speaking Japanese and the listener knows that you are talking about yourself, then you can drop the first person pronoun all together.
If fact, if you want to sound like a Japanese native, then learning when to not say “I” even when talking about yourself is an absolute essential.
Here’s the rule of thumb: only use a singular personal pronoun (the word “I”) when it is necessary for the listener to understand that you are talking about yourself.
If the context of the situation makes it clear already, then you can leave it out.
Now let’s talk about body language.
In English, we typically point at our chest with our index finger when we want to use body language to tell the other person “who me?” or “I’m the one who is doing such-and-such a thing.”
But in Japanese, the body language signals are different. This is a case where things are not universal.
When a Japanese person wants to say “I” using only body language they actual use their finger to point at their nose.
So the next time you’re silently communicating with someone in Japanese, be sure to point to your nose instead of your chest.
Finally, we get to the last method: Using one’s own name!
We sometimes do this in English, that is to say, refer to oneself in the third person. It usually sounds weird in English and we might think that the person is a little crazy.
In Japanese, it’s also not a common thing to do, but rather than sound crazy it makes the character sound cute.
Now would be a good time to say that this is typically only done by young girls in manga, anime, and video games.
The character Hibari Ameno from Yuuna and the Haunted Hot Springs does this. Instead of saying 私 (or あたし which would also be a good choice) she says 雲雀 (hibari) in its place.
This isn’t something that I recommend you do, but I wanted you to be aware of it since you will likely come across it in native materials.
Comments? Questions? Let Me Know!
That’s all I’ve got for the many different ways to say “I” in Japanese.
Like I mentioned before, there are still a few other obscure words that you can use, but from my own experience and from the research that I’ve done, these 13 ways will cover it for 99% of the time.
Hopefully you found this article to be informative and easy to understand, but if anything didn’t make sense, please let me know by leaving a comment down below.