A very common word that beginners learn when studying Japanese is the word anata. But what’s interesting is that this word isn’t actually used all that often by Japanese people themselves. Why is that? What does anata mean in Japanese?
I’ll explain what it means and why most students of Japanese overuse it, when the Japanese themselves barely do.
Let’s get to it!
The Basic Meaning of the Word Anata
Simply put, the word anata means “you” in Japanese. It is most commonly spelled with the hiragana script as あなた, although there is the lesser used kanji for it too: 貴方.
As you probably know, Japanese has different levels of formality and anata falls into the category of polite language when speaking to others.
The only thing is that, in the Japanese culture, saying “You” all the time when talking to a person is actually kind of rude. It comes off as a little abrasive in conversation.
The reason is that, unlike in English, in Japanese you don’t need to keep stating the subject of a sentence when it is understood by the context.
So if I’m in a conversation with you, and I want to ask you “what you want to do?” in Japanese, I can simply say “what-want-do?” and leave the word “you” out of the question:
- What do you want to do?
nani shiteru no?
You know that I’m asking you, and not someone else, because in this situation you are the only person I’m talking to.
If I were to keep saying anata while talking to you in Japanese, it would come off sounding as if I kept putting an emphasis on *you* in particular.
In English, we typically emphasize things like this through tone, so let me try to illustrate what it might seem like, but in English:
“What do YOU want to do? Oh really? Is that what you like? Was that was YOU were doing yesterday when I called?”
Doesn’t that seem like the person asking the questions has a problem with you with the way they keep using that word? That’s kind of how it sounds to a Japanese person when you keep using あなた in every sentence while talking to them.
As long as you haven’t switched to talking about someone else, you can leave the word 貴方 out of the conversation.
How Most People Actually Say “You” in Japanese
Generally speaking you will say the other person’s first or last name, probably with an honorific attached, when you want to say “you” in Japanese, in a way that is normal and polite.
Here’s a phrase for each language, but in a way that sounds natural for both:
- Won’t you drink with me, Mr. Tanaka?
tanaka san wa watashi to issho ni nomimasen ka?
As you can see, the word あなた is nowhere to be found.
Sometimes you will actually use a person’s position (job title) in place of their name for “you” in Japanese. This is especially true if they are your superior at work, school, and so on.
- Won’t you drink with me, (boss)?
buchou wa watashi to issho ni nomimasen ka?
Having said all of that, there actually are some situations where you would use a word that directly translates as “you” in Japanese.
Each one carries a slightly different connotation depending on your relationship with the person you’re addressing.
Alternate Words for “You” and Their Connotations
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is still a lot when you consider they all mean “you” in Japanese.
あなた (anata) = Respectful, but use it sparingly. It’s also the word most used by non-Japanese people, lol.
あんた (anta) =Usually used by women when admonishing someone.
君 (kimi) = Usually used from someone of higher status to someone of lower status. Most commonly used by boys towards their girlfriends.
お前 (omae) = Usually used by men. It’s pretty informal and can sound a little rough.
てめえ (temee) = Sounds like “you bastard!” so use it on your best friend after they roast you.
きさま (kisama) = Sounds like “you mother f*cker!” and is usually directed at someone you’re about to beat the crap out of.
A Slightly Different Meaning of the word Anata
One of the interesting things about words is how they can change meaning depending on the context that they are used in.
For example, despite all the things you just learned about the word あなた above, there is still another possible meaning when it is used in a particular way.
When a woman calls her husband あなた it actually translate to “darling” instead of the word you.
You won’t really use it if you’re a guy, and if you’re a girl you will want to be selective about who you say it to.
There’s also the English loan word for “darling” that you can use instead: ダーリン!
Don’t Worry About it Too Much
When I first started learning Japanese, it was with the Pimsleur course which used the word anata all the time!
Not the greatest thing to be taught when your first starting out, but after using lots of different resources I managed to figure it out.
The same will be true for you. Don’t worry about accidentally overusing あなた too much and sounding unnatural. As a non-Japanese person, you’re given a little slack to make mistakes that natives typically don’t get.
Other than that though, you now know all about the word anata!
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think with a comment below!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: