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Japanese Language Tips: Using “I” and “You”

In the Japanese language, tonality and volume can convey emotions, just like English. However, their role here is limited. On the other hand, the actual words used play a highly important role – similar to certain European languages.

Learners of the Japanese language will know that it is generally divided into 3 categories – casual, polite and respectful/humble. Using the inappropriate category in a particular situation will make you sound awkward.

Similarly, there are many ways to express “I” and “You” in Japanese. Using the wrong expression in a particular context can turn the situation awkward, funny or even sour. Words for “I” are 「わたし」“watashi” (formal-sounding. Females can use this in any situation. Males using it in a non-work situation can appear stiff, unless they’re gay), 「僕」“boku” (generally used by males to portray a soft image. Females also use it if they are tomboys), 「俺」“ore” (the ultimate macho “I” used by males to portray a tough image. Tomboys might use it, but such cases are rare) and 「あたし」“atashi” (used by females to portray a cute image. Also used by males who are gays or transvestites). 「うち」“uchi” is commonly used as well, to make the speaker appear humble. It’s usually used by females.

Similarly, there are various expressions for “You”, such as 「貴方」“anata” (formal, polite, sometimes cold), 「君」“kimi” (a strong, superior tone normally used by people who are ranked higher in society than the listener e.g. teacher to student, boss to subordinate) and 「お前」“omae” (a strong, superior tone similar to “kimi”, though it’s usually used by males, and also among friends). Less often used is 「あんた」“anta”, an informal version of “anata”, but it has a rather strong tone. When it does get used, it’s usually among friends. Females tend to use it more often than males.

As there isn’t a friendly-sounding “You”, Japanese friends usually do not use it to address each other. They use names in place of “You”, and may include a 「~くん」“~kun” (usually used for boys) or 「~ちゃん」“~chan” (usually used for girls) suffix.

For example, if A is giving a present to B, in English, A might say something like “Here, this is for you.” In Japanese, it will go something like「はい、これBちゃんにあげる」 (Hai, B-chan ni ageru. It loosely translates to “Here, I’ll give this to B-chan”). Females may sometimes refer to themselves in the third person in place of “I” to sound cute. For example, if C wants to say “I want one, too” in Japanese, the sentence would go something like 「Cもほしい」(C mo hoshii. “C also wants one.”). Adding the “~chan” suffix further enhances the level of cuteness. To address a group of people, 「みんな」“minna” (everyone) or 「みなさん」“mina-san” (the polite version of “minna”) is commonly used in place of the more formal “anata/kimi/omae tachi”.

The Japanese know that their own language is hard to master, even for themselves. So they would usually be polite enough not to feel (too) offended if a non-Japanese uses an inappropriate word or level of politeness in a conversation. However, it still feels awkward to them, even if they don’t voice it out loud. Using the right word or level of politeness can greatly impress a Japanese person, and in essence help one forge closer ties with him or her.

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