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Basic Japanese : How to say “I” in Japanese – Part 1 –

Date Published: Last Update:2015/02/18 Others ,

In Japanese, there are many ways to call yourself.
Here, I’m trying to explain the differences of each word, but please note they are my own personal impressions and other Japanese may not feel the same way.

The word “I” in Japanese

Although we have many words for “I”, it is frequently omitted.
If you put “I” for every sentence in Japanese like in English, you will sound too assertive, too pushy.

"I" attack

People know who is speaking / writing without the word “I”, so you haven’t got to speak like “I want you, I need you, I love you”.
We usually say “I” when we want to emphasise who is speaking / writing or to be distinguished.

For instance:
At a restaurant.
Waitstaff : “May I take your order, please?”
A : “I’ll have a pizza.”
B : “I would like to have a pancake.”

In this case, both A and B would say “I” in Japanese just like in English.

Difference of Kanji, Katakana and Hiragana in written Japanese

As you may already know, Japanese has three types of characters.
If you have read any stories or played games in Japanese, you might notice some characters use Hiragana to call themselves while others use Kanji or Katakana.
“Ore”, for example, can be written in three ways:

Ore

Each of them gives a different impression to readers / players.

“Ore” in Kanji

Kanji version is usually quite general.
It gives almost no particular additional impression to the word especially for adults.
Perhaps more grown-up than Hiragana or Katakana, as Kanji is more complicated character.

Hiragana

Because Hiragana’s shape is more round than other two characters, it gives a soft, gentle impression.
Also, it may be felt (a little) childish, as small children write in mainly Hiragana before they learn Kanji.

Katakana

Sharper shape than Hiragana, so it likely gives more aggressive impression.
In addition, it may be self-assertive or self-conscious, because Katakana is very distinctive in text.

Ore in text

Three "ore" in a text.
Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana.

General words for “I” in Japanese

Neutral

[Watakushi]

Watakushi

  • Very formal and very polite.
    If you choose this to call yourself, you need to use the polite form in every sentence / speech.
    I think members of the Imperial family use this in public.
  • Maybe regarded as a posh wannabe in a usual conversation unless you are in the upper-class.
  • Usually written in Hiragana or Katakana or Kanji with Hiragana because the same Kanji character is used for a more common word, “watashi”.

– Tips –
“Watakushi-ritsu” is sometimes used in conversation for a “private” establishment (usually school), because both a “city” school and a “private” one are called as “shi-ritsu” gakkou (“gakkou” means school) in Japanese.

[Watashi]

Watashi

  • Formal and polite.
  • In written text about personal matters (like in blogs), readers tend to consider that the writer is female.
  • Common for female, so it doesn’t always show formality nor politeness.
    It can be just a general word for “I”.
  • If you speak to somebody you have got to treat with respect, it may be safe to use this word.
  • Characters using “watashi”:
    (In Kanji) Erwin Smith from “Attack on Titan” (“Shingeki no Kyojin”)
    Roy Mustang from “Fullmetal Alchemist” (“Hagane no Renkinjyutsushi”)
    Jesus and Buddha from “Saint Young Men” (“Seinto Oniisan”)

For male

[Boku]

Boku

  • Common for male.
    I suppose it is OK to use in a formal situation.
  • Some girls use this for themselves.
    The boyish girl character called “Komaki” in the game “Tokyo majin gakuen” called herself with “boku” in Katakana.
    It’s up to the character whether a “boku” girl is acceptable or not.
    If she is young and cute, even “boku” sounds cute, I guess.
  • Characters using “boku”:
    (In Kanji) Armin from “Attack on Titan”
    (In Katakana) Alphonse Elric from “Fullmetal Alchemist”

[Ore]

Ore

  • Rather rough impression.
    More masculine than “boku”.
  • Probably it’s not very suitable to use in respectful dialog.
    I would be astonished if a member of the Imperial family use this even in private.
  • In some areas, it’s used also by (old) women / girls.
  • Some “otaku” girls call themselves with this.
    It sounds odd, people might want to stay away from “ore” girls.
  • Characters using “ore”:
    (In Kanji) Levi from “Attack on Titan”
    (In Katakana) Eren from “Attack on Titan”
    Edward Elric from “Fullmetal Alchemist”

    Attack on Titan

[Washi]

Washi

  • Usually for old men, but there are some middle-aged men and old women using this.
  • More often written in Hiragana or Katakana than Kanji.
    I don’t know why.
    Personally, “washi” in Kanji gives more stubborn impression, for it’s not commonly used and the character is much more difficult.
  • Characters using “washi”:
    (In Katakana) Dot Pixis from “Attack on Titan”

For female

[Atashi]

Atashi

  • More casual than “watashi”.
  • Very common for female in conversation, I assume it’s partly because “atashi” is easier to pronounce than “watashi”.
  • It is colloquial, so in a written text, this seems a bit childish to me and I would consider the writer lacks common sense a little if she is an adult.
  • This was used by men as well in the old times, but now, a man using this is regarded as a gay in nine cases out of ten.
  • Characters using “atashi”:
    (In Hiragana) Winry Rockbell from “Fullmetal Alchemist”

    Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Related posts:
#“I” in Japanese (2) (3)

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kara

A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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