Basic Japanese : Historical “I” in Japanese
Old-fashioned / historical “I” in Japanese
The following “I” pronouns are well-known and can be quite often heard / seen in historical stories especially those which are set in the Edo period.
But, these are rarely used in the present time.
- “Temae” literally means “before hand(s)”.
The near side of someone / something.
- Not for a regular use.
Mostly used in business on speaking or writing to customers.
(Actually, I can’t think of any other cases to use this.)
It’s still acceptable to use this in business now, but I suppose the plural form “temae-domo” is more common than the singular, “temae”.
[Ware / Wa]
- Used as “I”, “myself” or “you”.
Now it is seldom used as “I” or “myself”.
“Ware” for “you” is probably more often used by men in Kansai-dialect area, and it sounds rough.
- In the present fictional stories, I feel “ware” for “I” is sometimes used by non-human characters with tremendous power – summoned demons, for example.
So, this sounds aloof, haughty to me.
- The Japanese title of the novel “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov is “Ware wa robotto”.
- Character using “ware”:
(In Kanji) “Hakumenn no mono” (lit. a person with a white face) from the manga “Ushio and Tora”
Akuma (in Japanese version, “Gouki” – lit. “powerful demon”) from the game “Street Fighter”
– Tips –
The word “wa(ga)” is often used as “my”.
For instance, “my home” can be translated as “wagaya”.
“Ga” in this case is the same as Japanese “no” (“of” in English) to show possession.
“Ya” is “house / home”.
So, the literal translation of “wagaya” is “a home of I” in English.
- Similar to the royal “we”, “chin” can be used only by the Emperor or the King.
This was from China, and it could be used by anybody in China before Qin Shi Huang.
- In Japan, the Emperor seemed to have used this until the end of the Pacific War.
When the Emperor announced on the radio to Japanese people that the Japanese Government surrendered without any conditions on August 15th of 1945, “chin” was used in the speech.
Then, Ango Sakaguchi wrote in his essay published in 1948 that the word “chin” had disappeared.
- The French phrase “L’Etat, c’est moi” by Louis 14 of France is translated as “Chin wa kokka nari” (lit. “I am the state”) in Japanese.
- In the old times, this was used by anybody regardless of age, sex, or background.
Also used in a first name (ex. Hitomaro) or as a suffix to show people’s affinity, like calling monkey (“saru” in Japanese) as “saru-maro”.
- Now, I suppose this is used by “kuge” (Japanese aristocrats) only in fictions.
- Character using “maro”:
The title character from the TV anime “Prince Mackaroo (Ojarumaru)”
Yoshimoto Imagawa from the TV game “Sengoku Basara”
- One of the Kanji characters for “yo” literally means “left-out”, and the other is “beforehand”.
- This was used commonly by people in every class except “tennou” (the Emperor) or “kuge”.
Kafu Nagai (1879 – 1959), a Japanese writer for example, used this.
- Now, this might be used in formal text or speech (quite rare, at least I’ve never seen anybody using it), although it sounds arrogant to a certain degree.
It probably owes to historical TV dramas, in which “yo” is used chiefly by ruling samurai.
- The literal meaning of the Kanji characters is “clumsy / bad person”.
It’s a humble pronoun used mostly by samurai, but could sound self-important depending on the user’s behaviour.
Often used by ninja too in fictions.
- Mainly in Kanji.
- Characters using “sessha”:
(In Kanji) Kanzo Hattori from “Ninja Hattori-kun”
Kenshin from “Rurouni Kenshin”
- The Kanji character literally means something / somebody, like English “X” for uncertain things / people or to avoid mentioning the name clearly.
- A humble pronoun, often used by samurai.
- Characters using “soregashi”:
Yukimura Sanada from the TV game “Sengoku Basara”
(In Hiragana) Mamezou from “Kekkaishi”
- Can be used as plural, but usually singular.
- It may give an egotistic impression.
- This pronoun always reminds me of a man stroking his mustache.
Don’t ask me why.
- Characters using “wagahai”:
(In Kanji) Alex Louis Armstrong from “Fullmetal Alchemist”
A cat with no name from the novel “I am a cat” (“Wagahai wa neko de aru”) by Soseki Natsume
- Derived from “atashi”.
- Used by general public, especially craftworkers.
In mysteries which are set in the old Tokyo of Edo era, henchmen of “okappiki” (a sort of policemen back then) frequently use this.
Maybe because of that, I have got an impression that “asshi” is mostly for men from the lower-middle / lower class.
- The Kanji character is much more often used as a “mistress” (in this case, its pronunciation is “mekake”).
Perhaps it’s the reason “warawa” is usually written in Hiragana in stories.
- The word “warawa” for “I” is the same as the word for a small child “warawa” (identical pronunciation but its Kanji character is different).
Thus, it was originally a modest pronoun for women.
Later, “warawa” was used chiefly by women in samurai families.
- Now in historical dramas or stories, this is sometimes used by women in the upper class like a princess, a queen, etc.
So, “warawa” perhaps gives a pompous impression.
- Character using “warawa”:
(In Hiragana) Dakki from the manga “Houshin Engi”
Actually, there are more words for “I” in Japanese including local variants.
To introduce all of them is almost impossible because how many are left is unknown.
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