There are many ways to address people in Japanese. The choice of words will depend on the social status, age, and sex of both speaker and listener, as well as the level of familiarity and respect. As with all features of language, these aren't completely consistent and evolve over time so.
It's worth mentioning that personal pronouns are used much less than in English. Addressing others with the second person pronoun (you, あなた) is uncommon and may seem odd, even rude. Usually, the person is identified by the context but otherwise one may indicate the person by addressing people with their names with an appropriate suffix (such as "〜さん" or "〜くん", see below). Note also that female speech is generally more polite than male speech.
The most popular personal pronouns are given in the following table. Each row is combined of the pronouns of similar level of politeness. The rows are written starting with the most polite to the least.
|1st person||2nd person||3rd person||question|
Widely used personal pronouns
Listed from the most polite to the least.
First person pronouns
- わたくし（私） - the most polite modern 1st person pronoun.
- われ（我） - quite humble and polite but old-fashioned (plural "われわれ" is used as humble way to talk about one's organization).
- わたし（私） - contraction of わたくし, a universal word that may be used in any situation. Most language courses advise to use only this pronoun.
- あたし（私） - further contraction of わたし, used ONLY by women to sound cute/innocent.
- ぼく（僕） - mostly used by men (sometimes by women who want to sound tough), especially by boys and young males. This is the commonly polite word to use at semi-formal events and general conversations by young men. ぼく is also used as a poetic "I".
- じぶん（自分） - neutral pronoun that means "self" (not only "myself", this also can be used as a 2nd and 3rd person pronoun), used by military people and officials to indicate that they are part of a huge organization. May also mean "a person".
- おれ（俺） - informal. Used with a very casual group and/or to sound masculine.
- うち（家）- feminine and not polite
- あたい - another contraction of わたくし, quite informal
- せっしゃ（拙者）- literally means "clumsy person," used by samurai
- わがはい（我輩）- a personal pronoun popularized by Natsume Souseki's "Wagahai Ha Neko de Aru"
Second person pronouns
- あなたさま（あなた様） - the most polite modern 2nd person pronoun. Used when the politeness level demands using person's name, but you do not know it (still you must apologize for using this and ask for the name)
- あなた - a usual and polite word for addressing strangers. This is actually a kosoado pronoun. Better avoid this word in cases other than addressing strangers, or at all.
- あんた - informal version of "あなた". Used mostly by women to address inferiors.
- きみ（君） - informal "You" used mostly by men, although starting to gain popularity among women. A person that uses "きみ", most likely uses "ぼく" as a 1st person pronoun. きみ is also used as a poetic "You".
- おまえ（お前） - quite rude and vulgar, sometimes used by older people. Acceptable when used between friends. Literally means "front" ("you, in front of me"). A person that uses "おまえ", most likely uses "おれ" as a 1st person pronoun.
Third person pronouns
- あのかた（あの方） - the most polite way of telling "he" or "she".
- あのひと（あの人） - quite polite.
- かれ（彼） - neutral and usual "He". Note: use with caution as this may also mean "boyfriend".
- かのじょ（彼女） - neutral and usual "She". Note: use with caution as this may also mean "girlfriend".
- やつ（奴） - rude, implies hatred.
In case of "われ", plural may be formed by doubling the pronoun, but most commonly plural is formed with suffixes, which by themselves also have a level of politeness. Consequently, the level of politeness of both pronoun and suffix must match (although there are usually two different suffixes may be applied in any particular case, so you may slightly vary the politeness level of the resulting pronoun). Here are the common suffixes from the most polite to the less polite:
- ~とも (for example, わたくしども; note that it is rather common for words in Japanese to change voicing when used as affix, like in this example "と" is pronounced (and written) as "ど")
- ~かた (for example, あなたがた; the previous note applies here too)
- ~たち - quite polite and most commonly used plural maker (for example, わたしたち)
- ~ら (for example, ぼくら)
Additional personal pronouns
These are less common ones that one won't hear in common use but are included for those interested.
First person pronouns
|せっしゃ||humble and polite, used by samurai (rarely used as considered archaic).|
|わし||mostly used by older people (perhaps, to indicate that they have grown old and wise).|
|わ(が)||literary word derived from "わたくし". Used in the meaning of "my" or "our" (example: わがくに- my country).|
|おのれ||humble, used by men (rarely used as considered archaic). Also means "you", but sounds arrogant and impolite when used that way.|
|うち||used mostly by women, or when referring to "us" (family, company, etc.) or "I" that is a part of "us".|
|ちん（朕）||only used by the emperor|
Second person pronoun
|rude and aggressive. Implies that you are ready to beat up that person.|
|きさま||extremely rude and offensive. The most insulting way of saying "You" in Japanese. The actual kanji (貴様) meaning is "a valued and esteemed person". If you deeply hate a person (you want to kill him/her), you may say this.|
|humble and polite way to address people of equal or lower social status, although rather archaic (used by samurai).|