In English, when you refer to yourself, you use “I,” “me,” “myself,” and… not much else.
- First-person pronoun
But what about in Japanese? Some scholars say that including all its regional differences and euphonic changes, Japan has more first-person pronouns than any other language.
Why does Japanese have so many 一人称代名詞 (first-person pronouns)?
Japanese pronouns convey different levels of formality, femininity, masculinity, and other bits of subtext—even hierarchy and figurative distance. How you refer to yourself in a given situation helps communicate your personality too. Do you want to sound polite? Modest? Cute? Do you want to sound like your favorite samurai anime character? The choice is yours—and this article will help you make a better, more personal choice.
Common First-Person Pronouns
If you’re just starting to learn Japanese, the most common 一人称代名詞 are the ones you may already know and use. But each one contains nuances that most textbooks don’t cover, so it’s important to learn the specifics for each one carefully.
The most common Japanese first-person pronoun is 私 (わたし, わたくし). Most textbooks teach this one right off the bat, which makes sense because it’s a flexible word you can use in both casual and formal situations. If you’re a Japanese beginner or not yet confident using other first-person pronouns, 私 is a fine choice.
In terms of formality, わたし occupies a kind of middle ground: too formal for casual situations, yet not formal enough for formal situations. (For those, you would use わたくし). To illustrate this, take a look at the sentences below, all of which mean “me too.”
- Me too! (casual)
This is more casual than わたくし. Yet for a man, わたし might not be the first-choice pronoun in a casual situation. You don’t often hear Japanese men using 私 casually, unless their intention is to sound feminine or overly polite.
- Me too! (formal)
わたくし is the even more polite and firm version of 私. The sentence ends in です, so this is obviously a formal situation. Coming from a man, it sounds natural.
- Me too! (casual)
Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use わたし in casual situations, so this sentence (minus です) feels appropriate coming from a female. That said, in formal situations, like business meetings or written communication, both men and women use 私 equally.
- Me too! (formal)
In a formal situation, わたくし is perfectly appropriate for a woman to say.
The bottom line? If you’re a woman, I recommend using わたし anytime. If you’re a man, you have some options—especially in casual situations—which I’ll be talking about later.
You’ll often hear わたくし in official announcements: when politicians make campaign promises, for example.
This “alternate” reading of 私 is actually the original reading, though today it’s reserved only for very formal situations.
Compared to わたし, わたくし sounds stiff in semi-formal situations. I was taught to use わたくし at a business-etiquette seminar hosted by my first official job in Tokyo, and while I agree it’s the proper 一人称代名詞 for conservative business scenarios or serious situations, I personally didn’t get to use it much, because I was in the creative industry, which is more casual.
- I sincerely apologize to you for the troubles I caused.
Beyond the business world, you’ll often hear わたくし in official announcements: when politicians make campaign promises, for example, or when celebrities announce their marriages or apologize for scandals.
- I, Koichi from Tofugu Party, promise peace for you all.
Outside of these contexts, those who want to sound sophisticated—princesses and servants, for example—will use わたくし in their day-to-day.
あたし is a common, shortened slang form of 私 used only in casual settings. Because children have trouble pronouncing “w” sounds, あたし carries an adorably childish flavor. The difference between あたし and わたし is subtle when spoken, but you’ll see it a lot in pop-culture writing and on social media.
僕 (ぼく) is commonly used by males young and old, and even by girls too, lately, thanks to the influence of anime. It’s generally the first first-person pronoun Japanese boys are taught.
Because the word originally meant “slave,” its use as a pronoun was once intended to show humility. But academics claimed it in the Meiji period, when the pronoun took on an earnest, polite, and cultured connotation. Overall, it has a softer, less aggressive feel than 俺 (おれ).
- My favorite novelist is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke.
- I agree with Teacher.
In my experience, I’ve heard 僕 used in formal situations many times, and it’s a comparatively modest and polite pronoun. Even if they primarily used 俺, many of my male friends would use it as a kind of “good-boy mask” when talking to bosses or teachers. Technically, 僕 is usually used to address people with equal or lower status than you, and 私 would be more suitable in very formal situations such as conservative business communication.
Even though 僕 is a common 一人称代名詞 for adult men, it has immature and dependent connotations to some degree. For example, a typical “mama’s boy” in movies and TV is often portrayed as someone who refers to himself as 僕.
In my opinion, 僕 sounds fine in semi-formal situations, especially if you don’t keep the listener at too much of a distance. Assuming it’s not a conservative environment, you might use 僕 when speaking with a member of the same social group, or your teacher, senpai, or boss.
僕 for Little Boys
Because 僕 is the most common first-person pronoun for boys, it’s also used as a second person pronoun. Let’s say you meet a young boy who looks lost. You might say…
- Are you lost?
This is an affectionate way to refer to a little boy you don’t know—it’s also the typical way to treat a little boy like a little boy! Note that your use of the pronoun may offend more mature boys who don’t want to be treated like children. A safe age range to use 僕 would be between zero and five years old, though I admit I don’t know much about cool kids these days!
俺 (おれ) is another common first-person pronoun for men. 俺 is casual—it sounds “manly” and less gentle than 僕.
When I was growing up, most boys transitioned from 僕 to 俺 in early elementary school, but these days boys seem to be using it as early as three years old. Most male friends my age (twenties and thirties) use 俺 as their primary 一人称代名詞 when talking to people close to them.
- I’m going to the convenience store real quick.
While I still hear 俺 used in keigo sentences, elders or people with high status might consider it inappropriate, especially in formal situations. For those, 俺 users should switch to 私 or 僕 as a backup.
Although I don’t find it weird when my Japanese friends use 俺, be aware that it could make you sound cocky, especially if you’re young or talking to older people.
Also, 俺 is tricky to use and difficult to master for Japanese learners, since it doesn’t sound natural unless you speak effortlessly. I especially find it awkward when other elements in a sentence don’t match the casualness and masculinity of 俺. Compare the two sentences below:
- Who ate my pudding?
- Who the heck ate my pudding?!
Pronouns aside, the other words make the masculinity of these sentences completely different. The verb 食う is a more gruff way of saying 食べる. Also, notice the usage/omission of は and だよ, which add or subtract aggressiveness.
When I was growing up, most boys transitioned from 僕 to 俺 in early elementary school, but these days boys seem to be using it as early as three years old.
These details matter when trying to match your tone to 俺. If we switched 僕 and 俺, the sentences wouldn’t sound as natural.
Are you starting to see why it isn’t so easy to master 俺? I have male, Japanese-learning friends who are pretty fluent, but when I hear them use 俺 in conversation, it sounds forced. Overall, I’d say 俺 is safe to avoid unless you’re fluent in Japanese—especially “manly” speech!
Here’s an interesting side note. Back in the day, 俺 used to be gender-neutral, and it’s still used by women in Tohoku as part of the local dialect. My family is from Tohoku, and I’ve heard great-aunties referring to themselves as 俺 in their thick accents.
Over the past thirty years, this casual first-person pronoun from Kansai has become popular with young women across Japan thanks to anime, gyaru, and the region’s comedy culture. I myself used it often with my friends and family until I was in high school, and it still seems to be a popular pronoun for women around that age.
Now that I’ve settled down and become a mature adult, I use わたし, although I still use うち from time to time when I’m around people I know well. I especially use うちら (we) as my plural 一人称代名詞 to avoid saying わたし達, which is long and hard to say.
- So, I like hula-hooping, right?
- This side across the line is our space.
Be aware that using うち may give some people a bad impression of you, because it’s slang-y and (some might think) weird to use outside a specific dialect. But as a former うち-user myself, I found it nice to have an option besides わたし for female use. Between close friends, it engenders affection and a feeling of unity.
自分 (じぶん) is the very versatile Japanese word for “self”: you can use it as “myself,” “yourself,” “herself,” “himself,” or anyone’s-self!
- I cook by myself.
It’s also used in hierarchical systems, such as sports teams and the military, when someone is speaking to their superior.
- I am Koichi, from the Tofugu Base.
- I’ll be a catcher for today’s practice.
Sometimes I use this first-person pronoun when talking to my senpai, boss, or another authority figure. It makes me sound smart and respectful.
Your First Name (or Nickname)
Using your own name (or your own name + ちゃん/君) as a 一人称代名詞 is common for children, because it’s what their parents and other adults call them and thus how they recognize themselves.
I had another reason to call myself by my own name: as a younger sibling, it bugged me when my parents or grandparents accidentally called me by my sister’s name. And it still bugs me, because it happens even more often now. I live far from my family, and my sister has more chances to talk with them. I still use my name as a first-person pronoun—mostly when talking to my grandmothers, who are more likely to mix up our names.
- Has my letter been delivered yet?
I’m not an exception either. Research shows many women and young people do the same thing. More specifically, with their families, quite a few women in their twenties use their names as a first-person pronoun.
And while some of my friends used their names as pronouns until we were in junior high, outside of family interactions I never call myself “Kanae.” But plenty of people (who aren’t that young anymore) do. It’s a controversial topic in Japan, and many people see it childish and show-off-y. Some people hate it! Many adults who openly use their names for themselves happen to be female and are likely seen as ぶりっ子, or “girls who try to make themselves cute to be popular with men.”
There is an exception though. In Okinawa, it’s more culturally acceptable for women to use their own names as first-person pronouns. I never knew this until I made friends with women from Okinawa. At first, I found it a little odd, but they said it so naturally (and it didn’t seem like they were trying to be ぶりっ子), so I didn’t care. Then I found out this is a regional, cultural difference—suddenly, it all made sense.
The bottom line? In most cases (especially outside of Okinawa), I wouldn’t recommend using your own name as a pronoun, especially when talking to someone you don’t know well. There are rare cases in which it’s endearing, but only if it fits the speaker’s natural, spoiled, goofy, or ぶりっ子 personality in a likable way.
Family and Social Roles
The next example is a pronoun with limited usage, and my family is a perfect example: everyone refers to themselves using their role in the family. My mother calls herself お母さん (Mom), my father uses お父さん (Dad), my older sister uses お姉ちゃん (older sister), and both my grandmas use おばあちゃん as a first-person pronoun when they talk to me.
For example, when I hang out at grandma’s place, she might say:
- Can I get you a cup of tea?
Or my sister might say something like:
- You ate my ice cream without permission, didn’t you?!
You might be wondering if I then refer to myself as 孫 (grandchild) or 妹 (younger sister) when responding to them. No, because I’m the youngest, or of the lowest status (formally speaking) in my family.
My mother calls herself お母さん (Mom), my father uses お父さん (Dad), my older sister uses お姉ちゃん (older sister), and both my grandmas use おばあちゃん as a first-person pronoun when they talk to me.
In Japan, this family-role-as-first-person-pronoun example only applies to those who are older or have higher status than the person they’re talking to. The only chance I have to use it is when I speak to my baby niece, who hasn’t started talking yet. But when she does, I will be おばちゃん: Auntie.
A good rule of thumb is that if your family role can take the name enders さん or ちゃん (お父さん, お母さん, etc.), you can use it as your pronoun.
The culture behind this practice is the Japanese mindset around the importance of family structure and respect for the elderly. As a parent, you want your kids to differentiate you from other adults—to remind them of your higher status in the family, so they recognize you as someone to respect. In most cases, however, it’s more of a subconscious custom and doesn’t necessarily carry a “strict family” connotation. In fact, this practice makes me feel closer to my family and gives me more affection for them. ❤️
Every family is different. Some grandparents might call themselves ばあば/じいじ, while parents might call themselves ママ/パパ—they might even choose to use 私/僕, as they do outside the home. Some may use family roles and then switch to usual pronouns as the kids grow up.
Keep in mind that there are times when people might use family role pronouns outside the family too. When talking to a young child, for example, you might call yourself おばちゃん, おじちゃん, お姉ちゃん, or お兄ちゃん. Say you come across a kid on the street trying to get their balloon unstuck from a tree branch. If you’re female, you might say…
- May I help you?
Similarly, when my friend’s dad talks to me, he could say…
- I will retire next year.
Finally, if you’re a professional in a certain industry, you can sometimes use your profession as your pronoun. A common case is when teachers call themselves “teacher.”
- Attention! Listen to me carefully!
Sometimes you want to talk about more than just yourself. You want to rope other people into the action! This is when you attach a pluralizing suffix to the end of your 一人称代名詞—turn your “I” into “we.”
The pluralizing suffix 達 (たち) works like this: 私 (me) + 達 = 私達 (we).
Historically, 〜達 was used to pay respect to the person you were talking to—it wasn’t proper to use 私達 in formal situations. Today, 私達, 僕達 and 自分達 are all used formally, though 私供 is thought to be even more appropriate.
- We run a kanji-learning website called WaniKani.
The majority of common first-person pronouns pair with 達 just fine, but keep in mind that one does not: うち達. It sounds awkward.
Another pluralizing suffix is 等 (ら), the kanji of which can also be read as など, meaning “etc.” It’s used more commonly by males and people living in Kansai.
Even though dictionaries claim that 〜等 shows more humility than 〜達, in reality, its feeling can change depending on the situation and the pronoun it’s paired with. If you’re not careful, 等 can be very rude. When using it with 僕, the male polite pronoun, for example:
- Could you let us clean?
It sounds a little more casual than 僕達, yet still communicates politeness and humility. But what about when it’s affixed to the manly pronoun 俺?
- Why do we have to clean?
Here, 等 emphasizes the harsh and arrogant tone that can accompany 俺. I couldn’t find any source to explain the nuance 等 might add to first-person pronouns, but my theory is that it emphasizes whatever feeling the sentence already carries: if the sentence is humble, 等 enhances its modesty. If it’s gruff, then 等 makes it even more so.
Earlier I mentioned 私供 (わたしども, わたくしども). This phrase is the best way to use the pluralizing suffix 供. It can fit with other first-person pronoun combinations, but 私供 is by far the most common.
In a conservative, formal situation, 〜供 is a much better choice than 達 or ら for pluralizing your pronoun.
- Leave it to us.
Uncommon Pronouns (Used in Real-Life)
The following pronouns aren’t used as often as the ones we just covered, but Japanese people still use and recognize them. They pop up in books, movies, and other media. If you want to add humor or personality to your conversation, they’re fun to sprinkle in every once in a while.
When you want to be very modest and respect the person you’re talking to, use 私め (わたしめ, わたくしめ). The kanji for the suffix め is 奴, which means “servant.” You might not find much use for it these days, except when you’re being sarcastic or a total kiss-ass.
- I’m terribly honored that Your Majesty said that to me!
Remember how あたし is derivative of わたし, dropping the “w” sound? Well, あたい is derivative of あたし. Originally used by geisha, あたい is quite feminine. But in the Shōwa period, rebellious girls who hung out with biker gangs started using あたい, and the pronoun took on a bad-girl vibe. It’s not common anymore, but あたい is a fun way to give your speech an aggressive tone and jokingly fight with someone.
- What the heck did you just say!?
Just like おれ, both おら and おいら are mainly used by men.
Just like おれ, both おら and おいら are mainly used by men. Both pronouns are strongly tied to the Tohoku regional dialect. Though not used much by the younger generation, my Tohoku grandparents still use おら and おいら on a regular basis. These pronouns can sound pretty nerdy these days, because they’re mostly associated with young boy anime characters like Shin-chan or Goku from Dragon Ball.
- Hi! I’m Goku.
おら and おいら carry a vibrant “boyhood” feeling to them. Some people use them in casual conversation to mimic the likability of cartoon characters. But they still sound like… cartoon characters, so it can be a little awkward.
You may have read the pronoun 吾輩 (わがはい) in the title of Soseki Natsume’s famous novel 吾輩は猫である (I Am a Cat). The cat in the novel refers to himself as 吾輩. This pronoun is old-timey, egotistical, and mostly used by men. Not many people choose it these days aside from the rock singer デーモン閣下 (His Excellency Demon), who uses it to maintain his dignified place among his loyal followers.
- I am a demon who is engaged in missionary work in human society.
If you’ve read our article about Japanese name enders, you can probably guess that 俺 (おれ) + 様 (さま) is a rude and arrogant combination. You don’t usually use 様 with yourself, so adding it to an aggressive pronoun like 俺 is a way to intentionally speak highly of yourself—and disrespect others in the process.
- Listen to what I say!
Pretty rough, right? Even so, this phrase is used a lot by sassy, controlling boy characters in girls’ manga.
You can also use 俺様 as an adjective to describe disrespectful, arrogant people.
- He is such a dominating boyfriend.
Another first-person pronoun you can pair with a name ender is 僕ちゃん (ぼくちゃん). 〜ちゃん is used for girls and little boys, and 〜ちん is the nickname-y version. Both 僕ちゃん and 僕ちん sound like baby talk, and I’ve never heard an adult use this pronoun to refer to themselves, unless they were joking. In fact, the last time I heard anyone use it seriously was in preschool.
- I am good at drawing pictures.
Just like 僕, 僕ちゃん and 僕ちん are also used as second-person pronouns for little boys, so some people may say it to others to make fun of them for being immature.
〜っち has become a popular ender for nicknames recently because it adds affection and friendliness and sounds catchy (like “tamagocchi”). You’ll often hear 俺っち—a casual, laid-back form of おれ—because Jibanyan from Yokai Watch says it. But I’ve never heard it used by a real, live human.
- I often go to the arcade these days.
In Shizuoka Prefecture, 俺っち is commonly used as 俺達, the plural form of 俺.
In fictional stories, わし is the way wizened old hermits and elder sages refer to themselves. Old people use it to refer to themselves stereotypically, though I myself have never heard it used while living in Kanto. It’s common in some dialects, like Hiroshima, no matter the age of the speaker.
- I won’t be living for much longer.
Kings, high-ranking samurai, and intellectuals used to use 余 (よ) as a first-person pronoun. Today, you may still encounter it in very formal writing or political campaigns, as well as Chinese classics and historical dramas.
- I’m satisfied.
If you’ve ever wanted to speak like a samurai, the pronoun 拙者 (せっしゃ) can make your wish come true. The first kanji in the word comes from 拙い, which means “clumsy,” and is used to add modesty. But the pronoun evolved as time went on, and it can be used with an arrogant attitude when talking to someone of lower status. You’re a samurai, after all.
- I am Koichi.
(Samurai pro tip: use the sentence-ending particle 〜でござる to sound even more samurai-like!)
Originating from the archaic word for child (童, わらべ), わらわ is a defunct, formal first-person pronoun women use to sound modest. While there’s nothing inherently feminine or high-class in the word, it’s used today in fictional stories by female characters who are usually princesses, goddesses, or from a high-ranking samurai family.
- Would you give that to me?
WATASHI Am Very Glad BOKU Learned about Japanese First-Person Pronouns
We made a Japanese first-person pronouns cheatsheet you can use to study everything you just learned.
Now that you know all the important and useful Japanese first-person pronouns, you’ll have an easier time deciding which one fits your personality (as well as how to use the one you chose). It will take practice to use them effortlessly, but with time and study, you’ll get there.
In the meantime, you’ll be able to better recognize the pronouns others use and what they’re trying to tell you about themselves. Knowing pronouns gives you better Japanese communication all around.
But wait! We’re not quite done yet.
We made a Japanese first-person pronouns cheatsheet you can use to study everything you just learned. Reading this article put all the information in your head, but it won’t stay there long without some kind of quick-reference material you can study regularly. Oh wait! Here’s one right here.
Just sign up for our free Tofugu newsletter (also useful), and you’ll get access to this study sheet and all past and future Tofugu freebies too.