In English, "I" is generally used as a first person pronoun regardless of the speakers age or gender, but there are many variations in Japanese, including "わたし (watashi)," "おれ (ore)," "ぼく (boku)," "わし (washi)," "おいら (oira)," and more. This may be one of the confusing points for people learning Japanese.
For Japanese speakers, the first person pronoun also represents one's identity and personality, and changes over the course of their lives.
In this article, we will be discussing first person pronouns used in Japanese, and how it changes from early childhood to adulthood. I have summarized the variations of Japanese first person pronouns and points that Japanese language learners should pay attention to.
・Common first person pronouns used in early childhood
From the time a child begins to speak, it is common for infants to call themselves by "name + ちゃん (chan) or くん (kun)" or simply by their own name. The words "name + chan" and "name + kun " are added to other people's names to express various forms of respect and endearment, with connotations of closeness and affection. It begins with infants being called "-chan" or "-kun" by their parents, grandparents, preschool teachers, and other adults who are closest to them, and then imitating them.
As children enter their school years (age 6 and onward), there is a gradual change in the first person pronouns they use. Many children consciously change the way they call themselves from "their own name" to "わたし (watashi)," "ぼく (boku)," or "おれ (ore)." The change in first person pronouns can also be considered as part of the process of children establishing their own identity.
Once children hit school-age, they tend to try to establish themselves as individual beings. They express their social roles and positions as seen from others by using common first person pronouns they see being used by adults around them.
"However, when the child changes their first person pronouns, or even if they change it from their "name" will depend on the individual's personality and the environment they are surrounded by. Compared to girls, boys tend to change their first person pronouns to "ぼく"" or "おれ"" earlier than girls, often from the age of 4 or 5 years old.
Personally, I feel that an increasing percentage of children nowadays continue to call themselves by their first names compared to when I was a child myself. Incidentally, my daughter who is currently in 3rd grade still calls herself by "her own name + chan."
・Common first person pronouns used by different genders
Men will often use "ぼく (boku)," "おれ (ore)," and "わたし (watashi)" as their main first person pronouns, and will choose between them depending on the person they are talking to and the situation.
Both "おれ" and "ぼく" are used in casual conversation between family members and friends, but they both have their own nuances.
・"おれ" has a more assertive sense of power and masculinity.
・"ぼく" has a gentler nuance compared to "おれ."
The first person pronoun "わたし" gives a more proper impression and is often used by men at work or in a formal setting.
In contrast, the common first person pronoun for women is only "わたし."
This is thought to be because women in Japanese society have often been expected to play a role that emphasizes family and social harmony, leading to the use of the more gentle and humble form "わたし." However, in today's society, where diverse identities are gradually being recognized, young women in particular are increasingly referring to themselves as "ぼく" or "うち (uchi; which originally meant "わたし" in the Kansai dialect)."
・Various first person pronouns
"The Japanese language has many other first person pronouns in addition to the common forms listed above. Each has its own nuances, and a person's character can be expressed through these first person pronouns. Even if some first person pronouns are used by the protagonists of famous anime, many of them are not actually used in real life.
Below are some examples of the many first person pronouns that you might have noticed being used in anime."
"・じぶん (jibun): It is a term used by all genders. It is often used by athletes.
・うち (uchi): It was originally a first person pronoun commonly used by women with the Kansai dialect, but it is now used nationwide.
・わらわ (warawa): It is often used by noble women in manga and anime. It is no longer used in real life.
・あたい (atai): This is a first person pronoun that was often used by women in the shitamachi area. It is not used much nowadays, but characters in anime and games often use it (often in more strong-minded characters)." "・わて (wate): It was originally used by women in the Kansai region, but it is now used by all genders.
・わい (wai): It is used by men in the Kansai region.
*Both "わて" and "わい" are typically no longer used by the general public nowadays, but some comedians in the Kansai region use them.
・おいら (oira): It is commonly used by men in the Kantō region. Some famous celebrities such as Takeshi Kitano (TV personality and film director) often use this word so you might still hear it nowadays, but very few people actually use it."
"・おら (ora): It is famous for being used by Son Gokū from "Dragon Ball" and Shinnosuke from "Crayon Shin-chan." It is not commonly used.
・わし (washi): It was used by old-fashioned men to refer to themselves when they got older. Some still use it to this day, but it is no longer a common term.
・せっしゃ (sessha)/それがし (soregashi): It is an old fashioned term for a man which was used by samurai during the Edo period (1603-1867). Almost no one uses it in today's society. However, anime characters such as Goemon from "Lupin III" and characters from "Rurōni Kenshin" often use it."
・Points to keep in mind for Japanese language learners
As I have shown in this article, first person pronouns in Japanese are used differently depending on the child's developmental stage, social and cultural aspects, regional characteristics, and the nuances of each term, which can be a difficult aspect for Japanese language learners.
Especially when watching anime, you will see a variety of first person pronouns, but it is very dangerous to imitate them as they are. Why not start with the simplest first person pronoun, "わたし (watashi)," and then find a first person pronoun that feels right for you, and the people around you as you interact with various Japanese people and cultures?
First person pronouns in Japanese can be difficult, but it is quite interesting as well, so why not pay attention to who is using what kind of first person pronouns the next time you speak to or listen to someone converse in Japanese?
How was it? First person pronouns in Japanese are a complex and interesting world. The choice of word is important as a means of expressing personal identity and social roles, and it involves a great deal of culture and nuance.
It is interesting to look closely at the changes in the first person pronoun and how it is used by different genders and characters! Try paying attention to them the next time you watch Japanese anime!