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Addressing people properly in Japanese

Not only is it important to use the right type of language with the right people, it is also important to address them by the right name. It is also important to address yourself with the proper level of politeness. Japanese is special in that there are so many ways of saying the simple words, "I" and "you". We will go over some of ways to refer to yourself and others.

Referring to yourself

There are many ways to say "I" in Japanese. Some of these words are not as common and others are hopelessly outdated. We will go over the most common ones that are in use today. The usages of all the different words for "I" is separated into two categories: gender and politeness. In other words, there are words that are usually used by males and words that are usually only used by females and they all depend on the social context.

Before going into this: a note about the word 「」. The official reading of the kanji is 「わたくし」. This is the reading you is used in a formal context (for example, a speech by the president of a company). This reading will probably be accompanied with honorific and humble forms, which we will cover later. In all other situations, it is usually read as 「わたし」. This is the most generic reference to "I" in terms of politeness and gender; therefore it is usually one of the first words taught to students of Japanese.

Here is a list of the most common words for "I" and how they are used:
  1. (わたくし) - Used by both males and females for formal situations.
  2. (わたし) - Used by both males and females for normal polite situations.
  3. - Used primarily by males from fairly polite to fairly casual situations.
  4. - A very rough version of "I" used almost exclusively by males in very casual situations.
  5. あたし - A very feminine and casual way to refer to oneself. Many girls have decided to opt for 「わたし」 instead because 「あたし」 has a cutesy and girly sound.
  6. One's own name - Also a very feminine and kind of childish way to refer to oneself.
  7. わし - Usually used by older men well in their middle-ages.

Let's see how different types of sentences use the appropriate version of "I". 「わたくし」 is left out because we have yet to go over very formal grammatical expressions.

(1) 名前はキムです。- My name is Kim. (Neutral, polite)
(2) 名前はキムです。- My name is Kim. (Masculine, polite)
(3) 名前はボブだ。- My name is Bob. (Masculine, casual)
(4) 名前はボブだ。- My name is Bob. (Masculine, casual)
(5) あたし名前はアリス。- My name is Alice. (Feminine, casual)

Referring to others by name

Japanese does not require the use of "you" nearly as much as English does. I hope that the examples with Bob, Alice, and Jim have shown that people refer to other people by their names even when they are directly addressing that person. Another common way to address people is by their title such as 「社長」、「課長」、「先生」, etc. The word 「先生」 is used to generally mean any person who has significant knowledge and expertise in something. For example, people usually use 「先生」 when directly addressing doctors or teachers (obviously). You can also include the person's last name such as 「田中先生」 (teacher Tanaka). In the case where your relationship with the person doesn't involve any title, you can use their name (usually their last name) attached with 「さん」 to show politeness. If calling them by their last name seems a little too polite and distant, the practice of attaching 「さん」 to their first name also exists. More endearing and colloquial versions of 「さん」 include 「くん」 and 「ちゃん」. 「くん」 is usually attached to the name of males who are of equal or lower social position. (For example, my boss sometimes calls me 「キムくん」). 「ちゃん」 is a very endearing way to refer to usually females of equal or lower social position.

Referring to others with "you"

Please do not use 「あなた」 just like you would use the word "you" in English. In directly addressing people, there are three levels of politeness: 1) Using the person's name with the appropriate suffix, 2) Not using anything at all, 3) Using 「あなた」. In fact, by the time you get to three, you're dangerously in the area of being rude. Most of the time, you do not need to use anything at all because you are directly addressing the person. Constantly pounding the listener with "you" every sentence sounds like you are accusing the person of something.

あなた」 is also an old-fashioned way for women to refer to their husband or lover. Unless you are a middle-aged women with a Japanese husband, I doubt you will be using 「あなた」 in this fashion as well.

Here is a list of some words meaning "you" in English. You will rarely need to use any of these words, especially the ones in the second half of the list.

  1. あなた - Generally only used when there is no way to physically address the person or know the person's name. For example, direct questions to the reader on a form that the reader must fill out would use 「あなた」.
  2. - Can be a very close and assuming way to address girls (especially by guys). Can also be kind of rude.
  3. お前 - A very rough and coarse way to address someone. Usually used by guys and often changed to 「おめえ」.
  4. あんた - A very assuming and familiar way to address someone. The person using this is maybe miffed off about something.
  5. 手前 - Very rude. Like 「お前」, to add extra punch, people will usually say it like, 「てめ~~」. Sounds like you want to beat someone up. I've only seen this one used in movies and comic books. In fact, if you try this on your friends, they will probably laugh at you and tell you that you've probably been reading too many comic books.
  6. 貴様 - Very, very rude. Sounds like you want to take someone out. I've also only seen this one used in comic books. I only go over it so you can understand and enjoy comic books yourself!

Referring to others in third person

You can use 「」 and 「彼女」 for "he" and "she" respectively. Notice that 「」 and 「彼女」 can also mean "boyfriend" and "girlfriend". So how can you tell which meaning is being used? Context, of course. For example, if someone asks, 「彼女ですか?」 the person is obviously asking if she is you're girlfriend because the question, "Is she she?" doesn't make any sense. Another less commonly used alternative is to say 「ガールフレンド」 and 「ボーイフレンド」 for, well, I'm sure you can guess what they mean.

Referring to family members

Referring to family members is a little more complicated than English. (It could be worse, try learning Korean!) For the purpose of brevity, (since this is a grammar guide and not a vocabulary guide) we will only go over the immediate family. In Japanese, you refer to members of other people's family more politely than your own. This is only when you are talking about members of your own family to others outside the family. For example, you would refer to your own mother as 「」 to people outside your family but you might very well call her 「お母さん」 at home within your own family. There is also a distinction between older and younger siblings. The following chart list some of the most common terms for family members. There may also be other possibilities not covered in this chart.

Family member chart
One's own familySomeone else's family
Older Sisterお姉さん
Older Brotherお兄さん
Younger Sister妹さん
Younger Brother弟さん

Another word for wife, 「家内」 is often considered politically incorrect because the kanji used are "house" and "inside" which implies that wives belong in the home. Amen. (Just kidding)

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This page has last been revised on 2006/2/7
Cleaned up various small errors and expanded on あなた (2006/2/7)