One thing that textbooks often fail to tell you is most of the time you speak Japanese, you probably won’t need to use the exact word for you at all.

I did mention in my earlier entry How I became fluent in Japanese that watching Japanese tv series was very helpful for my Japanese learning. However, you should never only watch drama or anime, and then just start copying the way the characters speak – that will, and I’m saying this with 100% confidence, lead to problems at some point. The way most Japanese talk is far from the style anime characters use when they’re talking and even drama series introduce a lot of misleading speaking styles.

Another thing I want to stress is not to trust textbooks too much. Some textbook series (I might or might not name some of these later in the blog) include very bad example sentences that only teach you grammar rules or vocabulary without showing you how to actually speak. The most grin-worthy of these sentences are the many sentences with a word anata (you) in them. While remembering this word is essential, you should not take it into your own active vocabulary too fast.

All that being said, today I’m going to introduce you some commonly known words used when talking with another person, from the least recommended to the most recommended. You should always think about the context though – sometimes one word is more suitable than another.

People near Shinbashi station in Tokyo at night

Not recommended:

お前 (omae)
It really makes me cringe whenever I hear someone studying Japanese use this word. It’s mostly just a plain rude way to talk to someone and even in best cases, pretty much telling that you’re higher than the person you’re talking with. You can hear this a lot in anime but in reality, you won’t hear it much unless you spend some time with Japanese school kids or yankees.

My advice regarding this word is simple: Do not use it. After you have got to know Japanese better, you might be able to use it with your good friends (at least if you are a male) but I’ll leave that for you to decide. Just please, for the sake of everyone else who understands Japanese, don’t use this word until you’re at the point in your Japanese studies where you feel like this entry offers no new information to you and you feel like you know Japanese just as well or better than a Japanese native.

君 (kimi)
Often heard in pop lyrics or anime but not so commonly used in real life. This word is mostly used by boys and it should not be used towards someone in higher position than yourself. I would recommend to avoid this word until you really understand the nuances of Japanese and even after that, just using it with your close friends – if at all. The only instance where I use this word is when I’m singing karaoke and the only place I have heard it in real life is when I visited a Japanese Elementary School.

Better off avoided:

あなた (anata)
This word is often introduced in Japanese textbooks as the equivalent for English “you”. However, these 2 words should not be used as equivalents. Even though anata indeed officially is the second person noun and is often translated as “you”, the usage of the word is very different from English. First of all, maybe it tells you something if I say I basically never use this word even though I speak Japanese 99% of my day? As the two words above, anata also makes the one you’re talking to feel inferior and it’s not a way to talk to someone at higher or at the same level than you. I’m not Japanese but I would still be terrified if someone asked me something using this word – expect if I was a man an had a Japanese wife: as weird as it might feel, anata can also mean “darling” and it’s commonly used by older Japanese ladies.

Just in case you are considering on dropping this word completely from your vocabulary – wait a little bit! There are actually situations where this word can be safely used without offending anyone. One example of these kind of situations is when you want to ask something to a person you know absolutely nothing of. Let’s say that you see someone drop her wallet and want to pick it up for her. This is one of the rare cases it’s okay to ask “is this yours?” using the word anata. There are also differences on the usage of the word between different regions and different people so you might be hear this word as the ordinary “you” someday as well – however, I would strongly recommend you to avoid it for now at least.

Recommended:

そちら、そっち (sochira, socchi)
Sochira and socchi actually translate as the word “there” but they can also be used for addressing people. For example, a simple question “how about you?” could be easily asked そちらは?(sochira wa?) and you will get out of the situation without offending anyone. I use this sometimes when I don’t know or remember the name of the person I’m talking with and also when I’m just at times when it feels uncomfortable to use the name of the person I’m talking to. Sochira is also a nice word if you want to be polite.

Different titles
In Japanese, there are many convenient titles you can use for addressing people instead of pronouns. Adding a name before the title works sometimes and sometimes doesn’t, depending on the situation. Some examples of these kind of titles are:
先輩 (senpai), used for seniors at school or a workplace.
先生 (sensei), used for teachers or doctors for example.
部長 (buchou)課長 (kachou)社長 (shachou) titles for different-level bosses at work.
〇〇のお母さん (~no okaasan) or 〇〇のお父さん (~no otoosan), good words when you want to talk to someone else’s parents. Just add the name of that someone in place of the circles.
お客様 (okyakusama), the honorable guest or customer. You should know this if you are using Japanese when you are working as it’s one of the most common ways to address a customer.

Omitting the subject completely
If you don’t know how to address the person you’re talking with, you could just omit the subject completely. Omitting the subject is actually very common in Japanese and there are many instances where it’s the most natural option. For example, whenever I’m out with a friend and ask what we should do next, I always say something like どうする? and not 〇〇はどうする? because that would feel like we were going to separate from there on.

Omitting the subject is also a good way to ask someone’s name. お名前は? (onamae wa) is a simple but very common and safe way to ask someone’s name.

The name of the person with a suffix (often -san)
Although omitting the subject often works, it’s not always the best choice. Also, as we all know people love hearing their own name – it’s just plain psychology. If you know the name of the person you’re talking to, it’s usually safe to address that person by using that name. As a rule of thumb, you should use the last name of the person but if you’re talking with Japanese University students for example, they might ask you to use their first names (it’s also usually a no-brainer you should call children by their first names). However, you should never address a new person with just his or her name without a suffix: to be safe, you should always add -san at the end of the name.

 

I hope this entry was helpful for those of you learning Japanese and helped clear some misunderstandings created by anime or textbooks. If you feel like you can’t remember everything written above, just be careful not to use any of the 3 on the top: omae, kimi or anata. Also, in case you want more clear explanations on these words or the way they’re used, feel free to ask in the comments! I will also be writing more about suffixes like san later on so I hope you’ll look forward to that.

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