I told you earlier how to say you in Japanese, now I’ll explain what kind of personal pronouns you should use when talking about yourself. There are numerous ways to say “I” in Japanese and the choice of this word is crucial in deciding what kind of impression you give to people you’re talking with.
First, the basic ones you most probably have heard before.
Basic gender neutral personal pronouns
Considered the most ordinary way to talk about yourself. A safe one for most people, especially if you have just started learning Japanese. Depending on your personality, especially if you are a male, you might want to consider other ways to address yourself as well but watashi is generally appropriate for most situations for most people.
One thing you should be careful about watashi is that by using it all the time might give a rather stiff impression. Although common even in casual situations among women, if you are a man, people might think that you’re trying to sound clever or more adult than you actually are if you keep on using watashi. Although watashi is considered neutral, it’s actually not – you should consider your personality and the impression you want to give about yourself when choosing whether to use it or not.
A formal way to address yourself. You could use it when talking in front of a lot of people, in presentations for example. Watakushi is not used in normal casual conversations.
If you feel like you’re fine with watashi, you can stop reading now. However, if you want to express more personal color with your way of speaking, stay with me for a few more minutes.
Personal pronouns for women
The nuance of atashi is very close to watashi, although it’s more feminine. Therefore, depending on your personality and way of talking, there might be a slight possibility that you would sound a bit weird if you use this word when talking about yourself. You should also remember that there are situations where it’s not as appropriate to emphasize your feminine side: if you continously repeat atashi at formal business situations for example, you’ll leave somewhat childish image on your co-workers (or even worse, on your business partners).
Aside from women, atashi is also used by onees or gays who intentionally want to be labeled gays.
Suitable for older madames. I rarely hear this one but it sometimes shows up in comics. Some older celebrities such as Dewi Sukarno (known as デヴィ夫人 in Japan) also use this word when talking about themselves – google Dewi’s name and you’ll probably get the nuance.
Uchi actually translates to house or home but it’s also used when talking about yourself. I hear this often when I’m with my University (girl) friends so it’s pretty common but some people find it a bit stupid. I asked a male Japanese friend how he feels about this word and he said he gets the urge to ask “you talking about your home or what?” when someone uses this word for addressing herself – he said it just sounds stupid. He also said that it’s sometimes actually difficult to know whether the person is talking about herself or her home when this word is used.
That being said, uchi is very commonly used for addressing oneself among young women and children, and there are people who don’t find it weird at all – in the contrary, some say it sounds very cheerful and friendly. It’s apparently very common especially among gyaru.
Personal pronouns for men
Although you can hear some real tomboys use this word in anime and tv drama, it’s very rare to hear it used by girls in real life. If you use this as a woman, it’s very probably that you will looked at a very weird way (but probably won’t be corrected so you might not notice it).
As for males, boku is especially used by young men and children. As it’s humbler than the one I’ll introduce next, it’s also sometimes used in formal situations by adult men. Celebrities often use it when talking in front of thousands of fans even if they normally would use the word I’ll introduce next. Using this word as an adult in normal life leaves somewhat weak impression and some people even say it has a girlish vibe. However, these things are not necessarily bad things: some say using boku gives off a very lovable, child-like impression. However, in case you are a fully tattooed guy who loves partying or body-buildning for example, in other words, like things considered something cute mama’s boys wouldn’t do, you might want to consider using some other pronoun for speaking about yourself (some might find that kind of gap very lovable though).
Considered rather bold but is very normal and often used by males. One of my Japanese teachers from my Junior High School period said that ore is very, very bold and one should avoid it as much as possible – but then again, she is a Japanese lady in her 60s and the times have changed.
Ore is one of the most common ways to address yourself if you’re a man: however, you should be very careful when using it while talking to someone who is higher in hierarchy than you. You will risk leaving a very bad impression if you use this when talking with teachers and grandmas for example. Also, in case you don’t want to leave a self-conceited impression on people you don’t know well yet, you might want to consider using this only with your friends. For some, using ore is a mark of honesty and straightforwardness – in both good and bad.
Similar to ore, oira also is rather bold way to address oneself. It’s not very common nowadays and many say it sounds very unsophisticated and gives off an image of a country bumpkin – if you don’t want to sound like someone who has grown up on a farm, you might not want to use this word. Some also say it sounds like something a manga character would say so if you wish to sound like one, oira might be a word for you.
Oira was originally only used by men but nowadays you might also hear it among girls.
Washi gives of a somewhat ancient, old impression and is sometimes used by old men. Very bold and often weird if you’re not an old man. However, if you love history & old things and maybe feel like you’re quite a relic yourself as well, washi might be just the right word for you. Washi is also normally used in some rural areas of Japan so depending on a person, it might fall under the country bumpkin category as well.
More common among men than women, jibun is rarely included in lists like this although it’s actually a very good word to address yourself when you don’t know what word to use. It’s a very useful word – it’s not strong nor weak, nor has it any real restrictions on age. It gives off a somewhat stiff impression so you might want to choose some other word to use when you’re with people you’re close with. As some trivia, jibun is especially common among sport athletes.
Gender neutral ways to call yourself
Kocchi & kochira (こっち、こちら)
These words actually translate to the word “here” but they’re sometimes used when talking about yourself. As the original word, kochira is more formal whereas kocchi is more casual. These are used by both men and women and don’t really have any special connotations so they can be rather safely used. However, some people apparently find them a bit weird.
Your own name
You can call yourself by your own name as a joke but in serious situations, do it only in case you are a child or want to sound like one. You can add -chan for some added stupido effect. This is a common way to call oneself among burikko (briefly explained: a girl pretending to be as cute as possible, apparently appeals to some men).
A title or something similar
In some situations, the best way to address yourself is a title, name of a status or something similar. One easily imaginable situation is a mother talking to children calling herself a mother (okaasan/mama/something similar) or an older lady talking to children addressing herself as an auntie (obasan). I personally only use this when talking to children, and even in those times, extremely rarely.
Nothing – leaving out the pronoun completely
If there’s no need to expictly state you’re talking about yourself, you can omit the personal pronoun completely. Every Japanese learner has heard a sentence starting 私は (watashi wa). This is a perfectly normal and correct way to speak but you should remember that it shouldn’t be used all the time. It adds the nuance of bolded I, and sometimes translates like “I am like this but you’re not, right?”. “Wa” is a topic marker but it’s also a particle that expresses contrast. If it’s already clear that you’re talking about yourself, there’s no need keep adding watashi or some other personal pronoun in your sentences – you’ll just end up sounding annoying (or a beginner in Japanese – which is perfectly fine if you actually are a beginner).
To sum it up
This is not an exhaustive list but it includes most of the commonly used ways to call yourself in Japanese. As much as I would love to give a clear answer on which one(s) you should use, it’s impossible for me to recommend any of these specifically without knowing you as a person. For women, watashi might the safest. However, for men it’s more difficult. The choice of the personal pronoun really affects the impression you give to others so you should carefully consider your personality and think about which word feels the most natural for you. Don’t just believe in textbooks or teachers – think about which word actually feels the most you.
The long list above might feel confusing if you haven’t studied Japanese for a long time yet but trust me, you will get the grip of the nuances after some time. Although watching anime and drama is a good way to learn, you should remember that the characters often use a little exaggerated expressions and that might sound weird in real life. On the other hand, listening to real Japanese people talk and paying attention to how they are calling themselves is really useful!
For those who have studied Japanese longer, I would love to know what personal pronoun(s) you use for yourself. Personally, I mostly use watashi (as I’m female, it doesn’t sound formal) whereas Ken, my Japanese co-writer of this blog, mostly uses ore.