Saying “You” in Japanese

Hello all, I’ve just put the finishing touches on my Cheat Sheet Pack and am ready to get back to blogging! I’m going to try for one or two articles a week for a while. Today, I bring you an article about “You” words in Japanese, to complement my previous “I” words article.

Saying “you” in Japanese is much trickier business than in English. In English, we have just the one word, and we use it all the time. Japanese has a much broader vocabulary, but also a strong tendency to avoid using it.

Rule Number 1: Don’t say Anata (too much)

The first rule of saying “you” in Japanese is you don’t say “you” in Japanese! (Fight Club joke abbreviated). Well, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s true that Japanese people more often than not will omit the “you” information from their sentences. Similar to omitting “I”, this information is mostly derived from the context or other grammar clues.

So in English, we might say “Are you going to the bank today?”, but the literal equivalent in Japanese: あなたは今日銀行に行きますか (anata wa kyou ginkou ni ikimasu ka?) sounds very robotic and unnatural. The most common place where Japanese people actually use anata is when they don’t know anything about the person they’re talking to. It is also the word used when not talking to a specific person (for example, saying “you” in TV commercials).

So why do textbooks use the word anata so often? For the most part, this is just so that learners can understand the sentence better. Since the information would be there in English, beginners automatically expect it in Japanese, and get confused if it’s not there. Think of it as a training wheel.

Rule Number 2: Use suffixes first

When Japanese DO explicitly state “you” information in their sentences, it’s proper to use the person’s (family) name and attach a suffix. You’re probably already familiar with ~さん (san), which is a safe fall-back suffix for learners. There are others too, however. Most commonly…

  • ~様 (sama): a very polite version of さん
  • ~君 (kun): a suffix used toward men of inferior status/position
  • ~ちゃん (chan): a suffix indicating a high degree of familiarity and/or affection

And you may also have heard:

  • ~殿 (dono): an older-sounding suffix which is usually attached to peoples’ titles (not their names).
  • ~氏 (shi): this suffix (which you’re most likely to see after the names of artists) is primarily for 3rd person references, rather than for the person you’re addressing.
  • ~卿 (きょう): the “Lord” suffix. I think the only place I’ve ever heard it is in Japanese Star Wars, where Darth Vader is addressed as: ベイダー卿

(Note: I say “usually” and “primarily” because there’s a bit of gray area here, especially if you read manga and the like)

In official-like situations, it’s commonplace to use a person’s title as a suffix after their name. Hence: オバマ大統領 (= obama daitouryou: Obama President).

As long as it’s clear who you’re referring to, you can even drop the name entirely and just go with the title. People in high organizational positions (for example: 社長 (shachou: CEO) or 部長 (buchou:department chief) are particularly susceptible to being addressed by their titles alone. 先生 (sensei) or “teacher” is the same way, but be aware that this title is very often also bestowed upon non-teachers as a way to express respect for someone’s professional expertise (common with lawyers, doctors, business consultants).

Conversely, calling someone by just their name without any title/suffix is referred to as yobisute (呼び捨て) in Japanese and you should not do it unless you’re on very familiar terms, and even then it’s extremely rare to yobisute your superiors.

Note that the name+suffix/title method of referring to people is okay both for directly addressing someone and making 3rd person references.

Rule Number 3: “you” words are dangerous

Sorry to keep you all waiting, now that I’ve laid the necessary groundwork I’ll give you the cool words. It’s important to remember that in Japanese, to politely address someone you should use their name with a suffix or their title. The broad catch-all “you” words range mostly between overtly familiar and offensive, and require caution when used.

Informal “you”:

  • 君 (kimi): used by men toward people of lower status. Typically not rude. (not inherently formal/informal, but makes the status hierarchy explicit, and is therefore better suited to formal situations)
  • お前 (omae): used in very informal situations or toward people of lower status. This word feels very “blunt” and can easily come off as rude.
  • あんた (anta): a shortened version of anata, highly informal and generally rude or admonishing in nature.

Derogatory “you”:

  • kisama – きさま (貴様)
  • temee – てめえ (手前)
  • onore – 己

These three words all indicate anger and/or disapproval of whoever you’re talking to. Needless to say, don’t use them unless you’re trying to pick a fight.

Interestingly, as some of you might be able to discern from the kanji, kisama was actually a term of respect in old Japan.

A couple more:

  • お主  (onushi): This is an old “you” word, not impolite but never used toward superiors.
  • お宅 (otaku) : Somewhat older “you” expression, but still used sometimes. This word is respectful in nature and shouldn’t ruffle many feathers. Note that this word not the same as that which refers to anime-loving オタク.

Final notes

I should mention that anata is also used by adult women when speaking to their husbands.

君 (kimi) is commonly employed by boyfriends when talking to their girlfriends, and as such risks giving people the wrong idea. Remember Rule #2 (use suffixes first).

(Note for Advanced Learners:) The notion of anata no (“your ~”) is conveyed by default when adding an お or ご in front of a noun to make it honorific (Keigo). Thus we don’t need to say あなたのお名前 because  お名前 is never MY name, it’s always YOUR name. Similarly, we can reword あなたの住所 as ご住所 and あなたの注文 as ご注文.

If you found this post interesting or useful, please check out Nihonshock’s Japanese Cheat Sheet pack! The information in this post is summarized in sections on both the Spoken Japanese sheet (“you” words) and the Keigo sheet (suffixes).

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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