Many Ways to Say “I” in Japanese Explained

A while ago, I made a silly video about different ways to say “I” in Japanese.

Some people have asked me in what context each expression is used, so I have decided to explain that in this article!

Hope this is helpful for you 🙂

Also… if you like this kind of video, please follow my YouTube channel, too. That will definitely make my day!!!

私(わたし Watashi): The most standard “I” in Japanese. The textbook definition!

私(わたくし Watakushi): This is a more polite version of “watashi”. As you may have noticed, the kanji for “watashi” and “watakushi” is the same “私”.

僕(ぼく Boku): This “I” is usually used by a male speaker regardless of his age. When used by an adult, it is usually with someone with an equal or a lower social standing. In recent years (especially in the manga context), some women use “boku” to address themselves as well.

俺(おれ Ore): Casual “I” used by men. It is only used with someone in the same or lower social standing or someone who is really close such as family members. This is my default “I” with my parents and older sister. I have met some non-native speakers of Japanese who think this is an impolite expression, but this is not the case as it completely depends on the context and its use is often a show of closeness to the person.

俺様(おれさま Oresama): This is the arrogant version of “ore”. I have never heard of this expression in real life except when someone is being silly on purpose. You might encounter this expression in books particularly in comic books 🙂

自分(じぶん Jibun): A formal “I”. According to this dictionary website, it was originally used as a second-person personal pronoun during the Edo period (1603-1868). In Osaka dialect, it is used to address a close friend i.e. it can also mean “you”! Confusing, isn’t it?

当方(とうほう Touhou): Wow, my sincere apology, this expression actually means “we”!!! I accidentally included it as it literally means “this side” or “the group I belong to”… but it should really be treated as “we” because the person is talking about the group s/he belongs to as a representative… Sorry!!! (You now know Japanese people don’t always know Japanese!)

身共(みども Midomo): This is a formal “I” used towards someone in the equal or lower social status.

手前(てまえ Temae): This is a humble way to refer yourself. But the confusing thing is that it could also be used to mean “you” towards someone in the same or lower social status. For this use, its variation てめえ (teme’e) is often used, but remember it is a very rude expression!

おら (Ora): This “I” is usually used in the Tohoku region. It is mainly used by men, but it is used by some old women as well.

俺っち (おれっち Orecchi): A casual and almost uncouth “I”. Not many people actually use this expression, but you do hear it spoken by some stereotypical characters in drama, manga, etc. Some people say it is the short version of “俺達” (おれたち Oretachi) or “we”.

あっし (Asshi): This is often used in “jidaigeki” or a period drama. It is often used by the craftsmen of Edo.

あたし (Atashi): Informal “I” used by women. It was used by men as well during the Edo period (1603-1868), and rakugo performers still use this expression even today. I use it myself with my rakugo friends.

あたい (Atai): This “I” feels a little archaic to me, but it is used by little children and sometimes by adult women. “Atai” is used by Yotaro, one of the star characters in rakugo!

拙者(せっしゃ): This is the “I” used by samurai warriors. You still hear it a lot in period dramas!

わし (Washi): This is a variation of “watashi” used with someone in the same or lower social status. It can sound a bit arrogant.

我 (われ Ware): This is a formal “I” that shows up often in Japanese literature, and I have never met anyone who uses this “I” in conversation.

余 (よ Yo): An archaic “I” used by the feudal lords and samurai warriors in high social status.

朕 (ちん chin): “I” only used by the emperor!

Eishi’s Rakugo Commentary No.3 [Nopperabo のっぺらぼう]

[You can watch this rakugo story at the bottom of this post. Please let me know what you think of it!!!]

In my personal opinion, this is one of the uniquest rakugo stories of all.

This is not because it is a pure ghost story with very little laughter but mainly because it was inspired by a story written by Lafcadio Hearn or better known in Japan as Koizumi Yakumo (小泉 八雲 1850-1904).

The story of Nopperabo had already existed as folktales before his writing, but it was him who made it famous.

In 1850, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was born in Greece to a Greek mother and an Irish father. Due to family complications, he moved to Dublin and then to the United States where he worked as a newspaper reporter.

As a correspondent, he was sent to French West Indies for 2 years, and then finally ended up in Japan where he spent the rest of his life.

He got married with a Japanese woman and became a Japanese citizen himself.

He is the reason why I am so attached to this story.

Someone from overseas bothered enough to learn, live, and love the Japanese way, and he shared his learning with the west and ended his life as a Japanese citizen.

I feel so closely to this man perhaps because I am in a little similar situation myself as someone who has spent more than half of his life overseas and married to a non-Japanese woman.

Whenever I perform this story, I think of him, and I feel immensely honoured to carry on with his story.

Going back to the story itself, it had already existed as I mentioned earlier.

There is a mention about Nopperabo in Sorori Monogatari (曽呂利物語 そろりものがたり) in 1663.

The fascinating thing about this particular Nopperabo is that he was over 2m tall!!!

In general, people believed that animals such as foxes, racoon dogs, or mujina (Japanese badgers) turned into Nopperabo and tricked humans.

In Koizumi’s version, the culprit was a mujina.

You can read the original story here on The Project Gutenberg website. As you can see, the term “Nopperabo” is somehow not used in his story.

Now you can watch Nopperabo below and see how the original evolved into a rakugo story.

References

のっぺらぼう

Lafcadio Hearn

Eishi’s Rakugo Commentary No.2 [Jugemu 寿限無]

[The recording of this story is at the bottom of this post.]

Jugemu (寿限無) probably is one of the best-known rakugo stories in Japan along with Time Noodles (時そば) and Scary Manju (まんじゅうこわい).

It is also one of my favourite stories to perform for people who are new to rakugo.

This tale is about this Japanese boy who had an unnecessarily long name, which would cause all sorts of problems. I am very glad that my name is NOT…

Jugemu jugemu
Gokouno surikire
Kaijari suigyono
Suigyoumatsu unraimatsu furaimatsu
Kuneru tokoroni sumutokoro
Yaburakoujino burakouji
Paipo paipo paipono shuringan
Shuringan no gurindai
Gurindai no ponpokopi no ponpokona no
Chokyumei no chosuke

(*There are some different variations.)

The exact origin of this story is unclear as its basic structure appears in many books and folktales.

The prototype of this story is found in Shasekishu (沙石集) or “Sand and Pebbles”, which was a collection of Buddhist parables compiled by a monk called Muju (無住) in 1283.

It was widespread, and the same concept can be found in Kyogen and a traditional lullaby from Shinano Azumigouri Yamato Village (信濃安曇郡倭村).

One of the scary variations I have heard of before is that Jugemu drowns because his name was a bit too long…

Just like the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales, some stories became un-PC, so they have been rewritten over time as rakugo is not only a traditional art but a popular art at the same time.

(My Jugemu might be more appropriate to be called “New Zealand Jugemu”! 😁)

References

落語手帖 矢野誠一

沙石集

Secrets Hidden in Japanese Names

One of the most common questions I get asked while living overseas is what my real name Hiroshi means.

My usual answer is something like, “Hiroshi could mean many different things, but my name means to ‘break through life with ambition’.”

As you wise readers may know, the meaning of a Japanese name is not determined by its sound but the kanji or Chinese characters used in the name.

In the old days in Japan, most people didn’t bother spending hours referring to the ancient myths or fortune tellers to come up with the perfect names for their precious babies.

The first sons/ daughters often had a kanji character “一” (one) in their names. The second children “二” (two), the third “三” (three), and so on.

My grandpa was the third son of the family, so his name was “三都彦” (Mitsuhiko). As you can see, the kanji “三” (three) is used.

Two of the superstar characters in rakugo are Hachigoro (八五郎) and Kumagoro (熊五郎).

You may have noticed, but the kanji character “五” (five) is used in both of their names.

That’s right. They were probably the fifth sons of the family.

So… what does this imply?

In the past, the first sons were the sole heirs of the family unless there were special reasons why they couldn’t act as the head of the family.

Inevitably, they received preferential treatments from their family and were sometimes even spoiled by their parents and relatives.

However, the second sons onward were just the supporting acts for the first sons.

What usually happened in the countryside in particular was to send non-heir sons to Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, or other large cities so that they would find their own means of supporting themselves.

So the names Hachigoro and Kumagoro imply that they were sort of outcasts whom their families probably didn’t care much about.

Rakugo is the art of the commoners.

Rakugo performers during the Edo period (1603-1868) did not even belong to the four social classes of the day: samurai warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants in the order of importance.

In fact, they belong to the “non-human” status.

Rakugo was an interpretation of this world from the rock bottom of the society.

This is what makes rakugo immensely human.

Booze Drinking Giant Snake

Hi all, how’s everything going? Hope things are well over there!

Let’s begin today’s post by addressing the elephant in the room.

The title does sound like an enigmatic phrase on one of those funky Japanese t-shirts… or perhaps a rock band from Tokyo.

English is my second language after all.

Anyway…

Have you ever heard a Japanese person say “You drink a lot! Like a giant snake (uwabami)!” (よく飲むねえ。ウワバミだ。)

This is a rather archaic expression that you often come across in rakugo, but it is still used to playfully describe a person who drinks a lot.

In fact, my sister’s nickname was “Uwabami” when she was at university.

She was (possibly still is) a heavy drinker…

Recently, this expression made me wonder what its origin would be.

When did Japanese people start believing that large snakes drink a lot of alcohol?

The answer lies in the books “Kojiki” (古事記) and “Nihon Shoki” (日本書紀) that recorded our foundation myths.

They are like Genesis in the bible, but there are two books written from different perspectives.

I am sure there are many theories, but I learned at high school that Kojiki was written to educate the commoners about our beginning while Nihon Shoki acted more like an official document for the government.

According to these books, our first recorded giant snake was called Yamata no Orochi (やまたのおろち 八岐大蛇). This monster had eight heads and eight tails. As you can see in the pictures, he could’ve been more like a dragon.

Once a year, this rogue snake appeared and demanded the eight daughters of earthly deities called “Foot-Stroking-Elder”(アシナヅチ 足名椎命) and “Hand-Stroking Elder” (テナヅチ 手名椎命).

Their eight daughters were eaten, one by one, every year.

Now there was only one daughter left.

Then comes our hero Susanoo no Mikoto (スサノオノミコト 須佐之男命).

He was a god who had been kicked out of Heaven for tricking his sister Ameterasu-Ōmikami (天照大御神 あまてらすおおみかみ), the sun goddess of Japan.

Susanoo had an excellent idea!

He decided to take a lot of alcohol for the giant serpent (who probably should’ve dealt with his alcohol issues before too late) to get him drunk before slaying this monster.

His plan worked, and the last daughter of the couple with the unfortunate names survived.

Inside one of the eight tails was a sword called “Kusanagi no Tsurugi” (草薙の剣), which became one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan along with Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡) mirror and Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉) jewel.

So there you go…

The Japanese expression “Uwabami” (giant snake) comes from the Yamata no Orochi story.

That’s all, really.

Hope you enjoyed it!

Image Attribution

Toyohara Chikanobu (豊原周延), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年, Japanese, *1839, †1892), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reference

Yamata no Orochi

Cosmetics of Edo: Am I Beautiful?

Our desire for beauty, whether you are a man or a woman, is universal.

If we had a choice, most of us would probably opt in for looking gorgeous than the other way around. (To avoid misunderstanding and potential loss of readership, I would like to add that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

The people of Edo (1603-1868) were no different.

Readers, be prepared to be surprised by what they used for cosmetics to stay youthful.

The most common beauty product was nuka or rice bran.

They put rice bran in a bag and washed their body with it.

It is still sold in Japan, and I have tried it a few times myself. It actually works, and your skin will be noticeably smoother.

They also used funori, a kind of seaweed.

It was used as hair product to keep their hair nice and shiny. They melted it in hot water and mixed with other ingredients like flour.

But the ultimate beauty product of Edo was…

Drum roll, please…

Japanese bush warbler or uguisu’s waste.

They smeared this bird’s… ahem… poop on their faces!!!

It was very expensive and cost a fortune.

I have no idea how they collected it, but that will be my next research topic.

And guess what, it is STILL used in Japan though it isn’t common, and you can purchase it online wherever you are in the world.

If you ever decide to give it a go, please send me the before and after photos.

I am very curious.

Photo Attribution

Alpsdake, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons