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!

Rakugo Q&A No.1

As I am one of the few people in the world who runs a rakugo website in English, I sometimes receive enquiries about rakugo from all over the world.

Here are some questions I have received recently. I’ll attempt answering them though they are very broad questions to be answered in a single post. Please note that these are not THE answers 🙂

It is going to be a little technical today, but hope it will help you understand and enjoy rakugo better!

Q1: What are some key points or important points that are vital in practising rakugo? Are there any specific rules?

To me, what makes the rakugo format unique is the concept of “kamishimo” (上下). It is the technique to distinguish multiple characters clearly without confusing the audience. This is crucial as rakugo is performed by a single performer.

It is a very complex technique, but you only need to understand the two rules below to enjoy rakugo:

Rule 1: “Shimote” (下手: Stage Right; from the performer’s perspective) is outside the house, and “kamite” (上手: Stage Left) is inside the house.

For example, when a character faces “shimote”, s/he is talking from inside the house (facing toward outside). On the other hand, if a character is talking to someone inside the house or knocking on the door, s/he always faces “kamite” (Stage Left). This rule developed because in traditional Japanese theatre, the entrance is always located on Stage Right.

Rule 2: If the situation does not involve a house (i.e. everyone is inside/ outside the house), a character in a lower social status faces “kamite” and vice versa.

For example, if a samurai and a farmer are having a conversation outside, the farmer faces to “kamite” and the samurai to “shimote”. However, if a samurai is talking to a farmer inside his/ her house, Rule 1 applies… Confusing enough?

Refer to my master Eiraku’s youtube clip for more details (skip to 4’35”).

Q2: What are the basic skills you need to know in order to perform rakugo?

Some of the basic skills (I think) you need to know are:

  • “Kamishimo”: Refer to Q1 above.
  • Shigusa”: Specific movements to describe certain objects or actions, including the use of a fan (“sensu” or “kaze”- wind) and a towel (“tenugui” or “mandara”- mandala).
    • Fan is often used as: pipe, calligraphy pen, chopsticks, oar, sword, letter, microphone (in modern rakugo), etc.
    • Towel is often used as: wallet, paper, book, cigarette case, etc.
  • Characters: There are specific ways to act out characters (e.g. child, woman, animal, etc.)
  • Voice: Just like any other theatre format, you need to develop a strong voice with good diction, pronunciation, and projection that reaches to the back of the audience.
  • Eye level(s): As rakugo is performed by one person, the eye level(s) (where you look) defines the height of the character. For example, you would look down if an adult character is talking to a child. A child would look up if s/he is talking to an adult. Also, in my personal opinion, eyes can carry a lot of emotions.
  • Hand position: A subtle change in where and how you place your hands on your lap changes the character and his/ her emotions and personalities. You need to minimise hand movements as they can be distracting (which I struggle very much as someone who has lived in the west for more than half his life).

Q3. Could you give me any more information about practising rakugo and how to ensure that the performance is as traditional as possible?

The best way, of course, is to become an apprentice of a rakugo master, but this requires a (more than) full-time commitment and you also have to be able to speak Japanese very fluently. There have been a few non-Japanese performers who went through/ are currently going through the traditional pathway, but this is definitely not for everybody.

I would say finding someone with rakugo experience and learning it directly from him/ her is the only way to ensure its authenticity.

Fortunately, a shin’uchi (master) rakugo performer, Yanagiya Tozaburo, has just moved to New York to spread rakugo, so you can possibly learn the skills directly from him if you are based in US.

My master, Kanariya Eiraku, offers a correspondence course, so you could also contact him. He is considered one of the experts in English Rakugo.

Though I am still learning the art myself, you can join my rakugo club if you are based in New Zealand. We currently have around 7 people in the club. It is free to join though financial support is always appreciated!

To begin with, I recommend you to watch rakugo in Japanese, which is available all over the internet. Even if you don’t understand Japanese, you can see how the techniques mentioned above are actually used.

For English Rakugo, Canary English Rakugo Company and Katsura Sushine‘s Youtube channels are the best available online.

Hope this article will help you enjoy rakugo better!

If you liked this article, please do share it with your family and friends!