Me in Japanese: Watashi, Boku & Ore

We want to make it clear that, despite the title, watashi, boku and ore aren’t the only ways of saying “me” in Japanese.

There’s only “me”, “myself” and “I” in English, but when it comes to Japanese first-person pronouns, the options are seemingly endless.

So how do you know you’re using the right “I” in Japanese? If you watch enough anime, films or even the news, you’ll notice a pattern: watashi (わたし) stands as the most basic form of the first-person pronoun. Boku (僕) and ore (俺) are next respectively.

Then again, there are layers of subtext, social factors and psychological distance taken into consideration. The Japanese culture is complex, and this complexity extends to the language, too.

Ultimately, we want you to avoid feeling overloaded. It’s just “I”, after all — why make things complicated? Thankfully, a lot of Japanese speakers don’t even stick to one pronoun. You’ll learn how to differentiate between the “I”‘s and find out which one is best for you.

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About Watashi, Boku, Ore — and A Million Other Japanese First-person Pronouns

If English is your native language, here’s a did-you-know: a lot of languages have multiple first-person pronouns, like Vietnamese, Indonesian and Korean. Between all of these, Japan has the most first-person pronouns.

How and when you refer to yourself depends on the person you’re talking to, situation and context. In other words, it depends on how you want to present yourself.

For example, if you use watashi (わたし), it’s considered formal — polite, even. On the other hand, try using ore (俺) in front of your boss and you might risk losing your job in Japan (or, better yet, being told to voluntarily quit from the company).

This is why you’ll notice most Japanese people bouncing from one pronoun to another when they’re with their close friends, family or colleagues.

You’ll notice a lot of them have their go-to pronouns, too. When it comes to gender differences in spoken Japanese, men and women tend to favor different pronouns. Social standing also affects how people refer to themselves, as well as how they refer to other people.

For example, 72% of Japanese men will use “ore” (俺) with their friends. When they’re talking to a stranger, more than 60% of them will use “boku” (僕). On the other hand, to an unknown visitor, 75% of Japanese women will use “watashi”.

Of course, watashi, boku and ore aren’t the only first-person pronouns in Japanese, because they don’t include all the phonetic strains and regional differences.

Ever heard of ‘”ora” (おら)? It’s an informal Japanese personal pronoun from the Kanto dialect, similar to “oira” (おいら). The impression you’ll get when you use this is that of a “country bumpkin” — someone from a very rural area.

We’ll go over other ways to say “I” in Japanese as we dive deeper into the article.

Japanese Language Doesn’t Need First-Person Pronouns

Unlike most languages, Japanese grammar doesn’t require you to include first-person pronouns, so you can omit the watashi, boku or ore. This is because it doesn’t even need a subject in a sentence, to begin with. Let’s take a look at an English and Japanese example.

Ginkou e ittekimasu.
I’m going to the bank (and returning again).

You’ll notice that, in the Japanese example, the typical watashi (わたし) is omitted. The textbook example should have been, “わたしは銀行へ行ってきます” — which would have made more sense of the English translation.

Here, the literal translation is “Going to the bank.” In this context, we know that the person saying that is referring to themself, so you don’t need to put an extra “I” for clarity.

A great rule of the thumb is this: When the meaning is still clear, you can remove pronouns that mean “I” or “you” in Japanese. As a comparison, let’s use the same example sentence from above and tweak the context a little bit.

A: 誰が銀行にいますか?
A: Dare ga ginkou ni imasuka?
A: Who is in(at) the bank?

B: Ginkou e itteimasuga, ie ni imasu.
B: Going to the bank, in the house.

In the dialogue above, it’s not clear who is going to the bank and who is in the house. In this case, you’ll need to include the pronouns. A better answer should be like the one below:

B: Watashi wa ginkou e itteimasuga, onii-san wa ie ni imasu.
B: I’m going to the bank, but (my) brother is in the house.

On the other hand, there are verbs that imply the subject and object of the sentence. In English, we use “to give” and “to receive” regardless of who is giving and who is talking.

In Japanese, there are two verbs for expressing ‘to give’: あげる (Ageru), くれる (Kureru); while ‘to receive’ is indicated by もらう. Kureru (くれる) means to “give something from someone to me” (in other words, “receive”), while ageru (あげる) means “me giving something to someone else”.

This rule makes pronouns unnecessary because the subject (giver) and receiver is already insinuated. .

For now, let’s have a look at the different characteristics of watashi, boku and ore. Once your level in Japanese has improved, it may be a good idea to try and change the first-person pronoun you are using.

This can change depending on your character, the setting, or even your conversation partner.

watashi boku ore japanese first-person pronouns

Watashi: 私 (わたし)

It’s the safest choice when you’re a beginner. In formal situations, it’s the safest choice and doesn’t carry any gender nuances.

In casual speech, however, わたし can give off a “feminine” feel, and it’s typically only used by women. When men use it in a casual context — when talking with a friend or family — it’ll sound stiff.

A polite way to refer to yourself, 私 (わたし) is the most general expression that is used by both women and men everywhere from formal occasions to business and public situations. If you are not really close to the person you are talking to, this word would be your best bet to avoid any offense.

But as most Japanese typically avoid referring to themselves, they’d usually just drop the “watashi” from their sentences. Take a look at the example below.

私は和菓子が好き → 和菓子が好き。
Watashi wa wagashi ga suki Wagashi ga suki.
I like Japanese traditional sweets.

As explained before, as long as it’s clear the sentence refers to yourself, you don’t need to state that “you” like sweets — we know you’re talking about yourself, after all.

Watakushi: わたくし

You’ll hear this word straight out of historical anime, used by noblemen and women.  わたくし, or watakushi, is the more polite version of わたし — the most formal Japanese first-person pronoun, even.

In fact, it’s so outdated that it’s not a part of modern textbooks.

Unless you’re working in a very uptight (or conservative) working environment in Japan, we don’t recommend you to use わたくし. It may be the most “civilized” choice — it sounds sophisticated — but if you use it in semi-formal situations, you’ll ironically sound stiff.

Desu ga, watakushi tachi no omoi wa kizoku ni wa kangaena no kamo shiremasen.
However, our thoughts may be that of an aristocrat.

One of the only times we hear someone use わたくし is in official announcements, like when politicians hit the street for their campaigns or when a big public figure apologizes due to a scandal. In other words, if you’re not saying sorry or dwelling in super-serious businesses, you can forget about わたくし entirely.

Atashi: あたし

あたし is not really a new type of pronoun. It’s a shortened, more feminine pronoun that strains from わたし, so it’s not used in written language. Instead, you’ll only hear it in conversations, among younger women and children, who generally have trouble pronouncing “w” from わたし. Because of this, あたし sounds cute and endearing.

Like わたし, there’s a feminine pronoun that strains from わたくし too: たくし.

Boku: ぼく (僕)

Boku is an expression used by mostly men. Originating from words like geboku (manservant) and kouboku (public servant), this word’s popularity began to spread among the younger generation as they’d use this to refer to themselves in a humble manner.

Although technically ぼく is used to address someone equal or lower to you, you can think of boku as a gentler, semi-formal pronoun alternative. This is why it’s one of the first first-person pronouns Japanese boys learn and commonly use.

Boku mo wakannai.
I don’t know too.

Boku is perceived as humble, but can also carry an undertone of “feeling young” when used by males of older age. You’ll hear this used on boys among their coworkers, senpai or, yes, bosses.

In formal situations, most men use either 私 or 僕. Even though it’s a common choice for adult men, you may come off as sounding childish and immature — a “mama’s boy”, even. Most young boys use boku in classrooms, but later on, as they get older and more comfortable, they’ll use おれ.

Today, it is more commonly used in close relationships or as a softer alternative to the word “ore” (see below; it sounds more modest, reserved and polite. Because of this, you’ll notice more girls use boku (ぼく) too.

Boku for Young Boys

However, boku can also be used as a second-person pronoun for young boys. It’s a way to refer to a boy you don’t know. You’re basically calling him from his perspective, so the term can come across as endearing and affectionate.

Boku wa nansai desu ka?
Boku (small boy), how old are you?

You’ll notice parents calling their young son by this pronoun, too, adding the suffix ‘chan’ after ‘boku’ (boku-chan). One of our host families once said that they do this to avoid their children using their first names when they want to say “I” — something that a lot of children do. To this, they train their kid to associate themself with “boku” (instead of their real name).

Boku-chan, nani o taberu?
Boku-chan, what do you want to eat?

Ore: おれ (俺)

As a first-person pronoun with an extremely rough image, it is only used in a casual setting between people who are very close. おれ (俺) is written with hiragana or katakana, but you may often find them stylized in katakana, オレ, in manga panels and written Japanese as an emphasis.

You’ll see boys transitioning from using “boku” to “ore” as they grow up. Some people even use おれ (俺) informal sentences but keep in mind that you’ll risk sounding inappropriate.

You might also think that because おれ is the most popular first-person pronoun for Japanese men, you’ll need to jump to using the word as soon as you can speak Japanese.

A word of advice: unless you’re wholeheartedly confident that your Japanese is very, very natural, don’t. Even in close relationships, ore and boku create different images.

おれ can sound cocky, used to indicate aggressiveness and masculinity, so if you mix-and-match おれ with formal sentences (i.e. you’re not ready to speak Japanese effortlessly), you’ll risk sounding awkward. Take a look at two examples below for comparison.

Ore wa shiraneena.
How the heck do I know.

Ore wa shirimasen deshita.
I do not know.

Both mean “I don’t know”, but think of 俺は知らねえな as the equivalent of “How the heck am I supposed to know.” If you mix 俺 with something formal like 知りませんでした, it won’t sound natural, like putting a slang in a formal speech.

As a heads-up for Japanese learners, be aware that using 俺 could make you sound inadvertently cocky. 俺 can also be tricky to master for second-language learners because it doesn’t sound natural unless you speak Japanese really fluidly and effortlessly. 

俺 can sound awkward when other elements in a sentence don’t match the aggressiveness and masculinity of 俺.

You’ll need to “match” the rough vibe of おれ, so if your personality and fluency aren’t there yet, opt back to ぼく.

Uchi: うち

Another way to say “I” in Japanese is うち, a sister term to おれ. In Tokyo, it’s used by young girls. In Kansai, うち is used by both young and older women. In written form, it’s spelled with kana.

You can think of うち as the female version of 俺; it sounds more relaxed than the stiff わたし, so more young girls and women from elementary to college students begin to make this their default go-to pronoun.

In fact, うち is the most used first-person pronoun by female elementary school pupils. But be careful too. Like 俺, using うち can be inappropriate as it sounds slangy and strange when you use it outside the right context, social group and dialect.

Uchi no sei da.
It’s my fault.

More importantly, because うち means “one’s own” or “house”, using it creates a sense of unity or in-group, so you can use it to include your family, company our team.

Uchi no musume ga meiwaku o kakete sumimasen.
I’m sorry that my daughter caused trouble.

うち is also used in a less formal business setting as a way to say “our company”.

Jibun: じぶん (自分)

Technically, 自分 (じぶん) means “myself”, and it could be made into a Japanese adverb like this:

Jibun de keeki o tsukurimashita.
I made that cake by myself.

自分 can be made into a first-person pronoun, but it does make you sound masculine, modest and distanced. It’s not traditionally used. the informal setting, but it does indicate you’re showing humility and respect to the opposite speaker. Because of this, you’ll hear 自分 used in a lot of sports and military groups.

Jibun wa, uso o tsuiteimasen yo.
I’m not lying.

In the Kansai dialect, 自分 can also be used as a second-person pronoun, but you may come off as sounding too friendly and coarse. Think of it like saying “You, yourself,” which can carry an accusing nuance if not used correctly.

Jibun, doko no kuni nan?
You, where are you from?

Using Your Name As Japanese First-person Pronoun

If you grow up speaking English, it might sound weird to hear that a lot of children from Asian households use their own names to address themselves — including us.

Usually, in Japanese, children tend to use their own name or nickname because that’s what their parents call them. It’s the first identity they associate themselves to, but as they grow up, they’ll transition to preferred Japanese first-person pronouns: boku, ore, watashi (atashi) or uchi.

Still, a lot of us switch to using our names as first-person pronouns when we’re around our family.

For boys who use boku, they risk sounding like a mama’s boy. For girls, it’s when they use their own name (with or without the ちゃん).

If you’re into the kawaii culture, go ahead, but we don’t recommend calling yourself outside of family interactions because people see it as childish or icky — like you’re trying too hard to be cute. Like this:

Moe mo hoshii!
Moe (I) want it too!

Adults — mostly women — who use their own name for themselves are considered as burikko (ぶりっ子), a Japanese slang term for girls who pretend to be cute in front of guys to get their attention.

Using Family Role As Japanese First-person Pronoun

This applies when you’re speaking to someone younger, generally. For example, if you’re a mom or a dad, you can call yourself okaa-san (お母さん) or otou-san (お父さん) to address yourself in front of your children.

Okaa-san wa chuusha shitekuru kara, chotto matte ne.
Mom (I) am going to park my car, so wait a moment, okay.

Nowadays, you’ll also find parents using the more-universal mama (written as ママ) and papa (パパ). Of course, family-role first-person pronouns aren’t just limited to moms and dads. As long as that family title can end with a ~さん or ~ちゃん, you can use them (check our article on main Japanese family terms).

It’s also not uncommon to use family terms to someone who’s not your family, but keep in mind that this is only when you’re talking to a child. For example, when you see a small boy seemingly lost in the park, you can call yourself a “Big Sister” (お姉さん・おねえさん).

Mama wa doko ka? Onee-san ga, tetsudatte ageyouka?
Where’s your mom? Big Sister (I) will help you.

Social Titles As Japanese First-person Pronoun

If you’re a professional — like a teacher, doctor, author or even a manager — you can use that title as your go-to pronoun during work. Again, this really depends on the subcontext. If you call yourself “Sensei” (先生) in front of other teachers, you’ll sound childish.

Commonly, teachers will use 先生 when they’re in the classroom instead of watashi (わたし), boku (ぼく) or ore (おれ).

Dare ga sensei o tasukete kureru?
Who wants to help Sensei (me)?

Keep in mind that in the Japanese language,  先生 is used beyond the primary definition of “teacher”. Doctors, authors or judo masters — basically anyone with a specific skill, practical art or technique — use 先生.

Other than that, we’ve also heard store managers using their title tenchou (店長) to address themselves, especially when they’re talking to a young staff.

Tenchou ga ashita yasumi da kara, omise o tanomu yo.
Tenchou (I) will take a break tomorrow, so I’ll leave the store to you.

What’s next after learning watashi, boku, ore and these Japanese first-person pronouns? Read more about:

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