Me, Myself and I: Japanese Pronouns in Manga

Hey there manga fans! Turk here with my first ever blog post as I prepare to ring in my 1 year anniversary translating at MS. Took me long enough. Anyway, today I thought I'd delve into the exciting and wondrous world of Japanese personal pronouns! This is something that came up in a translation I worked on recently and I thought I could shed some additional light on it in the blog where I have more space. Sound boring enough for you? Well, bear with me for a minute here.

First of all, for those of you who may not know, what is a personal pronoun? Well, in English, you know them as "I", "you", "he", "she", "it", etc. But today, we're going to talk about "I". In English, when you refer to yourself as the subject of a sentence, you ALWAYS use this word, no matter what. For example: "I kicked the ball." "I want ice cream." "I have a pen. I have an app-"...yeah you get the idea. It's also worth noting that gender doesn't come into play when you're speaking in the 1st person at all. Boy or girl, it's still just "I". In the English language, we only have gender-specific pronouns when we're using the 3rd person. And furthermore, in English, every sentence needs a subject. That's actually NOT the case in Japanese, but that's a topic for a whole other blog post.

On that note, let's look at the Japanese side of things. Unfortunately, things aren't quite as simple. There are different 1st person pronouns that are used in different regional dialects, by different genders, and in different social settings. Some of them could get you in a lot of trouble if used when talking to your boss, for example. It's really amazing how much the Japanese language can change depending on the relative social standings of the people in the conversation. Even Japanese people struggle with honorific speech, referred to as keigo (once again, a topic for another post...)

So now that we've established that there are many 1st person pronouns, let's look at some of them, starting with some common ones:

    -私 (watashi): Relatively formal (you can use it when talking to superiors) and usable by both men and women. 

    -僕 (boku): Informal. Most commonly used by boys as it gives off a childish vibe. You may hear it used by girls who are boyish in nature, however (especially in anime and other media). One example of this is Diane from Seven Deadly Sins. 

    -俺 (ore): This one is very informal and you'll almost never hear it used by women (but once again, anime does break those rules... in fact, another 7DS character, Jericho, likes using "ore" to evoke a tougher image of herself.) The reason being is it sounds very "macho" and is usually used by men to assert their masculinity/dominance. It's used most commonly by men in social settings, although you'll hear grade school boys who want to sound tough use it as well. You should never use this one when talking with someone who has authority over you. As some of you probably know, almost all shounen manga protagonists use "ore" as well. Take our beloved Luffy, for example: "kaizokuou ni ore wa naru!" ("I'm gonna be king of the pirates!") The future pirate king has to be manly and tough, right?
From my experience, those are the most widely used in spoken Japanese by quite a large margin. Now let's check out some other ones:

    -あたし (atashi): A derivative of "watashi", but this is an extra-feminine version. Only women and very flamboyant men will use this one. Characters like Nami in One Piece favor this pronoun.

    -儂 (washi): This one is used by old men, at least in media. It's kind of a stereotype, but living in southwestern Japan I've definitely heard it used by old folks from time to time. Anyway, using this one just makes you sound like a grandpa. Which is quite fitting, since it's used by Ryo-san in Kochikame, which, until its conclusion a couple weeks ago, one might say was the grandfather of Weekly Shounen Jump manga. It was serialized for an astounding 40 years! More on this below.

    -わたくし (watakushi): Also another way to read "watashi". This one is pretty much as formal and polite as it gets. Consider using this if you ever find yourself talking to the Emperor. Or maybe if you were a butler serving his master or something.

    -内 (uchi): You might hear this one if you ever find yourself in Osaka or Kyoto, because it's often used in the Kansai dialect. Even then though, it's much more favored by women than men. If you're familiar with "Ore Monogatari" or "My Love Story" in English, the adorable Yamato likes to use this pronoun, although that story takes place in Tokyo if I recall correctly. 

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Well guess what? These are just the tip of the iceberg! And although I've tried to give you a decent enough idea of what situation each of them would be used in, there's tons of exceptions. And as I mentioned before, in many cases pronouns are skipped over entirely in the Japanese language! Anyway, I'm sure by now you're wondering what the point of all this is. Well, in the Shounen Jump author comments from issue 44 of this year, we included some extra omake chapters paying tribute to Kochikame's 40th anniversary and final chapter. You can read them here: so check them out! In the first one authored by Kohei Horikoshi of "My Hero Academia", Ryo-san is talking to All Might and Deku. Well, remember Ryo-san's favorite pronoun? It's "washi"! So as a little extra touch for the title of this short, Horikoshi decided to switch out the "boku" in "Boku no Hero Academia" with "washi". Furthermore, the full title of Kochikame is "Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kouen-mae Hashutsujo", so he slapped a piece of that on the end as well to create "Washi no Hero Academia-mae Hashutsujo". If you were to translate that, it would come out as something like: "My Police Station in front of the Hero Academia".

Unfortunately, there's really no way to accurately convey this in English, but I tried my best to come up with something. Since "washi" has that old geezer stereotype, I decided to go with "mah" in place of "my", since "mah" kinda makes you think of some old dude with no teeth yelling at kids like: "get off mah lawn!" But even so, the joke probably would have still been lost on a lot of people who couldn't read the Japanese, so I also left an accompanying TL note, and now I'm here writing this long-winded blog post. It really makes you realize how much more expressive of a language Japanese can be than English in some areas, and how disappointing it is that there are some aspects of it that just can't be carried over to English no matter how hard we translators try. In some cases, being willing to invoke a little creative license can be the key that separates a bland and awkward sounding word-for-word translation from a more natural-sounding one that conveys the same nuances as the Japanese. We've covered that issue in past blog posts as well!

Anyway, for those of you who stuck it out all the way to the end, I really appreciate it, and I hope you all learned something! I'll see you all on disqus, the forums, reddit, or maybe in the blog again someday! Until next time!




Leave a Comment

comments powered by Disqus