2.7 Gender and First-Person Pronouns

So far, we’ve used 私(わたし: watashi)as a first-person pronoun, which is formal and gender-neutral. However, in Japanese, there are other first-person pronouns you may choose based on your gender, preference and the level of formality. Let’s delve deeper into this topic.

In the Japanese language, you’ll find a variety of first-person pronouns, and individuals choose them based on their gender identity or personal preference, and the formality of the situation.


Now, here’s the thing to remember: some of these pronouns, like 僕 (ぼく: boku), 俺 (おれ: ore)and あたし(atashi), come with established gender associations. Because these pronouns carry traditional gendered meanings, explaining unconventional usage, especially for non-binary individuals, can sometimes be a bit tricky.


But don’t worry, there’s a friendly approach you can take. When you first meet someone, you can start by using a gender-neutral and formal first-person pronoun like 私 (わたし: watashi). As you get to know each other better and build a connection, you can comfortably chat about your choice of pronoun for more relaxed situations. Now, let’s explore these pronouns and see what sets them apart:


私(わたし: watashi)

  • Usage: 私  is a gender-neutral and formal first-person pronoun. It is widely used by anyone of any gender identity or expression in formal or polite settings, but is also common in informal and casual settings.
  • Example: 私は学生(がくせい)です。 (Watashi wa gakusei desu.) – I am a student. (Formal)
  • Cultural notes: In Japan, older generations often have traditional views about language and gender. They might be unfamiliar with unconventional ways of using pronouns. So, it is usually a good idea to start with a more neutral pronoun like 私, which is widely accepted and doesn’t specify gender. This approach is gentle and respectful, allowing time to build understanding and rapport with those who may not be as accustomed to the idea of diverse gender identities and gender expressions. Japanese business culture really puts an emphasis on formality and following established norms. So, in these environments, everyone might find it easier to stick with the formal, neutral 私, as it helps to avoid any confusion or misinterpretations.

僕(ぼく: boku)

  • Usage: 僕 typically conveys a sense of informality while maintaining a respectful tone. It is commonly preferred by young boys and men.
  • Example: 僕はサッカー(さっかあ)が好(す)きです。 (Boku wa sakkaa ga suki desu) – I like soccer. (Casual)

俺(おれ: ore)

  • Usage: 俺 is traditionally used by older boys and men and is seen as more casual and assertive than 僕 (boku). It is often associated with masculinity and can convey a sense of confidence or assertiveness.
  • Example: 俺、今日(きょう)はあまり元気(げんき)じゃない。(Ore, kyou wa amari genki janai) – I’m not so well today. (Casual)

あたし (atashi)

  • Usage: Traditionally, あたし is a more feminine form of the first-person pronoun, often used by young women and perceived as softer or more casual compared to 私.
  • Example: あたし、これが好き! (Atashi, kore ga suki!) – I like this one!

自分(じぶん: jibun)

  • Usage: 自分 literally translates to ‘oneself’ or ‘self’. It is often used in contexts where the speaker is reflecting on their own actions or thoughts, emphasising a sense of self-reference. Unlike 僕 or あたし, which are traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity respectively, 自分 doesn’t carry any inherent gender implication. This makes it a particularly useful pronoun for non-binary individuals or those who prefer not to express gender through their choice of pronoun. However, please note that its usage can sometimes feel less personal or direct compared to other first-person pronouns, given its literal meaning of ‘oneself’.
  • Example: 自分は悪(わる)くない。 (Jibun wa waruku nai.) – I’m not in the wrong. (Casual)


Using these pronouns is more than just a linguistic preference; it is an avenue for gender expression. These pronouns resonate with their sense of self and also contribute to challenging and reshaping conventional perceptions of gender within Japanese society.

Here’s a helpful hint: the way people react to these pronouns can vary greatly depending on your audience. In more casual settings, you’re likely to find a warmer reception to different forms of gender expression. However, in formal business settings, as well as conservative or rural areas, using these pronouns in non-traditional ways can be perceived as quite a daring move.

A thoughtful strategy might be to initially use the gender-neutral pronoun 私 as a respectful starting point. As you grow more comfortable and familiar with those around you, you can then transition to the pronoun that truly reflects ‘you’, be it the casual vibe of 俺 or 僕, or the gentler connotations of あたし. Adopting this step-by-step approach helps you navigate social interactions with care, all while staying true to your personal identity.





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Japanese Introductory 1 Copyright © 2024 by Iori Hamada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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