An overview of Japanese pronouns

Japanese is not written using a Latin script, but instead by sets of かな [kana] and 漢字 [kanʑi/kanji] (Chinese characters) and their pronoun system is very different to that in English.

Japanese pronouns are rarely used within natural speech, for the sole reason that the subject (I, you, they, etc.) is very often omitted. Referring back to the subject within speech in Japanese can sound very direct as subjects in Japanese are often implied by context, and for that reason they aren't often utilised when using the language; it would be like if you were to constantly say “They are my friend, they live close to me, their name is...”, it sounds unnatural. However, there are some cases in which third-person pronouns are used, such as referring to a person or thing that is absent from the situation, or for changing the subject of the conversation.

Positional forms

In Japanese there is no singular “they”, however, there are many alternatives in the field of “that person” or “this person” many of which are commonly used in place of gendered pronouns, even for those who don't regularly use gender-neutral pronouns. The most common forms of “that person” are split into three sections: far, near to listener, near to speaker, and the question marker, represented by あ/そ/こ/ど [a/so/ko/do] respectively. So, while the gendered pronouns He [kaɾe/kare] and She 彼女 [kanodʑo/kanojo] do not require any changes dependant on position of the subject, all the gender-neutral animate pronouns and inanimate pronouns require that distinction to be made.

For example, a common gender-neutral third-person pronoun あの人 [anoçito/anohito] literally meaning “That person over there”, the kana あ is replaced within context to show the positional relationship between the speaker, listener, and subject.

Japanese Romanised IPA pronunciation Meaning
あの人 anohito anoçito That person over there
その人 sonohito sonoçito That person/The person
この人 konohito konoçito This person
どの人 donohito donoçito Which person?

Familiarity and Japanese pronouns

Another common thing with Japanese pronouns is that they're separated by familiarity, for example, the pronoun あの方 [anokata] has the same meaning as あの人, but is much more formal, and may sound weird within informal contexts. On the other hand あやつ [ajatsɯ̥/ayatsu] has a similar meaning to “That guy” or even in some cases “That thing”, and therefore the pronoun used should be considered based on the context of politeness or social status (such as talking to your boss).

Possession and plurality

Plural and possessive pronouns in Japanese are very simple to do, with a few naunces to look out for, however. Possessive pronouns are the easiest ones to make, simply add the particle の [no] onto the end of the pronoun, followed by the thing that is possessed. For example, “That person's (over there) shirt” would be あの人シャーツ.

Plurality is slightly different however, as the particle used is determined once again by familiarity and politeness. There are two main ones used (though there are a few others), those being ら [ɾa/ra] and 達 [tatɕi・i̥/tachi] (often written in kana たち). Like the possessive particle, this is attached at the end of the pronoun (if plural and possessive, before the の). The difference in usage is that ら is a solely informal particle, whilst 達 is used within and outside of formal contexts. This does mean that there are masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral plural third-person pronouns, and groups of people can be perceived as gendered.

Japanese Formal? Romanised IPA pronunciation Meaning
彼ら No karera kaɾeɾa Those guys
彼女たち Yes kanojotachi kanodʑotatɕi Those women
あの人ら No anohitora anoçitoɾa Those people over there
この方たち Yes konokatatachi konokatatatɕi These individuals