How many different ways can you think to say “you” in your native language? In Japanese there are many different ways to refer to someone and choosing the wrong one in social situations can be hazardous to your social standing. In fact, just recently a school superintendent of Shibata City schools in Niigata Prefecture was forced to resign because he used the informal ‘omae (お前)’ during a parent-teacher conference. Yeah, this can be a “big deal” topic.
As anyone who has studied Japanese for any length of time can tell you, Japanese is fraught with pitfalls of politeness and while gaijin might get the occasional free pass for mistakes along the way, you shouldn’t automatically expect it. One wrong word can leave you out in the cold due to your unintentional rudeness. One of the words that can cause the most trouble seems innocuous enough but, once again, one slip of the tongue and you could find yourself in a world of trouble or at least quiet discomfort as the people around you process what you just said. That word is “you”.
So how does one avoid falling into one of these politeness holes when conversing in Japanese? The simplest way is to avoid using the word ‘You’ when it isn’t needed due to Japanese often omitting pronouns and using context clues to tell you who the subject of a sentence is. Another way is to instead use a person’s surname (remember: using someone’s first name means that you consider yourself familiar with them and they might not feel the same way towards you which can lead to awkward situations) along with the appropriate honorific (which we will discuss later on down the road).
If you absolutely must use the word ‘you’ while speaking Japanese, there are various forms of the word that you can use depending on the social situation and who it is that you’re referring to; here are just a few of them:
Anata (あなた) – While this is technically the default, polite way to say ‘you’ in Japanese, it’s still better to get into the habit of referring to people by their surname and honorific just in case. It’s worth noting that this form of the word is often used by women towards their spouses.
Kimi (君) – This form of the word is generally used by men in informal situations towards people who are of lower status. It’s also used by boyfriends when referring to their girlfriends so be absolutely sure of what your relationship status is before you use this when referring to someone else.
Omae (お前) – Another informal version of the word, this version can be seen as rude when used in the wrong context (see the poor school superintendent in the introduction above).
Anta (あんた) – Just because this is the shortened version of Anata doesn’t mean that you should use it casually. This form of the word can be seen as someone being admonished in a very rude way.
Sochira (そちら) – This is another informal, casual way to say the word ‘you’ but if you’re in a formal situation and/or speaking with an elder, you’ll probably want to add the -sama (さま）honorific just to be safe.
Onushi (お主) and Otaku (お宅) – These are relatively polite ways to refer to someone but are so outdated that you might never actually use them. Note: Otaku (お宅) is not the same thing as an otaku (オタク) (i.e. a superfan of a certain section of popular culture) though the latter was derived from the former.
Kisama – きさま（貴様), temee – てめえ（手前), and onore (己) – These are flat out derogatory ways to refer to someone else so if you use these in conversation, know that you’re looking for trouble.
Now you know just some of the many ways to refer to someone in Japanese. Should you find yourself in a new social situation, I hope that you’ll remember some of the lessons that you learned from this article to navigate those tricky waters!