There are many different ways to say I in Japanese, each with their own unique nuances. While explaining the intricacies of the different nuances of watashi, boku, and ore, I would like to recount some of my experiences with this from my seven years of experience living in Japan.
The type of “I” you use will dictate how other people perceive you
In one of the first articles I ever wrote on this site I laid out the instantaneous switch that can occur in peoples demeanor, which I coined as the switch. Japan is often said to be a lateral society (tateshakai 縦社会 in Japanese), where people are constantly evaluating their own social position based on the makeup of their immediate surroundings. People will switch their entire attitude based on who they are talking to. The interesting thing about this is that because this switch occurs so frequently in Japanese social situations, it is completely acceptable and even desirable to show your desire to adjust yourself to the demands of your social situation. This means that it is acceptable to put on different faces, and to change these faces at will in front of your peers. While in a western country this may come across as disingenuous, in Japan this is a great gesture of your willingness to strive for communal peace and harmony. This is where choosing the correct I (choosing between boku, ore, and watashi, etc) becomes a vital social component of life in Japan.
The most important thing to consider is that one does not always use boku, or always use ore. It is important to use them all of these options as tools in your arsenal to be employed in different situations. If someone asked me if I use boku, ore, or watashi, I would tell them that, of course, I use all three.
How many different ways are there to say “I” in Japanese?
There are a ton! Historically speaking many outdated self-referential pronouns exists, and they can create many different nuances.
Watashi, boku, and ore; The main self-referential pronouns used in modern Japanese.
The most common ways to say “I” in Japanese are watashi, boku, and ore. Watashi is used by everybody, but is usually only used by men in more formal situations. Boku is used by boys, and generally by more polite or scholarly men. Ore is the most masculine personal pronoun and is used almost exclusively by men.
By it is a bit more complicated than that, so please allow me to elaborate.
How to switch between watashi, boku, and ore
The good news is that it is completely normal to use multiple self-referential pronouns in Japan depending on the context. I remember in one of my first Japanese class back in the US (a long time ago), two Japanese workers from the local hitachi plant came to visit our classroom. They talked about how when they were in meetings with higher-ups they would use watashi when referring to themselves. When they were working on the ground floor they would use boku. And when the two of them were out drinking together they would use ore. I think that this progression demonstrates pretty well how one can properly switch between these 3 versions of “I” correctly. I think when many people start studying Japanese they learn about this concept and think “I’m a gentleman, so I’m going to use Boku”, or “I’m a leader! I’m an ore kind-of-guy!” But this is still thinking like a westerner. The real answer on how to assimilate into these types of Japanese situations is to be all 3 at the same time. You have to learn how to use different faces. The personalized-bit and where people differ is in how often they choose to use watashi, or how often they choose to use boku or ore. Through natural Japanese conversation you should be able to pick up this balance over time subconsciously.
What does watashi mean in Japanese?
You can think of watashi as the most standard way to say I in Japanese. This is what you will find being taught in all beginner Japanese textbooks. Watashi is the most standard and safe option to use when referring to yourself in Japanese.
When should you use watashi
If you are interviewing for a job, giving a presentation at work or class, or are generally in a position where you want to good first impression to a group or a variety of people that you are meeting for the first time, you should use watashi. Watashi is a safe bet to use for all formal settings.
Do both men and women use watashi when speaking Japanese?
Both men and women use watashi in when speaking Japanese! You should always consider watashi to be the standard way to refer to yourself in formal situations. That being said, to use watashi in an informal setting is considered to be pretty feminine, and men will typically swtich to boku or ore.
This is a concept that is a bit difficult to visualize if you don’t speak Japanese, or haven’t had many conversations with Japanese people. Essentially, conversations ‘graduate’ to more and more casual forms of speech, where this is reflected in the specific Japanese grammar people will use. As a standard, you can think of watashi as a starter self-referential pronoun that you may branch off from when you become closer to whoever you are talking to.
What does boku mean in Japanese?
Rather than give you a textbook definition, I can tell you that based on my seven years of experience in Japan, Gentlemen use boku. Boku is the proper way for men to refer to themselves in Japanese, which can still come across as slightly feminine. Boku is more polite than ore, but less polite than watashi.
Do both men and women use boku when speaking Japanese?
Boku is primarily used my men and boys *which can make it come across as a bit childish. Women almost always use watashi, although I have heard than many teenage girls have taken to the trend of using boku recently.
Many boys rebel against the idea of using boku because it is viewed as the proper self-referential pronoun for boys to use. For girls who want to appear more independent and push against the proper image of women only using watashi, many have started using boku, which has become slightly more accepted in recent years. Women who use boku are called bokukko (ボクっ娘), and are seen as being generally rebellious. I asked a few friends what they thought of bokukko, and they said that they would see them as trying to be a bit different, but wouldn’t think too much of it. “I would just want to ask why they’re using boku instead of watashi. I’m really pretty curious of that.”
What does ore mean in Japanese?
Ore is the most masculine way to say “I” out of the common three self-referential pronouns. Out of the three watashi, boku, and ore, as a man using ore is a correct and convincing way (especially as a foreigner) is probably the most difficult. Generally, you can use ore with people you would consider to be your friends.
Do women ever use ore?
I’ve never heard it, and I think it would be pretty strange. It is more common to see women occasionally use boku, but I can’t think of a single time in seven years of living in Japan where I ever heard a woman use ore.
Using boku or ore as a man, and how it affects dating in Japan
This is an interesting one. In my experience, there are girls that like guys who use boku, and girls that like guys who use ore. It’s a bit of an interesting dilemma, and yet another reason why relationships in Japan can be oh-so complicated! My general rule of thumb is that if you are out with a girl who seems like she wants a guy who takes-charge, use ore while on the date. If you’re out with a girl that seems more reserved or quiet, go with boku. If it was going to work out this probably wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker anyways, so try not to give it too much thought. It’s just one more thing to consider in a sea of considerations to-be-had that is the process of interacting with other human beings in Japan.
It is important to adjust to the needs of each situation and use watashi, boku, and ore interchangeably depending on your surroundings. While it will take some time to get used to the dynamic of shifting between these self-referential pronouns, it will come more naturally with time and continued exposure to Japanese as a language.
If you are learning Japanese, please check out my guide on getting started learning the three Japanese alphabets at the link below