How to Say "You" in Japanese

Updated on September 30, 2016

Only you can learn the Japanese "you"s

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And you thought Japanese couldn't get any harder

Unfortunately, Japanese has enough variations on how to say "you" that it merits its very own Hub. Depending on your relationship with the person, your differences in social status (she's your division head, you're the coffee fetching head), your region, and just how you're feeling that day, the appropriate "you" for the conversation changes. However, there are some safety nets if you ever find yourself in a position where you really can't seem to make the right choice, and, of course, I'm here to help you as well. On to the list and their various uses and explanations as to why:

A quick reference for which "you" to use

 
 
 
Kimi
Used if you're above the person you're addressing.
 
Anata
Used if you're trying to show respect to the person you're addressing.
 
Omae
Used if you're very close to the person you're addressing and on the same level or above
 
Anta
Used if you're above the person you're addressing, and if you're not against sounding rude. A common female to male calling word
 
Name + Title
The most commonly used "you" replacement. By far the most recommended "you" to use.
 

The various "you"s

No this isn't the start of an article on how paradoxical you are, although someone should cover that eventually. One quick thing before we start: Japanese has a plethora of dialects, accents, and variations on words, and whereas you, the foreign language learner and visitor of Japan, may believe that your region's dialectical "you" should make the list, for the purpose of simplicity I'm only including the most common forms that will be understood no matter where you are in Japan.

1. Kimi - This means "you", but like all the entries here, it has a catch. Normally this is only used by a senpai (superior/older person at work) to call a kouhai (feeble underling). That being said, you shouldn't use this to call someone who's the same level as you or above. Back in the good old days, "kimi" was used by men to call a woman in place of her name, which says something about the gender equality back then.

2. Anata - Surprise, this one means "you" as well, and the trick is that this is used for those people on whom you can't use "kimi". Anyone who is above you in the office or social world merits an "anata" out of respect, and wives have also been known to call their husbands "anata". Be wary though of over using this because it's the standardized translation of "you", and look below at option #5 for a better choice.

3. Omae - This is a way to say "you" that can be unforgivably rude if used on a superior. In addition, it's primarily used by men to call other men of the same level (as a joke kinda), people below them but with whom they're friends, and children and wives. If you pass through a KFC and walk by a table of highschool boys, you'll notice omae being exchanged like "bro" at a frat party. For a more slangy variation, use "omee" (Oh-May but without the Y pronounced).

4. Anta - Originally a variation of "anata", but with completely different implications. Back in the day, "anta" was used to address people who were above you, but presently it has a disrespectful connotation to it. Just like "omae", you can only use "anta" if the person you're talking to is below you, and even then it has a rude nature about it. If you're chastising someone about their careless behavior, "anta" is appropriate. If you're asking if the next train is an express or local train and you use "anta", you'll likely be pushed onto the tracks.  Last word on this, women do indeed call men anta, but it's not as nice sounding or personal as anata.

5. The Safety Net: Name + Title - If you have not the faintest glimmer of insight into how you rank versus the person you're talking to, just use their name + their title. Example: Narita san wa ikun desu ka? (Is Narita going?). In English, this would usually be interpreted as, "Is Narita going?" (because he's not here for me to ask him). In Japanese, it can go both ways, as in you're asking Narita directly, or you're asking someone else about Narita. Using someone's name is a very common way to address someone beyond getting their attention. For an example of this, "Did you eat that octopus?" becomes "Narita san wa ano tako wo tabemashita ka?". Like I said, this is the safety net, and if all else fails just fall back to this.

Sum Up

Even native Japanese speakers become confused as to which "you" they should use, which is why you will most often hear the #4 "use the name instead of you" approach. In the case that you don't know someone's name but still wish to address them, use "anata", as it denotes respect. As for the other three (kimi,omae and anta), you should only use them if you're pretty confident that you're social status is higher than theirs. That being said, most people prefer being called by their names, as that's what it's there for. Hope this helps you on your treacherous journey towards Japanese mastery! Sore de wa!

Questions & Answers

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      • poppyr profile image

        Poppy 

        4 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

        Nice article. Thought I'd read it to test my Japanese knowledge. Hadn't heard of 'anta' before!

      • Akbok profile imageAUTHOR

        Akbok 

        7 years ago from Aomori prefecture, Japan

        Ruth: You're absolutely correct about the anta being used in a cutesy way. Both anata and anta when used from a woman to a man can kind of be seen as a step towards familiarity. A girl once apologized to me for using "anata" to me in conversation, as it kind of implied a relationship above friendship.

        Wendy: Thanks a bunch! I'm glad I can entertain and inform with my somewhat narrow field of Hubs.

      • Wendy S. Wilmoth profile image

        Wendy S. Wilmoth 

        7 years ago from Kansas

        Nice article- well written, informative, and entertaining.

      • Ruthcurley profile image

        Ruthcurley 

        7 years ago from Bozrah, CT

        What a sticky wicket it is to transverse Japanese social status! This was a great (and really important) post. I've slipped and used the wrong form on occasion.

        I've hear 'anta' used by women to men they were flirting heavily with. or in movies by the woman of questionable repute towards a man. in a cutsy way.

        I'm guessing that women usually have to use Anata as they are natually below anyone but another woman in many cases. True? (need some women's lib)

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