Japanese has a lot of first-person pronouns (‘I’) and second-person pronouns (‘you’) in particular, the choice of which is dependant on the relative status of who you are and who you are talking to. In English, we use pronouns all the time and when talking to a superior we tend to change our phrasing rather than vocabulary to show respect.
So when we hear words such as in Japanese TV shows and anime, it is easy to think that pronouns such as 私 (
A case that came up in the news recently goes to show why the choice of pronouns in Japanese is so important. The incorrect use of the pronoun お前 led to the resignation of Ryoichi Yamada, a superintendent in Niigata prefecture.
In June 2017, a boy committed suicide as a result of school bullying. On the 11th October, Mr. Yamada arranged a meeting with the boy’s family to offer his apologies and discuss what can be done better going forward.
Unfortunately, during this meeting he referred to the father as お前 when asking a question. He did later apologise for using the word, but the damage had been done and he tendered his resignation the following day.
Why was using お前 inappropriate?
お前 is a highly informal word meaning ‘you’. As you would expect for an informal word, you would only use it . Even so, a close friend could take offence at being referred to as お前. It is more often used used amongst males than females. With this in mind, it is not hard to see why there has been outrage over his choice of words.
In this case, Mr. Yamada had taught the boy’s father in the past. This is the reason why the superintendent may have thought using お前 would have been acceptable. However given the situation, one would expect the superintendent to be using extremely humble language, and so the use of お前 was highly insensitive.
I would be very wary of using words like this, especially as a beginner to Japanese. Part of the following video by Japanese Ammo with Misa explains from a Japanese perspective why learners should refrain from words like omae.
Note: the whole video is great, but I’ve set it to start from the part where she talks about Japanese pronouns.
Tips on using pronouns in Japanese
Pronouns are generally not used often in Japanese, as the context indicates who the topic of conversation is. For instance, if I say:
It is assumed that I am the one who likes fish even though I didn’t use the word 私(watashi).
Therefore, it is more natural not to use pronouns at all.
If you do need to refer to a specific person, it is better to refer to a person using their actual name:
Ms. Ohara, when did you come to America?
You can also refer to someone using their occupation or status.
Words can be used in this way include 先生, 課長, 博士:
Teacher, when did you come to America?
[Police] Officer, where is Tokyo station?
If you are interested in knowing the different words for ‘you’ in Japanese, this video on second-person pronouns explains the contexts in which you can and cannot use various words.
Pronouns are a tricky thing to get used to, and there are also gender and regional differences in usage too. I recommend sticking to the above tips until you’ve been exposed to the language enough to get a feel for when certain pronouns should be used.