Nouns and Pronouns

Nouns are pretty straightforward; all languages have them. With Japanese nouns, there is no complication of gender (like der/die/das in German) or even of plural forms. Easy.

Pronouns are a different story. It is helpful to remember the purpose of pronouns: they allow us to avoid repeating nouns once we have already established what the nouns are. It would be tedious and ear-grating to repeat every single noun every time we said it. Just look back over this paragraph and note how many times I said things like “it” and “we.” Indo-European languages make generous use of pronouns.

Japanese does not. In fact, it is not much of an understatement to say that a large fraction of Westerners’ confusion about Japanese arises from the fact that Japanese uses very few pronouns. Much of the weirdness of Japanese grammar is, when traced to its origin, a result of the choice not to use pronouns. (Not all, but quite a lot. Other factors include the differing emphasis of verbs: English verbs express subtleties of temporal relations, and Japanese verbs are more focused on emotion).

You see, instead of substituting pronouns for nouns, Japanese mostly eliminates words from the sentence to avoid repeating them. This seems vague and confusing at first until you learn enough Japanese to realize that other words in the sentence (usually the particles and the verb) have fine shades of meaning that make the sentence perfectly clear despite having many words eliminated. This also links in with some unusual ways of expressing verbs, which conveniently allow subjects not to be named. I’ll touch on this again briefly below but will defer most of it to the chapters on Verbs.

If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. It’s the hardest part of Japanese. I’m not even going to cover all of this subtlety in this short chapter on nouns and pronouns.

Contextual Subjects

In English, we are taught that every complete sentence must have a subject, which is a noun or a pronoun, and a predicate, which at least has a verb in it. This is also true in Japanese, but in many cases, it’s OK not to state the subject or even the direct and indirect objects.

This is a complete sentence: Mimashita (or, less formally, mita). What does it mean? Well, you can’t be sure without knowing the context in which the sentence was uttered. Mimashita is the past tense of the verb mimasu (or miru), to see. So the sentence means [the subject] saw [the object], where neither the subject nor the object is stated.

Isn’t that terribly confusing? Not really. In English, we might say something like, “She saw it.” If you hear this sentence out of context, what does it mean? Who is “she”? What is “it”? You don’t know unless you know the context of the sentence.

In Japanese, you will spend a lot of time trying to figure out who did what. This is not because sentences are vague, but because your Western brain is used to having pronouns all over the place that you effortlessly link to previously-stated nouns. In Japanese, these pronouns are often absent, and your mind isn’t trained to guess the nouns without the help of pronouns. But you’ll get used to it eventually.

There are pronouns, by the way. They are even used when it is necessary. Here are some:

watashi (I/me)
anata (you)
kare (he/him)
kanojo (she/her)
watashi-tachi (we/us)
karera (they/them)

(Note the lack of distinction between subjective and objective cases).

I am being a little bit glib about the lack of pronouns in Japanese, actually. It is not simply that Indo-European languages made a choice to use pronouns liberally and Japanese did not, preferring instead to eliminate repeated nouns. It is actually far more subtle than that. The lack of pronouns in Japanese is all bound up with a large-scale linguistic style that is indirect and often finds clever ways to avoid referring directly to people. I can’t explain why this is, but I do know that accommodating this style is what makes Japanese so foreign and confusing to English speakers. I touch on this subtle point many other times in this tutorial, and I know that I still don’t totally understand it. Just accept it for now, and keep thinking about it.

One particular problem with a lack of directly-named pronouns is that the English-speaking mind wants to cast Japanese sentences as passive simply because they seem not to have a subject. Be very careful about this!!! There are true passives in Japanese, and they are not used very often. Don’t cavalierly start translating sentences into passive English sentences when they are active sentences in Japanese. More on this in the chapters on Verbs.

This, That, and the Other Thing

Besides personal pronouns like “I” and “him,” there are impersonal pronouns like “this,” “that,” and “one.”

“This” and “that” are common words in English. But when using them in Japanese, there are two complications to keep in mind. First, Japanese separates the demonstrative adjective “this” (as in “this book”) from the pronoun “this.” These two words are different.

Second, there are actually three words for identifying objects, not just “this” (which is something close by) and “that” (which is something farther away). Japanese classifies objects as “close to the speaker,” “close to the listener,” and “not close to either the speaker or the listener.”

[As a fascinating aside, English used to have this too! We used to say “this,” “that,” and “yon.” But we don’t use “yon” anymore—it has been subsumed into “that.”]

So anyway, these identifying words can generally be grouped as K-, S-, and A-words. And the corresponding question words are D-words. It goes like this:

This (used as a pronoun), close to the speaker: Kore
That (used as a pronoun), close to the listener: Sore
That over there (used as a pronoun), not close to list. or speaker: Are
Which?: Dore

This book, close to the speaker: Kono hon
That book, close to the listener: Sono hon
That book over there, not close to list. or speaker: Ano hon
Which book?: Dono hon

This same pattern holds for other words too. Like people: kochira (this person), sochira (that person), achira (that person over there), dochira (which person?). Of course, the pattern doesn’t quite hold 100% of the time—Japanese has a lot of rules that sort-of work, just like English. Dochira also means “which direction” (and kochira means “this direction,” etc). And the word you would actually use for “who” (“which person”) is dare (or donata). And the pattern is slightly broken in the A-word for indicating location: koko (here), soko (there), asoko (over there), and doko (where?).

Multiple I’s

Let me clarify the different uses of pronouns in Japanese and English a bit. It’s not quite that Japanese doesn’t use pronouns; it’s more that Japanese has multiple pronouns where we have a single one and just one pronoun where we make fine distinctions.

For instance, we have one first-person singular personal pronoun: I. It seems like only schizophrenics would need more. But in Japanese, there are many words for “I,” depending on who you are and who you’re talking to. Watashi, listed above, is a nice general-use word. If you’re a woman, you can also say atashi. Men and boys can call themselves boku, and an even rougher masculine word is ore, most likely to be said by men among men.

Conversely, Japanese is very vague about the impersonal pronouns. The single expression dare demo can mean “anyone,” “everyone,” or “someone.” I consider these words to be rather different, but in Japanese, they do not warrant separate words; you just figure out what was meant by context.

Furthermore, Japanese has no relative pronouns (that, which, who). Sentences like “My brother, who has red hair, was mistaken for a carrot” and “This is the gift that keeps on giving” must be constructed differently in Japanese than in English. I cover this in the chapter on “Adjectives.”