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One of the first things people learn in Japanese class is the old 私はケーキを食べます。 Once you begin to get more experienced with Japanese you soon learn that the initial watashi wa is not good form and is always dropped. Fair enough.

But I am now living in Japan, getting rather solidly into intermediate Japanese and encountering more and more ‘real’ Japanese. It seems to me that examples like I eat cake just aren’t said very often and as a result を is sparsely used.

When I come to write I seem to have lots of がs and とs, a few はs, and the occasional に, but を and へ seem to not be needed so often.

Am I just a little crazy here or is my observation right? Is を truly a sparsely used particle? In most common examples where the newbie may think to use を I increasingly see と (reported speech and the like. を is of course wrong) and に (I guess people like the vagueness of going towards something and not actually 100% doing it).

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Sometimes を is dropped incidentally in some spoken Japanese. There's very few cases where I can imagine と is randomly substituted for を. –  virmaior Feb 25 at 4:28
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I think I used を about 80 times today. –  非回答者 Feb 25 at 15:33

3 Answers 3

Most of this answer is basically subjective, but there's a lot going on in this question that I think should be addressed.

The tldr version: Yes, を is frequently used in "real" Japanese.

But if I may offer my 2 cents..

Be careful not to get ahead of yourself in your assumptions about what is and isn't "real" Japanese. Sure, 私は is often dropped, but only where it's appropriate to do so. It's not some unwritten rule that real Japanese speakers never use pronouns. Likewise with particles. Often they are dropped, usually in informal situations where the context is well understood. I know it can be kind of a revelation when learners get out of the textbook and start realizing that there's a whole other world of Japanese language, but the textbooks start where they do for a reason.

That said, particles are used. Frequently. Very frequently, in fact. That includes を and に, and while へ is in general a less common particle compared to others, even that you will hear in regular, everyday use.

I think we can probably get a rough guess at where your Japanese level is based on the way you're asking this question, and the only thing I can really advise you to do is listen until you really get a feel for what's going on, and don't break linguistic rules unless it's a choice that you are aware of, the consequences of which you understand well. I would advise that you avoid imitating other people even until you've developed a bit more and stick with what is comfortable for you. The question includes some really off-base assumptions, but I'm sure they will be remedied by more exposure to the language.

Understand the particles and their roles. Part of the problem might just be that you think one should come and you see another. Also continue to work on being able to hear and understand what's going on around you so you can get a keener ear for what's being said. It's probably that particles are buzzing around you in people's words all the time, but they're just swallowed up by fast or unclear speech.

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Leaving を out when it is called for is possible in very informal conversations, but I would say you are better off leaving it in. Nobody will think you are speaking too formally for using it, and developing the habit of using it correctly will pay off when you are in more formal situations. For example, when writing an e-mail to a friend I would not leave it out. For a quick text message, I could go either way, but would likely put it in: うどんを買っておいて!

Also, を can be hard to hear it even when it is spoken. For example, with 本を you can't hear an "n" or a "w". The pronunciation of this combination is hard to describe, but the consonants are extremely soft.

There are cases like 私は which need to be dropped in many cases to avoid sounding stilted, but particles are your friends. Master them, and aim to be able to write a literate-sounding essay after you have progressed a bit more.

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I have lived in Japan for 5 years and speak Japanese quite fluently.

Yes, を is very frequently used in Japanese. It's not only used for cake eating. ;)

While a native probably wouldn't say "私はケーキを食べます。", I wouldn't call it "not good form." In everyday speech, a lot of particles are dropped. I don't think を is an underused particle, especially in written Japanese. It is very often skipped when speaking casual, everyday Japanese.

I think you're just not seeing them used as they are in the textbooks. It is not like they aren't used, textbook Japanese is just not that close to how most people speak everyday (like most languages). That said, you should understand textbook Japanese before you start simplifying and breaking linguistic rules. You might end up in a situation where you don't know correct, formal Japanese when that is required.

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This is a good answer, but I don't believe the logic in your final paragraph really follows. It would make just as much sense to say "That said, you should understand casual, everyday Japanese before you start learning complex formal and keigo rules. You might end up in a situation where you don't know casual, everyday Japanese when that is required." –  hippietrail Mar 24 at 6:36
    
Also "start simplifying and breaking linguistic rules" is definitely wrong. To speak casual, everyday Japanese you have to know more rules, you don't just drop all particles without rhyme or reason, you have to know which can be dropped under which conditions, following linguistic rules. Any linguist will tell you so. Learning textbook Japanese is easier because it's in so many textbooks and is never wrong. It's harder because the normal people you're likely to meet don't talk like that and you can only learn by experience since textbooks don't cover casual, everyday Japanese well. –  hippietrail Mar 24 at 6:39

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