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My Japanese professor (I'm in first-year Japanese) advised us to primarily avoid the use of second-person pronouns like あなた or 君 or おまえ throughout the year, and essentially treated their utterance as something of a faux pas. However, I've been exposed a lot of Japanese language media (primarily anime and music) and their use therein seems to be pretty okay. I understand that あなた is used by wives to refer to "their dear husband" or something, and that 君 and おまえ are ostensibly inappropriate (the latter considerably more so), but do Japanese people in Japan actually pay attention to these distinctions? I'm inclined to think that my professor advised against their use (as well as the use of a slew of other words I attempted to use from my experience, including 俺、彼/彼女 and あいつ/あいつら) simply to avoid beginning our instruction with something overly informal.

tl;dr version: Are second-person pronouns as societally ill-advised as my professor would like to have me think? In what contexts (e.g., with friends, with older family members, with colleagues, or with superiors) are their use acceptable?

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3 Answers 3

I was given the same advice by my first-year professor, and I'm pretty sure the reason why he told us that was to break our reliance on them. In English (among other languages) it is necessary to always use second-person pronouns from a grammar stand-point, and in Japanese they are in no way required, and very often omitted. By telling us not to use them ever, he was getting us to re-wire our brains. (Which is a good thing! Adding あなたはevery time you want to say "you" in Japanese is very unnatural!)

That being said, second-person pronouns are used with some regularity in Japanese, but which one depends highly on who is speaking, and to whom they are speaking. お前, あんた, and きみ are some of the more common ones.

Which brings me to my third point: if you are not absolutely sure that you should be using a second-person pronoun, just don't. It will sound much more natural, especially for a non-native speaker, you don't have to try to falter trying to think of the right pronoun. You can use the person's name plus さん, or 先輩{せんぱい}, etc., (speaking in the third person in Japanese, even when referring to yourself, is not as strange as it sounds in English), or if you don't know their name, you can use, お兄さん, お姉さん, おじさん, おばさん, etc., depending on their age and gender (despite the fact that you're not actually related to them). In a pinch, あなた will work for anyone, even if it's not quite appropriate, you'll be understood.

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Isn't あんた just a contraction of あなた? –  Karl Knechtel Dec 21 '11 at 20:50
    
@Karl Yeah, if that is what it's called. It's sort of a cute version...you hear it used when mothers are talking to their children, and that sort of thing. –  silvermaple Dec 21 '11 at 21:04
    
@oldergod, umm sorry? That's how I heard it in Japan, and what my friend told me it meant... :( –  silvermaple Feb 14 '12 at 16:00
    
あんた is a much less polite version of あなた, not a cute, but a rude version. You can use あなた for people of your rank, like co-workers (not boss). But you would use あんた for less ranked people, close people or people you want to be rude with. Like the only time a girlfriend calls her boyfriend あんた is when she's mocking him or mad at him. –  oldergod Feb 15 '12 at 1:06
    
@silvermaple: I heard that きみ is really only used in anime, movies, shows, or books. Also that it is not normally used in day to day conversation. Is this true? –  dotnetN00b Feb 16 '12 at 16:20

There are lots of second person pronouns in Japanese, and of course, there are occasions where you are supposed to use them. I think the reason your teacher advised you to avoid using them at the beginning is not because you are not supposed to use them but because it will be difficult for a beginner to pick up the right one. Rather than making a wild guess and picking the wrong one, do not use them for the time being until you proceed to an advanced level and become sure which one to use in which occasion. That was your teacher's message, I guess.

For example, あなた has a very subtle nuance, and can only be used between certain relations, contrary to what another answer says. If you use あなた to your teacher, it would be definitely rude. But that does not mean that あなた is an impolite form. It actually is an honorific form, and why it becomes impolite has a complicated reason behind it. It is true that you often cannot find a pronoun with the appropriate politeness, and have to call the second person by the name or by the title. As I mentioned above, the rule behind this is very complicated, and you probably will not get it at this point. So I think it is a good idea to follow your teacher to avoid them, but that does not mean that they are not used in real Japanese. They are just too difficult for beginners to use.

Your question: "[D]o Japanese people in Japan actually pay attention to these distinctions?" shows that you are optimistic about how much Japanese language is sensitive to social relations. Japanese is one of the languages in the world that reflects the social relation in various aspects of the language most heavily. Yes, they do. More than the speakers of most other languages.

To show you how severe it is in Japanese to use the correct expression to refer to a person, I will point out that, the distinction that you mention for the second person is just the beginning, and when it gets to the third person, it becomes even more complicated. You can either refer to a person by the name like 山田, which is not (particularly) polite, or put a polite affix or a title after it like 山田さん or 山田先生, but which to use depends not only on the relation between you and the person referred to, but also on who you are talking to. Japanese adopts a system called relative honorification (as opposed to absolute honorification used, for example, in Korean). If 山田 is your boss with the title 部長 within a company, and you are talking with someone within the company, you have to be polite enough to refer to him/her as (山田)部長 (even attaching the polite affix like 山田さん is not polite enough, and is rude). But when you are talking with some outsider, then you have to say 山田, and saying 山田さん would be impolite to the outsider (and the expression 山田 does not become impolite to 山田).

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But when you are talking with some outsider, then you have to say 山田, and saying 山田さん would be impolite to the outsider (and the expression 山田 does not become impolite to 山田). I am completely boggled as to why you would call your boss by only his family name to an outsider and have it still be considered as polite... –  dotnetN00b Feb 16 '12 at 4:05
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@dotnetN00b It is polite to the outsider for you to do so. It is particularly not impolite to 山田 for you to do so. If you still don't get it, then that is how complex the Japanese honorification system is. –  sawa Feb 16 '12 at 5:28

I think you should follow your teacher's advice and avoid second person pronouns. I speak Japanese daily, but never use them.

But since they do exist, I don't think "just don't use them" suffices, so I'll try to give a list of situations when I hear them. But even in these cases, they're used much less than in English. Usually sentences are created in a way where the second person's role is understood implicitly.

  1. Between romantic partners/very close friends. Some people (mostly males) sometimes address very close friends/romantic partners as お前, others (mostly females) sometimes as あなた. But even if you truly are romantic partners/very close friends, many people will still not like this, while others will like it, taking it as a confirmation that you are, in fact, romantic partners/very close friends.

  2. Jocular use. If your statement is very obviously jocular, you can sometimes sneak in an お前 (or おめぇ), 君 or あんた. But even so, do not do it to somebody who is senior to you.

  3. To someone very junior to you. A senior at a workplace might address someone very junior to them as 君, and a school principal a student as 君 etc.

  4. Broadcasting. In broadcasting, the option of mentioning the addresee's name is often not available, so you will sometimes hear/see あなた/君, for example in commercials.

  5. Dialectal use. Some dialects use 2nd person pronouns more than standard Japanese. I do not have the knowledge to cover this in full.

  6. Foreign movie/tv-show voice-overs. This is where I hear it the most (mostly 君 and あなた). The lines using them still sound unnatural to my ears, but I guess I can understand why they need to translate them that way, since it's often hard to remove the 2nd person pronouns without changing the whole context.

This list is probably not complete, but these are the cases I could think of.

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