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Yay, yet another first-person-pronoun question!

I know that 自分 is commonly used as a personal pronoun in indirect speech, e.g.:

マイクは、自分はなんと不注意なのだろうと言った。→ Mike said that he was very careless.
スミスさんは自分はニューヨークの生まれだと言った。→ Mr Smith said, "I was born in New York."

as well as a reflexive pronoun (for speaker or listener/third party):

自分を信じて!→ Trust yourself!

and as possessive, to emphasise the possession:

掘っ建て小屋でもいいから自分の家が欲しい。→ I want my own house, even if it's a shack.

All these make perfect sense and share the same underlying meaning of myself/yourself/oneself (with emphasis on the self). But I have also encountered (in fact even caught myself saying) 自分 in places where 私/僕/あたし/etc could have been used, with only a very weak emphasis on "myself" (e.g. not answering a "did he or did you?" question):

自分はスポーツが嫌い。→ I hate sports. (?)

My question is, is this use as a general gender-neutral 私 substitute correct (in cases where there is no particular need to assert oneself against others)? And if so, what would be its speech level (e.g. could it be used in a formal context)?

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I hate having to use 自分 as first person pronoun when speaking Kansai-ben; it causes confusion. One day I was using it as second person, but he thought I was talking about myself (probably due to "Foreigner = Hyōjun'go" prejudice). Then the next day I was talking about myself and the guy thought I was talking about him. Since then, I'd use おのれ to refer to self when speaking Kansai-ben. –  syockit Aug 25 '11 at 16:55

3 Answers 3

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My question is, is this use as a general gender-neutral 私 substitute correct (in cases where there is no particular need to assert oneself against others)?

There is no intrinsic gender specificity in 自分, as opposed to 爺さん/婆さん. In actual usage, it's mainly used by male speakers (source: Daijirin).

Speaking from experience, I have the impression that it's especially heard among men who have certain inclination towards hard-core sportsmanship and/or accustomed to commander-subordinate relationships like in armies. To cite Wikipedia:

自分(じぶん): 体育会系の男性に多い。力士や野球選手などによく使われる。

However, the number of people who use this pronoun is not very great (in my experience). So I think people will have different opinion about just what kind of person uses it, because the number of samples available around them is quite low. (Which means my impression above can be biased.)

And if so, what would be its speech level (e.g. could it be used in a formal context)?

Depends on the context. I can easily imagine it used by a foot soldier answering an officer during a formal inspection: (This example is completely made up by me)

は、自分は第709小隊の木村であります!

This is acceptable because 自分 is regularly used and even expected in this imaginary army.

In other contexts, when there is no precedented use of the pronoun, it will depend on how the majority of the listeners react. It can vary from offense [3], amusement to indifference.

If something of high value is at stake, like in job interviews, I would stay away from 自分 and stick to a more general pronoun. Well, unless it's already a part of your speaking style, or you're intentionally choosing it as your personal brand.

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Actually Daijirin mentions that 自分 as the first-person pronoun is mainly used by male speakers. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 13 '11 at 21:28
    
Thanks for this very thorough answer and the precisions on gender and formality usage! I think that's what I was looking for... Glad to know it's a correct usage in informal context (but will be careful and try not to sound too much like an army recruit if I ever use it ;-) –  Dave Jun 14 '11 at 2:56
    
@Tsuyoshi Thanks for the reference. Corrected the overgeneralization in my answer. –  ento Jun 14 '11 at 9:04

Not much of an answer, but between myself and my native speaker girlfriend, we both thought the same thing, "It's the exact same in meaning and sense to 私/僕 or any of those, but it's definitely less formal."

At the same time, I don't think that means it's particularly informal; I just believe that the rigidity of the business language prescribes 私【わたくし・わたし】 over something like 自分.

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Thanks for this element of response: this is also my instinctive impression. I just wonder how far I can get away with 自分, as I have noticed I tend to use it in borderline situations where I am too lazy to pick between 僕 and 俺, or even sometimes 私 (even though situations with the latter tend to be a lot clearer). –  Dave Jun 12 '11 at 4:24

It's not always that interchangeable, as it has the meaning of ("my-", "your-", "one-") "self":

僕が嫌い。 - I don't like it.
自分が嫌い。- I don't like myself.

I'd translate

自分はスポーツが嫌い。

more along the lines of

As for me, I hate sports.

I'd expect this to be preceded by a discussion of other people's abilities or tastes in sport, the 自分 serving as a contrast to others.

スタジアムでバイトします。スポーツ見る人を見るのが面白いから。自分はスポーツが嫌い。
"I'm working at the stadium, because watching the fans is interesting. Personally I hate sport though."

If you'd replace the 自分 in the above sentence with 私 or another personal pronoun, the meaning would somewhat disconnect.

スタジアムでバイトします。スポーツ見る人を見るのが面白いから。僕はスポーツが嫌い。
"I'm working at the stadium, because watching the fans is interesting. I really hate sport."

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On the other hand, since you use a は after the 僕, we already get the contrasting meaning, I believe. Difference: It's "I work at the stadium, but I hate sports." instead of "The fans like sports, but I hate it." –  Kdansky Jun 14 '11 at 9:22

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