Are first, second, and third person nominals in Japanese used in the same way as in English? What should English speakers keep in mind when considering the three persons in Japanese?

Particularly for the second person, English you is used to directly address someone, but in Japanese, we are taught to address someone by their name, which is third person. Does this make any sense? Does it affect grammar in anyway?

Also, supposing we're talking to Mr. Yamada, and we want to ask him what he wants to do. Which of the following would be correct?


  • You seem to be asking more than one question here--how to address people, how to use -たがる, and whether grammatical person is similar in Japanese and English (which is rather vague). Consider editing your question to be more clear, or breaking it up into more than one question.
    – Amanda S
    Jun 4, 2011 at 23:59

2 Answers 2


I would argue that there is a correspondence between the two languages with all three viewpoints. There are pronouns that are commonly used for the first, second, and third person just like in English; however, there is a bit of a cultural difference on when it is appropriate to address someone by name or a more informal second-person pronoun like "you".

Addressing someone by name doesn't necessarily mean you are talking in the third person. For example, "Mr. Yamada, what would you like to do?" isn't a third person question, you're just being polite by addressing them by name.

Of your two examples, I think the first one is closer.


山田さん knows what he wants to do, so したい is appropriate. The second sentence reads more as if you are asking someone else what 山田さん wants to do.


I think you need to divorce the concept of "third person grammar" and pronouns/addressing people. The third person concept simply does not have the same relevance in Japanese grammar.

[person] は何がしたいんですか?

[person] here can be many things, which depends on the formality, intimacy and other context. It has no direct bearing on the grammar of the rest of the sentence.


The exact expression of は何がしたいんですか? would only change depending on what exactly you want to express in which formality level. Only in that sense are the person and the rest of the sentence connected; you problably wouldn't say てめえは何がしたいんですか? or お客様は何がしたいんですか?, you'd use other formality levels for the second part. The reason for changing the second part here is not connected to the concept of first/second/third person though. Even though the meaning would be weird in most situations, grammatically there's no problem in saying 私は何がしたいんですか?

  • +1 for correcting: ~は何がしたいんですか
    – repecmps
    Jun 5, 2011 at 0:48

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