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I'm enrolled in Japanese at my university, and we recently had a review of personal pronouns. The professor encourage us to understand and practice casual speech, and as part of that, to try finding personal pronouns that we feel comfortable with in different situations.

I identify as male, and I want to use 僕 (boku) as my personal pronoun, but my professor said that it's totally inappropriate, and said I need to use 私 (watashi) or あたし (atashi). I was a bit offended by that, because I don't identify as female.

I don't like to call my professor out as wrong, but this seems totally wrong.

Is 僕 (boku) only appropriate for cisgendered men?

What are the ramifications of using 僕 (boku) when you are male, but not cisgendered?

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    Your professor sounds wrong to me. You are a man and therefore there is no problem in referring to yourself as a man. 私 is more appropriate to use in polite contexts and is technically gender neutral (though it is likely to be read as feminine in casual contexts; for that reason after a lot of looking into the matter I decided I prefer 僕), but there is absolutely no good reason to suggest you use あたし. That's just my personal take on the matter and I'm not a native speaker. Fellow trans man here. – Janusz ヤヌシュ Aug 2 '18 at 14:10
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    @FelipeOliveira I agree it's cultural, but I think we have to recognize that there are places where culture and language intersect, and the choice of pronoun is one of those places. I think this question should be considered on-topic for Japanese.SE, even if the answer is somewhat subjective. – snailcar Aug 2 '18 at 14:28
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    bjorn, his question seems clear to me. He wants to know if boku is only used by men who are born male, or if it is also used by men who are not born male. – ericfromabeno Aug 2 '18 at 14:28
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    @ericfromabeno no, it's not really clear, at least not for someone who isn't up to date with all gender studies jargon. What do you mean with "men who are not born male"? Do you mean people with female bodies who identify as male, or do you mean people who were born with female bodies and then underwent treatment to get a male body (irregardless of what gender they identify with), etc? Japan is compared to the west quite conservative with gender issues and OP will be judged by what he/she looks like more than what he/she identifies as (and then further judged if words don't fit appearance). – bjorn Aug 2 '18 at 14:42
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    @bjorn, He said "What are the ramifications of using 僕 (boku) when you are male, but not cisgendered?" There is no ambiguity there. It doesn't matter HOW the non-cisgendered male person is male, whether a matter of feeling or surgery, according to the wording of that question. It asks for the ramifications, and if the ramifications are different for different versions of "male", that's still within the scope of the question. – ericfromabeno Aug 2 '18 at 14:46
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You'd do better to not look at personal pronouns from a gender-association perspective, despite the misleading idea that they always go hand in hand. The truth is that personal pronouns have more to do with assertion versus humility. The fact that gender has anything to do with it is merely by proxy.

As Japanese culture would have it, a male person is expected to have traits of assertion, and a female person should show reservation and humility. This fact, however, does not immediately dictate that a specific pronoun is reserved for a specific gender; oftentimes, you see women using 僕 and even 俺 but not often, in order to assert something (or being a joking braggart), and men using 私 and very rarely あたし because it is on the opposite end towards reservation.

In reality, it has more to do with the relationship with the other party. This is why men will likely say 俺 with friends, 僕 with their family and respected elders, and 私 to company officials. Women by default are expected to be reserved and humble, so the female gender tends to resort to 私 and humbler/more reserved personal pronouns.

For this reason, I don't disagree with your instructor entirely - gender identity certainly plays a part in how you express yourself, but so does exhibiting reserve and humility, for example, before a prospective employer. It is, in a way, a power play, and not a gendered one, specifically. As a cisgender male, I would use 私 in an interview environment, say, but not あたし. Therefore, I would suggest you use 私 though not for the sake of promoting yourself as a female, but for the humility and reservation that goes along with and is tactful and required of the situation. However, in informal situations, I think 僕 is acceptable and understandable.

  • wow. I'd never heard of Japanese pronouns indicating a scale of humility before. Everyone I've ever spoken to, foreign teachers of Japanese or Japanese natives, have always discussed pronoun use in terms of gender. I can see what you're saying though. As a cisgender male I have never had to really worry about the issue one way or the other, I've only ever used 私 or 僕 unless I was intentionally being silly. (Aping for my students or whatever). – ericfromabeno Aug 4 '18 at 1:08
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    I don't have time to write an answer myself, but one thing to include is that 僕 was (is?) also used by elementary school aged girls. And that one use of first-person pronouns is when imitating or quoting someone from a different category (a man using あたし marks his speech as imitating a girl; many of the uses of 俺 by women mean "I want to sound gruff when I say this") – virmaior Aug 4 '18 at 7:59
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    As an extension of this, any speech (not just pronouns) considered characteristically male is what you might call "blunt" style, whereas characteristically female speech may be called "gentle" (terminology taken from Japanese: The Spoken Language). Pronouns are just one example of this. Understanding the various speech styles and their appropriate usage depending on the situation is fundamental for success with the language. The Japanese language is inseparable from its culture. – weirdalsuperfan Aug 5 '18 at 7:33
  • @weirdalsuperfan This is nearly unquestionably true. The Japanese language is much more nuanced towards the gravitas of humility than it is in gender, but gender expression goes hand in hand with the role of a given assignment throughout the culture's history, and so the language is intrinsically woven into its culture. This is why it's hard for learners to grasp these small nuances, myself included...! – psosuna Aug 7 '18 at 22:40
  • I had a long and interesting conversation about this with one of my close Japanese friends about the use of these personal pronouns. I was informed that use of 僕 for women of any age is extremely rare (even young women/girls under the age of 10) For the most part I think that this answer is right, but I'm putting it out there for the record that native Japanese speakers are not this cognizant of their chosen personal pronouns. They use what they do because that's pretty much how everyone has done it until now. – ajsmart Aug 30 '18 at 16:56
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I think there's some really complex interactions going on here that deal with language, history, and culture on both sides, but if the question is to focus on Japanese language and usage, then there's really a few subquestions:

  1. For someone who looks female what does using 僕 communicate?
  2. Is there a Japanese way to express "I am a man but look like a woman" using personal pronouns?

Starting with question 1, it's important to note as background that the default term for I for adults, both men and women, is わたし ( which of course can be written in kanji as 私 but this is also the kanji for わたくし which is a more polite form). Japanese wikipedia explains that this is the "public personal pronoun" for both.

Deviations from this among adults have cultural significant linguistic meanings. This could include showing closeness, humility, respect, deference, or self-assertion.

In my experience, the standard set for men (here I mean under a rather traditional understanding of the term, cis-men if you prefer) is:

 わたし
 わたくし [more humble]
 おれ [more assertive, close, selfish?]
 [ぼく][2][deferential?]
 and possibly じぶん

The standard set for women (cis-women if you prefer):

 わたし
 わたくし [more humble]
 possiblyあたし [close?]
 possibly personal name (あいこはアイスを食べたい "I want to eat ice cream") [close? selfish?]

All of this is background, based on a brief bit of googling, someone who looks like a woman using ぼく might be:

  1. Perceived as a ぶりっ子, engaging in a type of intentionally childish language. See also here for its use by someone who plays children roles.
  2. Copying language from video games 僕少女.
  3. Immature because this is not an appropriate pronoun for an adult woman.
  4. Asked to stop (Same as above)
  5. Idealistic girls.

I assume based on

I identify as male, and I want to use 僕 (boku) as my personal pronoun,

in your question that you're hope was that using 僕 will result in others recognizing you as a man, but my sense is that they will instead take it to either be something near their perceptions above or more likely a linguistic error.

In answer to what I take to be the second half of your question re: how to express "I am a man but look like a woman"

My sense is that there's no easy way to accomplish that but that gender studies people perceive it as a problem:

  • One blog where the person notes the problem but doesn't have an answer.
  • another blog complaining of the limited options for women.
  • blog of a similar Japanese individual who uses じぶん and the struggle to get to that point.

Maybe to sum it up, Japan is not (at this point) all that adapted to this idea. I'm sure you can find a few people working in gender studies (both inside and outside of Japan) who think there are solutions, but the average Japanese person you communicate with will mostly likely not comprehend what you're doing as expressing "I'm a man" but instead think there's something wrong with how you're communicating.

  • Thanks for sharing interesting blog pages. When it comes to my personal experience, there were 2 girls when I was in my 中学 who referred themselves as ぼく, and either of them were a book girl, just like 春名風花, a real ボク少女 actor (I don't mean how they look here). – user4092 Aug 6 '18 at 9:14
  • thought you didn't have time for an answer... haha. but, it's a great one that touches on some points I didn't touch on. especially your last paragraph is spot-on. – psosuna Aug 6 '18 at 17:51
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    @psosuna eventually found the time! – virmaior Aug 7 '18 at 0:54
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I appreciate the upvotes and I do not wish to delete my answer, but I think it's important to note that @psosuna 's answer about pronouns as a "scale of humility" is more relevant toward understanding why pronouns are used the way they are in Japanese. My answer is based on the "gender association" that I was taught in college and my personal experiences in Japan, and my sense of what the original question poster was concerned about. psosuna's answer offers a deeper insight, and although I'm not saying "please undo your upvotes" (which I appreciate), I hope people will recognize the important point that psosuna has made clear about the Japanese language.


You definitely don't want to use あたし , as that is a pronoun used by people who identify as female. I can't imagine why your professor would suggest that you do, unless he/she is unaware of your gender identity.

僕 is a pronoun used essentially out of a desire to stress one's maleness, as あたし is used to stress one's femaleness. 僕 is also sometimes used by girls/women who simply see themselves as "one of the guys" and don't attach gender to it as strictly, but for this reason it is seen as somewhat uncouth.

You also hear younger boys using that pronoun more-so than older boys or men. This is because as Janusz said 私 is gender neutral and more polite, which younger kids care less about, and older kids/adults care more about.

As you care about making people aware that you identify as male, I think it is fine for you to use 僕 rather than 私. Be prepared for some people to think that you are simply being "rough" with your language though, rather than identifying as male, if you choose to refer to yourself that way. And be prepared for people not to understand your gender identity if you choose to use 私.

Edit: I want to apologize for not really being able to answer the point about ramifications, because I don't know what ramifications might develop from a non-cis-gendered man using 僕. As the comments say, Japan is more gender prejudiced than the West (which is itself still not great in that respect) so you can expect social discomfort from some Japanese people, especially older people, meeting people who don't conform to their biological gender. The use of 僕 will just be one aspect of the interaction that causes their discomfort though, so... :(

Further Edit: Thanks to one of your comments, I now understand a little better what one of your concerns is. The use of gendered pronouns in Japanese is not a guaranteed way to make people aware of your gender identity in Japan. Some people might get it, but most will assume that you are making some sort of linguistic mistake, and will attempt to correct you. Some few might simply think that you are trying to be "tomboyish" when using 僕. Unlike あたし, which is only used by women, transvestite men, and transgender women, 僕 can be and is used by some boys, some girls, some men and some women, so it cannot truly "hint" at your gender identity. I was recommending that you use it, based on the sense that it made you happier to do so, which I feel is a valid and sensible reason, despite the fact that it will necessitate conversations about language and about gender identity on occasion.

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    The idea of identifying as a different gender is not as common in Japan as it is in America. I second this: Be prepared for some people to think that you are simply being "rough" with your language though, rather than identifying as male, if you choose to refer to yourself that way. It is quite possible people will think you are just making a beginner's mistake. The only way to really remedy that is to get better at the language. – ajsmart Aug 2 '18 at 15:03
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    Good point. Using 僕 will probably necessitate constant conversations about the speaker's gender identity, but maybe that is something they want... or at least, will be willing to deal with, in exchange for choosing to use the pronoun they feel happiest with... – ericfromabeno Aug 2 '18 at 15:11
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    Thank you; just to clarify, I explained my gender identify to my professor, but I feel she told me it "just wasn't a thing" in Japan, in not so many words... which is really a shame. I thought it would be more progressive. – seitoオタク98 Aug 2 '18 at 15:53
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    @seitoオタク98 I think it really depends on who you meet.. I know that a friend of friend is trans and doing a homestay in Japan with someone who is good in understanding that this person has both genders. The host's daughter is also apparently a trans girl. So just like in the english speaking world, some people may be more understanding than others. People are people, after all – Janusz ヤヌシュ Aug 2 '18 at 16:01
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    @Chcr Those are a dialect that's genderless at each place (おれ's variations for Kanto/Tohoku, あたし's variations for Tokyo). After they were mixed through immigrants to Tokyo, the next generation started to differentiate them. That's probably because women, that is, a mother, are more sensitive to trend. – user4092 Aug 3 '18 at 23:49

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