I've always had trouble choosing which first person pronoun to use - 私 (watashi), 僕 (boku), or 俺 (おれ). What kind of factors should I keep in mind when choosing between these? Is it common to vary one's choice by the social context, or do people tend to select one and stick with it all the time?


6 Answers 6


It depends a lot on the situation. I try to keep it simple and only use three most practical forms of the pronoun:

僕 (boku) :: I use it whenever I am not at work

俺 (ore) :: Almost never use 俺 unless most people around me are already using 俺, too informal.

私 (watashi) :: What I always use at work. Never ever use boku at work, or in an email, since somebody could consider that you are being rude and not too formal. (Happened to me a couple of times when I was a new graduate at a Japanese company).

  • 1
    +1 for an answer from someone with practical experience with this question!
    – Amanda S
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 21:52
  • 4
    +1 great answer. That said, I do use 僕 with coworkers. You've just got to find your groove, whatever works for you :)
    – makdad
    Commented Jun 1, 2011 at 0:26
  • (Re-read your comment - I probably got away with 僕 because I was at a gaishi, not a Japanese company)
    – makdad
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:49
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    @Wallqs, 僕 in the workplace is dependent on your position. All of the executive level staff (Managers up), including Myself all use 僕 when talking to our juniors. Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 12:18

Are you a man? Are you a manly man? Use ore (俺). Are you a girly man? Use boku (僕). Are you being formal, unwilling to commit to 俺 or 僕, or just starting to learn Japanese? Use watashi (私).

Are you a girl? Are you a girly girl? Use atashi (あたし). (This rule isn't as fixed as the male rule). Are you a tomboy? Use boku (僕). Otherwise use watashi.

Are you speaking to a crowd, or being highly polite? Use watakushi (私, confusingly).

  • 12
    This is a pretty good summary! One nitpick, though--male users of 僕 are usually not "girly." They just tend to be less hypermasculine than users of 俺. 僕 is still a pretty masculine personal pronoun.
    – Amanda S
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 21:46
  • @Amanda it's true, but if you are a girly man, you almost always use 僕, but that doesn't mean that all 僕 users are girly. It's somewhat fluid, and even committed 俺 users will revert to 僕 in polite social situations.
    – nevan king
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 21:54
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    Just for anyone who doesn't know the reference: secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Girlie_men
    – nevan king
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 16:25
  • 僕 has a nuance of being immature, not fully grown up. It amuses many Japanese people, and they will think less of a politician or a CEO using 僕 to refer to himself. In situations where one can't use 俺, or a regional equivalent, I'd go all the way to 私(わた[く]し).
    – user145
    Commented Jun 26, 2011 at 1:57

First off, if it's obvious from context that you're the subject of the sentence, then you do not need to say "I". If you need to use a pronoun, these are your most likely choices:

  • 私(わたし)- canonical, formal form. This should be your default.
  • 私(あたし)- same as わたし, but feminine (women can use it freely).
  • 私(わたくし) more formal and stiff than わたし. Good for business settings such as job interviews, etc.
  • 僕(ぼく)- This has a young boy feeling to it, though that doesn't limit its usage entirely to young boys. There are older men who use it regularly, as well as some young teenage girls (it's considered silly, but sometimes you want to be silly!).
  • 俺(おれ)- Many men use this as their default among friends; however, it is coarser than わたし and gives a sense of arrogance if used in an inappropriate context.

Under specialized circumstances (drama of some kind like cosplay or imitating an anime, etc.), you might use these less common options:

  • 俺様(おれさま)- overly dramatic egotist. Listen to some Dragonball Z and you'll find it.
  • わし- old people, male and female. The stereotype is that as they get older men and women start to sound the same.
  • 拙者(せっしゃ)- for samurais. Listen to some conversations in Rurouni Kenshin to hear this one.
  • 3
    In general... use "私"(わたし)... it's what the Japanese expect from foreigners. Switch to "僕" if you're male, and none of your male social-equals have used anything except 僕 for a few conversations. Stay away from using the others until you can ask for the ins and outs of this question to a native speaker, in japanese.
    – jkerian
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 21:27
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    Because わたし and わたくし are two different pronunciations of the same kanji 私 (and they are different in formality as you said), if you discuss the difference between the two, it is better to write them in hiragana. Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 2:06
  • 5
    For samurai, don't forget 不肖 (ふしょう) and 某 (それがし).
    – istrasci
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 2:23

The social context is absolutely the deciding factor, but your personality affords you some additional flexibility. Just like deciding whether to use 〜さん or not, your choice of pronoun depends on how familiar you are with the people in your audience, and relative social status.

That said, I personally still gravitate towards 僕 over 私 even amongst new people since I'm a relatively young man and I feel like I can get away with it. :)

Also don't forget that not using the first-person pronoun is usually an option as well, which can nicely sidestep this issue.

  • 1
    I presume I will make this comment a lot but be careful. Politeness is subtle and important, and using even 僕 over 私 may come across as arrogant in a given social context. I can absolutely imagine a Japanese manager using 僕 to refer to himself when addressing subordinates.
    – Ali
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 21:22
  • Definitely. I still use 私 on occasion, especially when listing myself amongst respected peers.
    – sartak
    Commented May 31, 2011 at 21:24

わたし (私) - Typical, everyday, formal/informal "I." Err to this whenever possible.

あたし (私) - Same kanji, used only for females. Same feel as watashi.

わたくし (私) - Hyperformalized version of watashi. It is surely not to be used in all formal situations, but rather only to express extreme politeness.

[僕]{ぼく} - Masculine (though not exlusively) "I" used to give informal atmosphere. Not polite save for certain situations.

[俺]{おれ} - In terms of masculinity, it runs along the lines of 僕. I will go as far to say this is a rude expression. Unless you are sure that it is acceptable in any given situation, I would not use it, unless you're trying to be mean or rude. However, when used acceptably, it is excellent to portray a very informal mood.

Keep in mind there are many more ways to say "I," and these are only some of the most common.

  • until recently, the kanji 私 was formally reserved for わたくし, so I've reversed the order on your top 3 in terms of kana and kanji.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 3:35
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    Separately, I wouldn't say I 俺 is per se rude. And 僕 does have uses in formal contexts.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 3:36
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    Actually, 僕 is specifically used when speaking to authorities or higher ups. Easiest event to recall is when a Japanese colleague called the 入国管理局 to complain about how they responded to a visa application, he immediately switched to 僕
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 4:19
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    選挙演説0:10, 0:14, 1:12などで「僕」を使う人も結構いますね。 国会答弁3:30 で「俺」を使う人は珍しいと思いますが。
    – user1016
    Commented Jul 16, 2014 at 6:05

Some others that people are missing:

  • うち: Very informal, but relatively gender-free. Great for otaku.
  • あたえ/あたい: Colloquial female, related to わたし
  • [Name or Title] - You can use your own name or title as a pronoun: マリはあのおもちゃが欲しいの! 先生はおこっていますよ。
  • おら - Regional male (or regional, colloquial female).

Some pedants won't want to admit use of these informal pronouns, but you should know that they exist and that people use them (even in 2014!).

  • 1
    There are some issues here with these suggestions. うち can be used where an English-speaker might use a personal pronoun, but the meaning is significantly broader. It's not actually a personal pronoun per-se. It is certainly not "informal", and it is also not entirely "gender-free" (although that depends on context). Do you perhaps mean 'あたい'. おら sounds decidedly masculine and somewhat provincial.
    – jkerian
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 6:36
  • 1. 「うち」は、関西や西日本の女性で、使う人がいますね。(京都の舞妓さんも。) 2. 「あたえ」は、聞いた事がないのですが、「あたい」のtypoではなかったのですか? jkerianさんが言うとおり、「あたし」の崩れた形です。 3.「おら」は、「俺(おれ)」の、東日本の田舎っぽい感じ(jkerianさんが言うとおり)、というイメージがあります。(東北地方とか。。。)
    – user1016
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 8:28
  • @jkerian: >おら sounds decidedly masculine and somewhat provincial FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF NEW TOKYO DIALECT SPEAKERS. In those provincial dialects per se, it's gender-free.
    – user4092
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 13:01
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    This doesn't seem to answer the question (the question asks how to choose between 私, 僕 and 俺 and whether to stick to one once you choose one), but seems to be a comment on the other answers.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 20:35
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    @user4092 1. そうでしたか、男性も使う地域があるとは知りませんでした。Wikiうち によると男女関係なく使用されるのは九州の一部だそうで、全国的には男性による使用は一般的ではないようですので、回答の中で地域性について述べずに"gender-free"と言ってしまうのは無理があるかと思います。 3. 確かに「おれ」の起源は東日本でしょう。しかし由来はともかく、現在の標準日本語において、東日本の田舎以外の場所でおらWikiなんて言ったら、まず田舎者と見られて恥ずかしい思いをするでしょう。これも回答に含めるなら地域性やニュアンスの説明がほしいです
    – user1016
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 15:40

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