By William Morgan and Dan Cohen
Many people become interested in Japanese because of アニメ (anime) and 漫画 (manga). They can be a window into Japanese culture and understanding them in the original Japanese is a compelling carrot to motivate language study. More than anything, manga and anime expose you to tons of 単語 (tango – words) to be learned. Plus, they give you a large pool of examples of (sometimes zany) social situations where you can glean important context. The one pitfall, however, that catches all too many inexperienced students of Japanese: the pronoun “you”.
To native English speakers, many sentences will sound strange and incomplete without a subject expressly stated. This is not the case in Japanese, and anime and manga’s liberal use of Japanese’s various forms of “you”, are meant to color the conversations. IRL Japanese people do not refer to each other as omae, kimi, or anata, except under very specific circumstances. For example:
あなた (anata) – a word for ‘you’ that may as well mean ‘husband’ owing to its overwhelming use by wives towards husbands. It’s more malleable than that, but as a beginner, err on the side of avoiding this pronoun.
君 (kimi) – a familiar ‘you’, generally used by adults towards children or romantic partners. Some teachers will refer to their classes as kimi-tachi.
お前 (omae) – an aggressive ‘you’, generally used by men. Used towards someone unfamiliar, it can be extremely rude. Interestingly enough, it is also often used by boys and men with friends with whom they are close. 貴様 (kisama) follows similar rules but is much less common.
If we can’t say ‘you’ in the above ways, how should we say it? The answer is: you shouldn’t. It’s common in Japanese to simply leave the subject out of a sentence because 文脈 (bunmyaku – context) is sufficient to convey your meaning. Consider the example of asking someone “How are you?” or “do you like sushi?” Japanese drops the “you” because it’s implied.
お元気ですか？(o-genki desu ka?) – How are (you)?
寿司は好きですか？ (sushi wa suki desu ka?) – do (you) like sushi?
But what about when you need to specify who you are talking to, or who you are talking about? Just use their name, but this is probably a lot less common than you think!
田中さん、寿司は好きですか？ (Tanaka-san, sushi wa suki desu ka?) – do (you) like sushi, Tanaka-san?
Using “you” in Japanese sentences isn’t the worst thing in the world, but learning to work around it as early as possible will only help
you get better faster. Good luck and happy studies!