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The Meaning of “Watashi”: A Personal Question

The Meaning of “Watashi”: A Personal Question
Watashi is a foundational word for any Japanese language learner. It seems simple and straightforward at first. And, well, it is simple and straightforward … at first.

But in this article we’re going to investigate what the word means, its different forms, how it’s used, the pitfalls to avoid, and I’ll even take you on a brief intellectual hike through its distant etymology.

But, to kick things off, let’s start with the most essential information.

What is The Meaning of Watashi
 

What is the meaning of watashi?

The meaning of watashi is “I” or “me.” The kanji for this is 私 and can alternatively be written in kana as わたし. You use it to refer to yourself whenever it’s not clear from context—so, try not to overuse this word! Watashi could also refer to a completely different word: 渡し, which can mean a “ferry crossing” or can be used as a suffix to mean “delivery.”

 

So, the simple meaning of watashi is “I” or “me” and is written . Of course, this word rarely appears by itself. Usually, grammatical particles are attached to it to give it a specific use in the sentence.

So, 私は (watashi-wa), places the speaker as the topic (and often the subject) of the sentence. In this case, it would be read “I” (in most cases).

私に (watashi-ni) or 私を (watashi-o) suggest that something is happening to or towards you. So, in this case, gets read “me” in most cases.

私の (watashi-no) has the の particle attached, which is almost like adding a ‘s to a word in English (almost, I said! Linguist nerds out there, don’t crucify me). This, in most cases, changes it to “my.”

私のもの (watashi-no-mono) turns it into “mine.”

Finally, as mentioned above, “watashi” could also mean 渡し, which just means “ferry (crossing), ferry (boat),” and can be used as a suffix to indicate a delivery. I wouldn’t worry too much about this as I feel pretty confident it will always be clear from context which type of “watashi” is being used.

 

I, Alternative

Watashi has some variants within itself as well, owing somewhat to the natural changes in how people pronounce things, but also pointing back into the history of the word as well.

Heads up before we dive in: all of these use that same kanji, . So, you might be wondering how the heck you’re supposed to know the pronunciation when reading a book.

There’s a couple of answers to this. The easiest possibility is that the text will include furigana, which is the phonetic “spelling” in kana just above or beside the kanji.

Another possibility is that you’d simply know from context. Most of the time you’d just read it as watashi. But, where appropriate, you might read it in your head as one of the following alternative pronunciations.

The most well-known alternative pronunciation is watakushi (わたくし). This was the original reading. Over time the sounds condensed down and removed the “ku” sound. Nowadays, watakushi is only used in very formal situations.

Next, let’s look at atashi (あたし). This one degenerates the sounds even further, removing the “w” sound as well. This one carries a bit of a childish feel to it (since the difficult for children to pronounce “w” is missing) and is only really used by women in a casual, and perhaps cutesy, way.

Next up is a further evolution of the sound of watashi. Atai (あたい) takes after atashi, simplifying the sounds even further. In the olden days, the ladies of the red-light districts used this as their personal pronoun.

Then, in the Showa era, young, delinquent girls started using it. Nowadays, however, it’s lost its connection with the rough-and-tumble youth and is sometimes used by all sorts of women.

It also has a tendency to pop up in songs where a man sings about a woman’s feelings, since the word “atai” carries a strong feminine feeling.

Washi (わし) is another devolution of the sound of watashi. While it is usually written with the kanji, it used to be written as . In media, you’ll see the personal pronoun washi used almost exclusively by the elderly as a sort of stereotype to emphasize their age.

While it’s true that the word is strongly preferred by the elderly in Japan (especially elderly men), people of younger generations also use it, particularly in Hiroshima.

In fact, if the person being depicted as using it isn’t elderly, then their use of washi is almost certainly to show that they’re from that region of Japan.

A Kansai region usage of is wate (わて). This one’s quite a bit dated, a little feminine, and all Kansai. To make it more feminine just drop the “w” to make it ate (あて). Personally, I haven’t come across this one in the wild quite yet.

In the Kanto Region (aka Eastern Japan), watai (わたい) is an archaic form of watashi. Also native to the Tokyo tongue is asshi (あっし). This one is very much a working-class term from the Tokyo Bay area.

Most sources I’ve found suggest it’s primarily used by men, some don’t suggest a gender, and at least one says it’s used by women. Soooo, I’m not sure what to think about that. But at least you know how to recognize it now.

Finally, Watashi-me (私め) adds a suffix that means servant, or slave. This one is super-uncommon, but you might stumble on it in books, manga, tv, or film, so I thought I’d include it.

 

Ware! HUAH! What is it good for?

… Lot’s of stuff actually!

Those of you familiar with Chinese and a bit of the history of Japan might be wondering why they don’t use the kanji in Japanese.

For those with knowledge of neither, I’m referring to the fact that the personal pronoun favored in China (their equivalent of watashi) nowadays is wǒ, which uses the character .

Well, it turns out that Japanese does use this kanji sometimes, and they used to use it a lot in older writing (along with its alternative kanji for the same meaning/pronunciation, ).

The connections between and 私 are pretty interesting, and I’ll get into them a little further down. For right now, though, I just want to mention the use of .

我 is pronounced “ware” (われ) or sometimes simply “wa” (). This carries the same meaning as watashi, but with an added masculine gravity. This is for very formal situations. Alternatively, it can have a good literary effect in a written document.

我々 (我我, われわれ), or “ware-ware” is the way to say “we.” There’s also 我ら (われら), or “warera,” which can mean the same thing, though in archaic speech it can also simply mean “I.”

There’s also the amusing waga-hai (我輩), which carries an excess of outdated male arrogance.

 

A few non-watashi alternatives

I know this article is about watashi, but, while we’re on the subject, it’s a good idea to learn about some of the words that surround it. This way you’ll have a broader context for how watashi is used in real Japanese speech.

See, while in formal, or polite, speech watashi is perfectly fine, once you’re in even slightly casual circumstances it becomes a little strange, especially if you’re male. A male using watashi in a casual situation might come off as either a bit feminine or stiff.

Let’s start with the options for both genders, since they’re a bit more limited in scope beyond what we’ve already covered. Actually, there’s just this one really easy thing: just use your name.

Using one’s own name can function the same as a personal pronoun. That said, it’s best to avoid this one unless you’re a child.

Next, let’s tackle women. Women get to add uchi (, うち) to their arsenal. These kanji mean “inside” and “home,” respectively. Uchi got its start in Kansai about thirty years ago, but it’s spread across Japan and is used by women of all sorts. That said, it is definitely slang, so best used with friends.

Alright, now for the big list. The options open primarily to males. I’ll start with the two you have a good chance of having heard if you watch any Japanese media: boku and ore.

Boku (僕, ぼく) is pretty versatile. It’s used primarily by younger boys and men, but can be used by older Japanese men to suggest a sense of youthfulness, or humility. That said, boku gets used quite a lot by adult males (and some women). It’s a non-aggressive way to say “I.”

To pump up the masculinity a bit, we’ll take a look at ore (俺, おれ). Ore and boku are peas in a pod, and it can often be difficult (for a non-native speaker, at least) to decide which to use. Ore seems to be a real go-to pronoun for most men, even though it can cross the line from sounding “manly” to “arrogant” with some ease (especially if you’re a non-native speaker).

Care should be used with this one, especially around elders and people of higher status. In the past, ore used to be completely unisex, and even today in the far-northern Tohoku region, it still is.

In Kyushu ore devolves into oi (おい). On the other side of the archipelago, in the Tohoku region, ore devolves into oira (おいら) and gives off the feeling of a country bumpkin. Even more rural-sounding is ora (おら), though this one has changed a bit in its connotation over the years.

Ora was used heavily in the Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan series, so now those who use it often sound a bit dorky, like they’re quoting an anime (otaku/weeb warning!).

It should be noted that there’s almost no hard-and-fast rules for these. While some words are typically used only by men or women, sometimes women use them too, or in some regions it’s a totally unisex word with no distinction. Above all else, you’ll have to go with the flow and use the context.

Finally, in the common category, there’s jibun (自分, じぶん), which means “oneself,” but can be used in some circumstances as the word for “I.” Best used for speaking to someone higher than you in the pecking order to help you sound nice and respectful.

Now, a few uncommon, special-use ones! Yo (余, よ) is used by the highest-ranking people in classic literature, like advanced samurai, kings, and grand intellectuals.

Sessha (拙者, せっしゃ) is the perfect pronoun for making yourself sound like a samurai!

Warawa (わらわ) shows up in fictional stories and is used in them by princesses, goddesses, and other high ranking women to help them sound modest.

That’s all for that. Now, let’s take a peek at some small changes that can expand our use of everything we’ve learned so far.

 

And anotha one! Pluralizing

There’s another important aspect we should tackle: plurals. Watashi doesn’t always end up by itself–often it has some suffix attached to give it extra meaning. In this section we’ll cover three common pluralizing suffixes to turn your “I” into a “we” or “us.”

The first one is tachi (達, たち). This one you can slap on the end of just about any of the pronouns we’ve covered to make it into the plural form. This one’s a good, safe bet for just about all situations.

Next, there’s ra (等, ら). This one is used most heavily by men, or by anyone in the Kansai region. It’s another good catchall suffix, though be careful using it at the end of ore as that can imply some negative connotations, such as being full of yourself, or otherwise coming off as too aggressive.

Lastly, there’s watashi-domo, or watakushi-domo (私供, わたしども, わたくしども). While domo can be paired with other pronouns, it’s most natural with watashi. This is going to be you go-to expression for communicating “we” or “us” in formal situations.

 

VH1: Behind the Wa

Where did the word watashi even come from? Was it always that way? Why is it so different from the same idea in Chinese?

Well, the answers to these questions are… difficult. And, frankly, they’re largely unsolved.

Let’s start with something you might be thinking, but (unless you’re a classical Chinese scholar) are probably mistaken about. You might be thinking that the “wa” in watashi and the wǒ in the Chinese word for the same meaning sound somewhat similar. Similar enough that fifteen hundred years of separation could turn wǒ into wa.

Well, it turns out that the classical Chinese pronunciation of was more like “nga.” And this actually connects with the onyomi reading of the Japanese .

In fact, “wa” seems to be an original Japanese word which quite likely indicated a meaning like “private” or “personal.” This Japanese reading got attached to 我 which was then, at some point, transferred over to . Or, possibly, they had some other connection.

Let’s also take a look at the kanji itself. Why ? How does that set of lines mean “I” or “personal” anyway? Well, we’re going to have to stretch our imaginations a bit and also recall that these characters today evolved from much older forms. The older forms often looked much more like what they depicted.

In this case, look at the right side of the kanji. There you’ll see a representation of farming equipment, something like a hoe or plow. The left side is a growing rice plant. This suggests the idea of a private plot of land owned by a farmer. Hence, the sense of “private” or “personal.”

So, in the old, old days, watakushi (it was always read with the “ku” sound back then) only meant “private” and was used as the opposite of oyake (公, おおやけ), or “public” until the end of the Sengoku (Warring States) period.

The earliest record of the word that I could find is in the Man’yoshu, a collection of poems, which dates it to around the mid-8th century. Here’s the text, for your amusement:

 

Ancient Japanese Original:
住吉 小田苅為子 賎鴨無 奴雖在 妹御為 私田苅

Adjusted Text:
住吉の小田を刈らす子奴かもなき奴あれど妹がみためと私田刈る

All-kana version:
すみのえの,をだをからすこ,やつこかもなき,やつこあれど,いもがみためと,わたくしだかる

English (Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai translation):
“Reaper on the Suminoe fields,
Have you no servants?”
“Servants I have; yet for my love
I labor on her private ground.”

 

Watakushi would keep this original “private” meaning for almost a thousand years. In fact, when is used in compound kanji words, it still carries that meaning to this day. However, It wasn’t until 1632, the start of the Edo era, that we see the first reference to it as and actual personal pronoun.

There’s one last question, though. If derived from the “wa” in , then where did the “takushi” come from? Unfortunately, the answer is unsatisfying. We don’t know. There’s some speculation, but I’d rather not merely speculate here.

 

Watashi have nothing more to say

That’s all! Now you know everything you could possibly need to know about the word watashi and all the words that surround it. Go forth and use it wisely!

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