3 Rules to Remember When You Speak Japanese

3 Rules to Remember When You Speak Japanese

Japanese can be difficult to learn — there’s no doubt about that. Having quick references to remind yourself of the rules is immensely helpful as you begin to learn the language. Here, Japanese teacher Kaoru N. shows you three rules that make conversations in Japanese all the easier…

Speaking Japanese is very different from learning Japanese in a textbook or classroom. When you learn to speak Japanese in a classroom, you will learn grammar rules and the polite, formal version of the language. While this is a good foundation for beginners, if you don’t also learn the informal, casual language, you may have trouble with actual conversations.

Here are three things to remember when you speak Japanese.

1. Choose the Right Japanese Honorifics

Japanese honorifics are suffixes (like the English titles Mrs., Mr., etc) that you use to address people in conversation. There are varying levels of politeness and formality. Here are some of the most common Japanese honorifics.

さま – sama (very formal)

You hear this all the time in Japan. When you go to a shop or a restaurant, a host or salesperson will add “sama” to the end of your name. You should also use “sama” when you write billing addresses to send mail.

This honorific suffix is very formal, so you don’t need to use this with close friends or acquaintances. For example, you wouldn’t call your boss or even the president of your company “sama,” it’s just too polite.

さん – san (very polite)

This suffix is still very polite; use “san” when you meet new people. In Japan, you’re generally expected to use formal language when you meet someone for the first time.

You should also use “san” when you’re speaking to someone older or of higher status, even if you already know this person.

くん – kun (polite, formal, and casual)

This suffix is less formal than the other two, but still very polite. Use “kun” to address someone younger or of lesser status. Don’t worry about offending anyone, there’s no arrogance implied.

This suffix is generally used to address a man. When age or status is the same, a woman will use this honorific to speak to a man, but a man will never call a woman “kun.” Men generally refer to women of the same age and status as “san.”

ちゃん – chan (familiar, casual)

Use this Japanese honorific when you’re speaking to someone younger. When you use this to speak to a woman, it expresses familiarity, so never call a woman “chan” when you meet her for the first time. Using an honorific with an informal, familiar context is rude unless you know the person very well.

An older woman can call a younger man “chan” if she knows him very well. You can use names with friends who you know very well because you’re more likely to be close in age and status.

Never address an older person, or someone you’re meeting for the first time, without an honorific suffix. Not only is this rude, but people will doubt your common sense.

2. Choose the Right Pronoun

In Japanese, there are several pronouns for “I,” “you,” and “he/she.” Some of the pronouns are informal, so you shouldn’t use them in formal circumstances, like the workplace. Other pronouns are gender specific, and if you mix these up, it just sounds funny.

Here are the Japanese pronouns you should know:

わたし –  Watashi – “I” (very polite)

Japanese students are taught to use this pronoun because it’s the “safest” way to say “I.”  Regardless of who you’re speaking to, watashi sounds very formal, so you don’t risk offending anyone.

Watashi is a little too formal for most Japanese conversations, however, so it’s important to learn the other Japanese pronouns.

おれ – Ore “I” (masculine, very casual)

This is the masculine pronoun for “I,” but because it sounds very casual, a man should never use this in a formal situation or initial meeting.

This pronoun has a bit of a “rough” context, so women generally don’t use “ore.”

あたし – Atashi “I” (casual)

This is the “I” pronoun that women use. Unfortunately, women don’t have as many choices as men when it comes to “I” pronouns.

Atashi covers many contexts and situations, but you should use watashi in formal situations because it’s more appropriate.

きみ – Kimi “you” (casual)

Kimi is informal, but you can use it with someone your age or younger, even for a first meeting.

Never use kimi when you’re talking to someone older or a person of higher status. Even though this pronoun still maintains respect, it’s casual in terms of context.

おまえ – omae (you) (extremely casual)

This pronoun is very casual, so be careful not to use it with someone older, of higher status, or even someone younger at an initial meeting.

Women generally don’t use this pronoun. Men use omae with people who are the same age and who they know very well. While this pronoun is fairly common, you should avoid using it if you don’t know the language very well (and need to study Japanese some more).

3. Omit the Subject and “desu” at the End of a Sentence

When you speak Japanese, you don’t have to provide a subject if it’s already implied. Also, you can omit “desu” in casual conversations.

These aspects of Japanese can be confusing for beginners, but understanding these concepts will help you move past the classroom and develop your conversation skills.

There’s a lot to remember when you’re learning Japanese; simplify the process and take it step by step.

speak Japanese


If you have questions, let us know in the comments below and ask your Japanese teacher to help you with any concepts you don’t understand! 


Kaoru N.Post Author: Kaoru N.
Kaoru teaches Japanese, guitar, and classical guitar lessons in Brighton, MA. Originally from Tokyo, he graduated from Berklee College of Music with a dual major and is available for in-home, in-studio, and online lessons. Learn more about Kaoru here!


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