Japanese grammar: When is it safe to omit a first person pronoun?

By | March 23, 2022

One important aspect of the Japanese language, especially compared to English, is how nearly anything can be omitted––at least as long as the context is sufficient for the reader/listener to guess what is missing. But for those used to explicitly stating things (even if they are ‘obvious’ from the context), it can be tricky to speak/write fluently in Japanese where you often say only what you need to say. 

Recently I received a question from a reader related to when first-person pronouns can be omitted in Japanese. While it can be difficult to talk in general about omitting words, using the topic of first-person pronouns can make things more concrete and easier to understand, and much of this discussion can apply to other types of words as well.

The good news is that the majority of the time you can simply omit first-person pronouns in Japanese (僕 [boku]、私 [watashi]、etc.). More specifically, if you are making a statement about someone doing an action and you omit the first person pronoun, the reader/listener will generally be able to guess it is about you. If there is a “yo” particle (that has the nuance of giving new information), that is even more so. Let’s look at an example:

  • I’m going to the store now. 
  • お店にいってくる。(omise ni itte kuru)

In this case you could add “boku wa”, and while it isn’t grammatically incorrect, it is unnecessary. Doing it once would be fine, but if you begin every one of your sentences with “boku wa” then it will definitely sound unnatural.

Another common case where a first person pronoun is implied is when using the “~te ageru” form that can be used to express you (or another person) performing an action to someone else as a favor.

  • I bought you a book.
  • 本を買ってあげたよ (hon wo katte ageta yo)

Here both the “yo” and the “~te ageta” set up a context that makes the first person being the subject very obvious, hence “watashi wa…” or the like is not required.

Similarly, verbs that show extra respect from the speaker to the listener (i.e. 拝読 [haidoku] 差し上げる [sashiageru]) almost never need a first person pronoun. But this doesn’t apply to all basic keigo (~desu / ~masu forms), since those don’t give you much context about who is doing an action.

Another case where you almost never need a first person pronoun is when you just used one in a previous sentence, or even in the same sentence. For example:

  • I went to the park and there I saw a fountain. Then I went home.
  • (僕は)公園に行って、そこで噴水を見た。そして帰った。 ((Boku wa) kouen ni itte, soko de funsui wo mita. Soshite kaetta.)

Depending on the context it would be OK and even natural to use “boku wa” at the beginning, but the other two “I”s do not need corresponding “boku”s, and it would be unnatural to use them in this case.

But what about cases where it is better to use a first person pronoun in Japanese? 

One situation where you should probably use a first person pronoun is when you want to clearly state that something is your opinion, or that something applies to you, but maybe not others. Let’s say you are going around a room and people are saying their favorite snack one by one. A natural phrase for this is:

  • As for me, I like chocolate.
  • 僕はチョコレートが好きです。 (boku wa chokoreeto ga suki desu)

(The English sentence here is perhaps a bit unnatural, but I put it that way to more closely match the Japanese.)

Notice that I used “wa” after the first person pronoun, this gives a strong nuance of “as for…”, with the implication that other people might feel differently (more details on “wa” vs. “ga”). If you are speaking casually, sometimes you can just omit this “wa” as long as you put in a pause (ex: “僕、チョコレートが好き”

Several of the Japanese words for family have alternate non-family meanings. For example, “お婆さん” [obaasan] can mean “grandmother” or simply “old lady”. Given this, you might expect that a first person pronoun would always be used when referring to the former (“my grandmother”), but it turns out you can even omit the pronoun here if the context is clear. Let’s look at an example for this:

  • お婆さんは小さいころからよく遊んでくれた。 (obaasan wa mukashi kara yoku asonde kureta)
  • (My) grandmother played with (me) since I was little.

Here, it’s pretty clear that the person in question is the speaker’s grandmother, not some random old lady, so you can omit “boku no”. Similarly, “boku to” (“with me”) is also not required since “kureta” has the nuance of someone doing a favor for the speaker.

For the case of ‘wife’, there are different words that help differentiate whether it is the speaker’s wife vs. someone else’s, so generally first person pronouns are not needed there either. “Okusan” generally refers to someone else’s wife, whereas “tsuma” only refers to the speaker’s wife.

Another common case is when there is some question about who did an action, or if you want to simply emphasize it was you, not someone else, who performed an action.

  • Who won? I won!
  • 誰が勝った?僕が勝った! (dare ga katta? Boku ga katta!)

Notice I used “ga” here, which is important to give the emphasis on the subject. While there is no perfect way to translate this in English, I used italics to give a similar feel. For a situation like this, you can’t omit the first person pronoun.

Yet Another case where a first-person pronoun is often is at the beginning of a story. Let’s imagine a story about a martian, and the first line of the book goes like this:

  • I am a martian.
  • 僕は火星人です。 (boku wa kaseijin desu)

The sentence “火星人です” by itself can mean many different things:

  • I am a martian.
  • She is a martian.
  • He is a martian.
  • They are martians.

The fact that Japanese doesn’t inflect verbs based on the subject, or (usually) words for plural makes it even more confusing. In the beginning of the story we have zero context so it is best to make it clear the first person is talking.

Finally, don’t forget that Japanese (unlike English) has a wide variety of first person pronouns (this page has a good list), each with their own unique nuances. So the first person pronoun in Japanese doesn’t only serve to express “I”, it also adds some context that may be important to the story. For example, “ore” may sound a little manly and tough, but “atashi” a bit girly, and “washi” like an older man. In dialogue, these pronouns (and other nuanced words) also help the reader keep track of who is speaking without needing to have tags specifying the speaker of each line.

Finally, I want to end this post with a link to an article I did some years ago about introducing a new first person pronoun (It was actually an April Fool’s joke).

Do you have any questions about Japanese grammar? If so, let me know in the comments.

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