One significant difference between Japanese and a language like English is that words are more frequently omitted when they can be inferred from context. This applies to pretty much all types of speech: verbs, nouns, objects, and even particles (little grammatical helpers). In English, except for some special cases and slang usages, when referring to another person either their name or a pronoun is required. Ironically, even though pronouns are not required in Japanese, the language actually has a wide variety of words that serve as first and second person pronouns. These spice up the language and give important context to the speaker/writer, giving hints about their gender, age, social status, or even geographic region.
One interesting second person pronoun in Japanese that is used quite often in casual language is “omae”, which can be written as おまえ or お前 (or even 御前 in more classical Japanese). If you live in Japan for any amount of time (or even read/watch certain types of media), you will surely come across this and start to get a feel for what it is like. In this post I want to go a little deep into this word, its origins, and the various meanings it can be used for.
The origin of “omae” is quite simple; it comes from the “お” that is used for respect (that is present in many other words, like お仕事 [oshigoto]), and the word 前 (mae) that means “front” or “before”. So “omae” originally meant a person was referring politely to something in front of them.
Given this origin, it’s no surprise that “omae” was once used to refer to persons of respect, such as noblemen and deities, as a way to talk about them without directly using their name. This is essentially a third person pronoun, a little like “he” or “she”.
This meaning evolved to politely refer to a person that the speaker is directly addressing, essentially like a second person pronoun (roughly equivalent to “you” in English). The difference is there is a significant implication of respect, which can be expressed in Japanese with other words such as あなたさま (anatasama).
But neither of the above meanings is likely to mesh with what you may have heard on the streets of Japan. That’s because in modern times, “omae” is used with a very different nuance.
In modern times, “omae” is generally used as a second person pronoun to refer to someone who you consider to be of equal or lower status––or at least that is a brief way to try and capture the nuance formally. In practice, the word is used when talking to a close friend, especially if you are on very casual terms, though even so there is a certain “rough” or “harsh” nuance to the word. Also, while there are no black-or-white rules with regards to gender in Japanese, “omae” is typically used more by males.
One place you can hear this word commonly used is high- or middle-school boys talking amongst themselves (possibly even a bit younger).
In researching for this article I came across a really interesting survey from this year (2022) that asked whether people use the word “omae” to refer to their own children. There were many people who said they would never do that, though a few said they did on occasion. Many of those that said they use the word clarified it was when they were angry or scolding their child.
In another survey about what wives call their husbands, only ~3% said they would use words such as “nee, oi, or omae,” which adds further color to the common usages of this word. And in this thread, one person said they would not use “omae” when trying to get their partner’s attention, but they would use it to refer to them in the middle of a conversation.
I wanted to make a brief comment for translators: as “omae” doesn’t really have anything like an equivalent in English, it is difficult to literally translate this word. However, you can try to use language that sounds casual or rough to make sure the overall feeling of the dialogue is conveyed. In some cases you may be able to use words like “dude” or “man” to approximate the feeling of “omae”, though those words have more limited use than “omae” does in Japanese.
To summarize, while there are different opinions about when it is safe to use “omae”, generally speaking in modern times this word can sound angry, manly, or put the listener to a level below the speaker. This is one of those words I don’t recommend using unless you are on very close terms with the other person, and even then I urge caution.
Trying to figure out the best way to refer to someone in the second person can be tricky, but if you aren’t sure I recommend using last name + “san” (ex: すずきさん), except for family members for which you can drop the “san” and use their first name. And don’t use their name at all unless it isn’t clear from the context. But this is a very rough set of guidelines just to get you started.
Update: after posting this article someone reminded me of the meme “お前はもう死んでる” (Omae wa mou shinde iru), which means “you are already dead”. This is another example where we can see the negative nuance of this word in context.