Nouns and Pronouns 名詞と代名詞

第9課: Nouns & Pronouns 名詞と代名詞

※The use of romanization in this lesson is an exception rather than the norm to allow this information to be more reader friendly to those who have not finished studying basic sentence structures.

noun is often simply defined in English as a person, place, or thing. This is then broken down into two kinds of nouns: common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns are generic names for people, place, or things, but unlike proper nouns, common nouns are not capitalized by default. Examples of common nouns include “car,” “island,” “genius,” etc. In contrast, proper nouns designate a particular being or thing and are usually capitalized. Examples of “proper nouns” include “Mt. Everest,” “Queen Elizabeth II,” etc. 

■The Japanese Definition of “Noun” 日本語における「名詞」の定義

How does Japanese define “noun” and how do they compare in appearance and function? Similarly to English, nouns in Japanese are defined as typically representing a certain thing which is either a physical object, substance, person, or place, but may also include abstract concepts. 

■Nouns are Unconjugatable Independent Words 名詞とは活用不可な自立語である「体言」のこと

Japanese nouns are known for not conjugating. There is no such thing as inflecting them for grammatical gender, person, or number. This is in stark contrast to nouns in other languages including English or any other European language for that matter. They are independent words, which means they can be understood by themselves. 

The Kinds of Nouns in Japanese 日本語における名詞の種類

Now that you know a little about what is meant by noun in Japanese, we’ll look at the different kinds of nouns found in Japanese. By doing so, you’ll be able to recognize and know how to use any new noun you come across once you learn what the noun means. 

Common Nouns 普通名詞

Common nouns comprise the majority of nouns in Japanese. They represent the names of anything and everything that fits its definition. For instance, ki 木 means “tree” and is used to describe any and all trees. To be more specific, you could add a modifier to the word or you could use the name of the tree you want to talk about, which will also be a common noun. As an example, yanagi 柳 means “willow.” 

Learning common nouns will be a major part of studying Kanji. Although it is not expected of you to learn the Kanji spelling of every noun you learn, it will be in your best interest to at least see what the normal spelling of any noun is whenever you encounter a new word. 

Noun Meaning Noun Meaning
Ao 青  Blue Aka 赤  Red
 Aki   Autumn Asa 朝  Morning
 Ashi 足  Foot Ashi 脚  Leg
 Atama 頭  Head Ani 兄  Older brother
 Ane 姉  Older sister Inu 犬  Dog
Imōto 妹  Younger sister Oto 音  Sound
Otōto 弟  Younger brother Kawa 川  River
 Kuro   Black Shiro 白  White
 Neko 猫  Cat Hito 人  Person
 Mizu   Water Yoru 夜  Night

Proper Nouns 固有名詞

Just as in English, proper nouns refer to specific place, organization, or place names. Although capitalization doesn’t exist in Japanese orthography, proper nouns are often affixed with titles of respect called keishō 敬称. For instance, Kaneko 金子 is a surname, and when one is referring to Mr./Mrs. Kaneko respectfully, you will attach the ending -san さん to be polite, producing Kaneko-san 金子さん.

Personal Names 人名

Personal names are composed of a family name (surname) known as myōji 苗字 that is then followed by a personal name (namae 名前). Even as a beginner, there are certain names that will become familiar with very quickly. Examples include the names of the Prime Minister (sōri-daijin 総理大臣) and Japanese Royal Family (kōzoku 皇族). Perhaps you know several Japanese people or you have favorite Japanese athlete(s) or singer(s). Whoever they are, their names count as practicing Japanese!

English Japanese English Japanese
Joe Biden Jō Baiden
 Yoshihide Suga Suga Yoshihide
Keigo Higashino Higashino Keigo
 Hillary Clinton Hirarii Kurinton

Place Names

Place names are perhaps even more important than personal names because everyone needs to know where they’re going. There are currently 195 countries, 50 states in the USA, and 47 prefectures of Japan. These place names will likely form the bulk of the place names you learn in Japanese in the first few years of study. 

This isn’t the extent of place names, though, as you’ll also need to know how to refer to islands, mountains, lakes, streets, etc. Especially when you go to Japan, words like Fuji-san 富士山 (Mt. Fuji) and Biwa-ko 琵琶湖 (Lake Biwa) will be incredibly important to your touring endeavors.  

Similarly to personal names, the spellings of place names will often involve very specific Kanji. So long as you know how to pronounce the name of where you’re going, you will have no problem getting there in Japan as many place names will be written in English or at the very least have their names written in furigana on signs.

English Japanese English Japanese
 Tokyo Tōkyō 東京 Kyoto    Kyōto 京都
 OsakaŌsaka 大阪 YokohamaYokohama  横浜
 Japan Nihon/Nippon 日本 America  Amerika アメリカ
 China Chūgoku 中国 South Korea  Kankoku 韓国
 Asia Ajia アジア Europe    Yōroppa ヨーロッパ
 Africa Afurika アフリカ AustraliaŌsutoraria   オーストラリア
 Antarctica Nankyoku tairiku 南極大陸 India  Indo インド

A Map of Japan 日本地図

There are four main islands of Japan. The larger island to the north is called Hokkaidō 北海道. The slender island extending down the whole of the country is called Honshū  本州. The smaller island colored in a brighter orange is called Shikoku 四国. Then, the largest island to the south covered mostly in red is called Kyūshū 九州. The island chain to the south of Kyūshū 九州 which extends all the way out to Taiwan makes up Okinawa 沖縄. The island chain to the north of 北海道, which is claimed by both Russia and Japan, is known as the Chishima Rettō 千島列島. 

Japan is divided into 47 state-like divisions called prefectures. They are collectively referred to with the term todōfuken 都道府県. -To 都 stands for capital and that prefecture is none other than Tōkyō-to 東京都 (The Tokyo Metropolis/Prefecture). –Dō 道 is an older word similar in use to “province” and the only one with this title is Hokkaidō 北海道, bearing the name of the island as a whole. There are two -fu 府 and they are treated as non-capital metropolitan areas. These metropolitan prefectures are none other than Ōsaka-fu 大阪府 and Kyōto-fu 京都府. All other prefecture ends in -ken 県.

Organization Names 組織名

Slightly overlapping with place names, knowing names of organizations such as businesses, institutions, universities, churches, shrines, etc. will be a significant percentage of the nouns you learn. If you end up living in Japan, you will need to know the names of stores, banks, train stations, parks, theme parks, etc. If you want to visit that huge shrine in Izumo, you should probably know it’s called Izumo Taisha 出雲大社. If you want to have a phone, you may want to learn the names of some providers like NTT docomo. And yes, いまび counts as a proper noun. 

EnglishJapanese  English Japanese
Wikipedia Wikipediaウィキペディア Ueno Zoo Ueno Dōbutsuen上野動物園
 Mizuho Bank Mizuho Ginkōみずほ銀行 McDonalds Makudonarudoマクドナルド
 The United Nations Kokuren国連 7-Eleven Sebun (Irebun)セブンイレブン

Pronouns 代名詞

pronoun (daimeishi 代名詞) indirectly refers to an entity that involves a person, direction, or thing. The meaning of said entity is determined by context. For instance, proper names are pronouns because they stand in place of the actual person/thing they reference. Proper names can also be shared with others or other things, and so we need context to truly understand what is meant by say the name “Seth.” This can refer to the creator of いまび, or it can refer to any person whose name is “Seth.” Because of this, the word “Seth” is a pronoun. 

Similarly, words like “here” and “there” or even words like “this” and “that” are also pronouns. This is because no one can ascertain what they refer to without context.

Generally, when we think of pronouns, we think about pronouns that are used to establish grammatical person. For instance, in English we make the following distinctions in grammatical person.

Person 人称 Singular 単数 Plural 複数
1st Person 第一人称 I We
 2nd Person 第二人称 You You (all)
 3rd Person 第三人称 He/she/it They

In English, gender and number both play roles in determining what grammatical person is used in a sentence. In Japanese, however, there isn’t a single pronoun that corresponds to each of the pronouns for grammatical person. Meaning, there is more than one word for “I,” “we,” etc. This is because all pronouns in Japanese started out as typical nouns.

 In Japanese, pronouns differ by their politeness, the demographics of the speaker (age, sex, occupation), as well as by to whom one is talking. One’s dialect also plays a major role in pronoun use, and many dialectal pronouns are understood and used heavily on TV, in manga and anime, as well as literature. 

With all that being the case, it really isn’t possible to just learn one word and think that you’re done because you’ll need to understand what is spoken to you as well as choose the right pronoun in any given situation. For the purposes of starting out, we will start out by working with the most essential pronouns and then return to the topic of pronouns in Lesson 90 for more in-depth coverage.

1st Person Pronouns (I) 第一人称

There are three essential pronouns that mean “I”: watashi わたし, watakushi わたくし, boku ぼく. 

Watashi 私: All beginner texts will introduce this word as the basic word for “I.” Without a doubt, it is the best equivalent that Modern Japanese has to offer. However, its overuse is problematic as Japanese speakers themselves hardly use it in sentences. When it does appear, the speaker is usually specifically bringing the focus of conversation on themselves. Overall, female speakers do tend to use it more than men in casual conversation as men prefer using other pronouns in those situations.
PluralWatashitachi 私たち

Watakushi 私: わたくし is the preferred pronunciation of 私 in formal speech as it is the original form of the word. Like first person pronouns in general, it is not used constantly, but it is important to make sure you are pairing it with respectful language. 
PluralWatakushitachi 私※

Boku 僕: This pronoun is becoming the preferred pronoun for men of all ages, but there are situations in which women may be heard using it. The word has very humble origins, and it is actually becoming more commonly heard even in honorific speech (by men only). Although the word is not ‘gendered’ per say, Japanese society does expect the speaker to be male for this word most of the time. 
PluralBokutachi 僕たち

※Without delving into more details, you can add the suffix –tachi たち to make these pronouns plural. As for, watakushitachi 私たち, however, many speakers prefer the plural form watakushidomo 私共 instead. 

2nd & 3rd Person Pronouns 第二人称と第三人称

The most important thing about second and third person pronouns you should know is when not to use them, which is most of the time. Second person is particularly avoided. Although there are many words that mean “you,” they all have special nuances that may be easily overlooked by a beginner. Third person pronouns are no different in having special nuances, but at least there aren’t as many of them.

Anata あなた: This is arguably the only word for “you” that pertains to a beginner. Most natives would not fault you for using it incorrectly, but try only using it when you absolutely do not know the name of the person you are talking to as it is custom in Japan to refer to people in the third person. Even when you are asking questions like “Is this your pen?”, it is more proper to ask, “Is this Kim’s pen?” Learn more about the many other words for “you” in Lesson 90
PluralAnatatachi あなたたち

Kare 彼: This is the Japanese equivalent of “he,” but it is not used as much as its English counterpart because it is custom to refer to people with their actual name and/or title. When it is used, it is often used to mean “boyfriend” instead of “he,” especially in casual conversation. 
PluralKarera 彼ら*

Kanojo 彼女: This is the Japanese equivalent of “she” but it is not used as much as its English counterpart for the same reason 彼 isn’t, the reason being that it may mean “girlfriend” in casual conversation. It is worth noting that both 彼 and 彼女 should be treated as “he” and “she” respectively during polite conversations.

PluralKanojotachi 彼女たち

※For reasons tied to the origins of the word itself, 彼たち is not used for “they.” 彼ら may describe groups of people even if women are included. However, if the group is exclusively composed of women, you should use 彼女たち. 

Pronouns: Places & Things 物体・場所を指す「指示代名詞」

A pronoun that refers to a place or thing is called a demonstrative. In addition to the basic pronouns for person we just learned, you also need to learn the basic demonstrative problems to make basic conversation possible. 

Unfortunately, none of these words are used exactly like their English counterparts either. This means that we will have to revisit this topic to truly grasp them, but for now, the goal is to get you started with the absolute essential words. For these pronouns, the distance between the entity (place/thing) to the speaker is what will determine which word is used.

Close to Speaker Close to Listener/Known to Speaker Only Far from Speaker & Listener/Known to Speaker & Listener
HereThere Over There
 Koko ここ Soko そこAsoko あそこ
 This That  That
 Kore これ Sore それ Are あれ

You may have noticed earlier that “it” was not mentioned. This is because the best equivalent happens to be それ. However, in situations in English where the word “it” would overwhelmingly be chosen, the word is simply dropped upon translating into Japanese. 

When speaking about entities physically visiblethere is a three-way distinction made based on the proximity of the entity from the speaker and listener. An entity may be close to the speaker, close to the listener but not the speaker, or far from both the speaker and the listener(s). When the entity discussed is not physically visiblethere is a two-way distinction made based on who knows about the entity in question. The criterion then becomes whether only the speaker knows about the entity or if both the speaker and listener(s) know about it.

Possessive Pronouns 所有代名詞

As mentioned before, neither nouns nor pronouns conjugate in Japanese, but they do conjugate in English. The most important conjugation that pronouns have in English is the possessive conjugation. For example, the possessive form of “I” is “mine” and its adjective form is “my.” What about in Japanese?

In Japanese, possession is expressed by simply adding the particle no の to a noun or pronoun. That’s it!  

English Japanese English Japanese
My わたしの
わたくしの ぼくの
 Your あなたの Yours あなたの(もの)
 His かれの His かれの(もの)
 Her かのじょの Hers かのじょの(もの)

Mono もの means “thing,” but its presence is not necessary to create possessive pronouns. Most importantly, as was hinted at just a moment ago, the phrases that correspond to possessive adjectives in English also function like adjectives in Japanese, but they need to be placed before another noun. 

Kore-wa watashi-no pen desu.
This is my pen.

The demonstrative pronouns can be used in a similar way, but for this/that/that over there, the final れ is dropped before の but only if these words aren’t completely taking the place of another noun. It’s the difference between “this” and “of this.”

Kono pen-wa kare-no (mono) desu.
This pen is his.

Kore no imi ga wakarimasen.
I don’t know the meaning of this.

In fact, この, その, and あの are not treated as pronouns in Japanese. They are instead referred to as rentaishi 連体詞, which form an odd group of words that are translated as pre-noun adjectival words. They only go before nouns and they cannot undergo any sort of alteration. On the contrary, これの, それの, あれの, ここの, そこの, and あそこの function as typical pronoun phrases. 

We will return to learning about adjectives as well as demonstrative words several times in the near future, so learning all this grammar now isn’t too important. The point trying to be made most of all is that neither nouns nor pronouns conjugate. The conjugations that do exist for them in English get expressed by some sort of suffix or a particle like how we saw the particle の functioning like the word “of.” 

In Conclusion 最後に…

Before we head onto learning about the copula (to be), just remember that your studying of nouns and pronouns isn’t over yet. For now, focus on learning the nouns that can be made with the kanji that you learn and try utilizing Japanese pronouns in your English for lack of better practice until you’re able to form sentences.