If you’ve watched a significant amount of anime, you’ve probably encountered them- characters who refer to themselves in the third person. Why do they talk like this? Is this something that happens in real life? Join me on a journey through cultural linguistics and self discovery as we attempt to answer this pressing question.
What do I mean when I say “refer to themselves in the third person?” An example:
John: “What do you want to eat?”
Sam: “Sam doesn’t know. Sam isn’t really hungry.”
Even though Sam is talking about themselves, they don’t use the pronoun “I,” instead referring to themselves by their own name. If someone were to do this in English, we would probably think they were crazy. And yet, many anime characters talk like this.
That’s not to say, however, that all anime characters do this. Let’s take a look at a short example video:
As you can see, the only character who referred to herself in the third person was the purple-haired girl, Yamada. As many of you are probably aware, anime has a history of cute (often female) characters referring to themselves in the same style as Yamada does in the video.
The first question we have to answer to solve this conundrum is: do Japanese people actually talk like this? When?
In answer, yes, they do. It’s not extremely common, but people will refer to themselves in the third person in Japanese. Because the stereotype is that the most common type of person who talks in the third person is generally girls, some argue that the purpose of talking in the third person is to sound cute. This is evidenced in anime, where most of the characters who talk about themselves in the third person are cute characters such as Yamada.
The reason the third person is perceived as more cute is because lots of little kids in Japan will talk about themselves in the third person, including my own host sister when I studied abroad. As the argument goes, adult women who want to appear more cute will talk in the third person because it sounds kind of like a cute child (the discussion of infantalization of adults being considered attractive is for another day).
However, this argument fails to answer to important questions:
- Why do other people (such as my 73 year-old host father from Hokkaido) refer to themselves in the third person?
- Why do Japanese children do this in the first place?
To answer these questions, we will have to dig deeper.
The reason children whose native language is Japanese refer to themselves in the third person begins with a couple of fundamental linguistic differences between Japanese and English.
Firstly, in English, switching from first person to third person requires the speaker to further alter other parts of the sentence, such as verbs. For example:
I want to eat ice cream.
Sam wants to eat ice cream.
As you can see, when we change the pronoun at the beginning, the verb also must be changed. In Japanese, this is not necessary. No matter what preposition/name we use, the rest of the sentence will not change. For Japanese learners, here are the same two sentences in Japanese:
私はアイスクリームが食べたい。watashi wa aisukuriimu ga tabetai.
サムはアイスクリームが食べたい。samu wa aisukuriimu ga tabetai.
The verb in both sentences remains the same. In other words, as far as Japanese grammar is concerned, one can freely switch between a first person pronoun and a third person pronoun without altering the sentence in any other way. This makes it easy for children still learning the rules of Japanese grammar to substitute their own name in place of a first person pronoun.
But why do they choose to use their own name instead of a first person pronoun? This is where we get into cultural linguistics, the study of how linguistics affect cultural perception of the world.
As you may know, in Japanese there is not just one pronoun that means “I.” Fans of anime have likely heard a variety of words, such as “watashi,” “boku,” or “ore” that are all translated into English as “I.” In other words, there are a several different ways to refer to yourself in the first person that you can choose to use depending on the situation. For a funny verbalization of just how many pronouns there are, check out the above video around the 0:39 mark.
At the risk of oversimplification, a speaker of Japanese chooses which pronouns to use based on their relationship with the person that they are speaking to. If you are speaking to your boss, you will probably be more inclined to use “watashi.” If you are a male speaking to your friends, you are more likely to use “ore,” and so on.
This seems relatively straightforward, but it’s important to consider the psychological implications of such a difference. As one Japanese linguist described it, although English speakers have a pre-defined definition of themselves in the pronoun “I,” Japanese speakers’ self-identification is not predetermined and is created in connection to the speakers’ relationship with those around them. No matter who I am talking to, I am “I.” But in Japanese, depending on who I am talking to, I might be “watashi” or “ore” or a variety of other pronouns. The very word I use to identify myself in speech varies.
Because of the large number of first person pronouns (the ones I’ve listed only scratch the surface of the possibilities), the line between what is acceptable to refer to oneself as is much more blurred in Japanese than it is in English. For example, my host father in Nagoya would refer to himself as “papa” when we were talking together in the same room as his children (“Papa can help you with your homework!”). However, when we were outside of the house doing an activity together without his children, he would refer to himself as “boku” (“Boku [I] want to stop by the library.”). His self-identification as reflected by his pronoun selection changed from “papa,” which reflected his role as his children’s father, to “boku,” which reflected his more casual friendship with a fellow adult. You also might have noticed that “papa” is less a first person pronoun and more a third person noun. Even my adult host father would refer to himself in the third person in some situations.
Similar to my host father, my host sister would often refer to herself in the third person around her family. One theory as to why children do this is because they are affirming their identity in their family by using the title that their older family members refer to them as. Whether or not this is the whole story is up for debate, but it is clear that Japanese pronouns are much more flexible than English and allow for this sort of wiggle room.
In short, third person pronouns are used in Japanese by a variety of different people depending on the situation. Linguistic self-identification in Japanese is relative to your relationship with the people you are conversing with. Furthermore, because grammatically Japanese sentences don’t change regardless of whether you speak in the first or third person, it is easy for people to switch between the two.
It is true that children often use third person pronouns. This is also likely the reason that anime characters sometimes use third person pronouns. Characters that do so have a more child-like speaking pattern, and are thus cuter. However, the story as to why third person pronouns are so commonly used in the Japanese language is clearly far more complex than meets the eye.
I’m Protonstorm, and this is my series about Japanese culture, Positive in Japan. I have previously studied in intensive Japanese language programs in Hokkaido, Kyoto and Nagoya. For more articles on all things Japan, be sure to check out AniTAY, Kotaku’s reader-run anime blog. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. Click here to check us out.