About a hundred years before China's factories brought us the first iPhone, Japan's authors started experimenting with the I-Novel — a realistic, confessional genre written in the first-person and based on the writer's real-life experience. The word "I" then became a favorite in Japanese fiction literature as a whole, bringing narrators into the plot in a way that was both a novelty and a perfect fit to the local tradition of storytelling.
But the simple act of saying "I" is, well, anything but simple in Japanese. This makes the I-Novel far less straightforward that it seems, because the first thing the author needs to decide is: which "I" should it be?
This can become an issue for us readers, too. Take a look at the first sentence in the famous novel Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (夏目漱石), whose opening passage is featured in the new Reajer Selections book 6:
I always used to call him Sensei.
The novel's very first word, 私, is read わたくし and not わたし. By now we have gotten used to thinking of わたし as the default reading of 私, but わたし is originally nothing more than a shortened (and therefore less "correct") form of わたくし, which is now reserved to very formal contexts.
In fact, わたくし used to be the only officially recognized jōyō kanji pronunciation of 私 until the latest revision of the jōyō list, when the ubiquitous わたし was added too. By the way, the Japanese term for I-Novel, 私小説, can be read either as ししょうせつ or わたくししょうせつ. Not a わたし in sight here!
But this is only the beginning of the many "I" pronouns that hide inside the kanji 私: there's a whole list of words that are derived from or related to わたくし, and they can all be written as 私. Some of them are common while others are rare or historical, but each of them has a distinct function as a first-person pronoun. So let's go over them briefly and see what they're good for.
A slightly less formal version of わたくし, used by women.
Derived from わたし. Now an exclusively feminine pronoun, but historically used by both sexes.
A further contraction of あたし. Traditionally used by women and children in the working-class districts of Tokyo.
A masculine pronoun, especially associated with craftsmen.
Used by working-class women in the Kyoto-Osaka region.
Used by both sexes in the Kyoto-Osaka region.
Used by elder men. This has become one of the stock words in manga, movies, etc., and is commonly assigned to "old man" characters.
Used in familiar contexts by women and children in the working-class districts of Tokyo.
Often used by Edo-period prostitutes. Related variants include わっち and わっし.
Similar to あて. Historically used in the Kansai region by both sexes. Originally a female pronoun.
Used in medieval times by samurai-class girls. Also written 妾.
Quite a list, isn't it? All of these pronouns can be written as 私, although in practice, this character will almost always be read as either わたし or わたくし, with any other pronoun indicated in furigana where applicable.
The most common pronouns among those listed here are わたくし, あたくし, わたし, あたし, and わし; if you spot any of the others, it means you're reading an advanced text!
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