Jibun: The private self in Japanese discourse

A recent TV commercial for Raku Raku Meisai invoice software shows an employee cheerfully greeting her boss, then watering plants and distributing sweets to her colleagues. The narration follows the boss’ thoughts as he watches her: “These days Yokosawa-san in charge of accounting has become so sweet-tempered. Before she was…” The scene abruptly changes to show Yokosawa-san, with wildly frazzled hair, shrieking, “Invoices! I’m busy! Won’t make it in time! Won’t make it in time! Won’t make it in time! What a hassle!” as she opens envelopes, finally falling over backwards from her chair with papers flying in the air above her. The scene reverts once more to the current Yokosawa-san happily seated at her desk, as the boss says, “Thank you, Raku Raku Meisai!”

Probably almost everyone has felt like Yokosawa-san when faced with frustrating paperwork, and the totality of her transformation makes a compelling argument for the invoice software. But the commercial lacks verisimilitude: There may be a few sullen-faced employees, but no one is having a meltdown in the office. Anything coming even remotely close would most likely be enacted by someone in a position of authority and identified as power harassment. Employees might seethe, but they do so quietly.

More plausible are the scenes depicted in the Netflix anime “Aggretsuko,” or “Aggressive Retsuko,” featuring Retsuko, a cute red panda. Like Yokosawa-san, Retsuko works in accounting and endures much frustration.

However, in Retsuko’s case the vexation remains wholly bottled up beneath a courteous veneer until evening, when she releases it through singing death metal alone in a karaoke box, looking and sounding surprisingly similar to Yokosawa-san in her pre-Raku Raku Meisai days. Retsuko has her own mike, which she carries with her in her handbag, ready for its evening duty of deliverance from all she has sustained in the day.

Both the invoice system TV commercial and the red panda anime express well the aggravation that at least some of the time is part and parcel of life in most workplaces, but which often remains concealed beneath a composed demeanor, particularly in Japan. Such professionalism is admirable and proper, but it’s exhilarating to see the private self in all its glorious emotion portrayed front and center.

The public and private self are distinct in Japan, not just in behavior but linguistically. As anyone with a smattering of Japanese knows, there are a variety of ways to express “I” — watakushi, watashi, atashi, boku and ore, to name the most common — related to gender and formality. But of greater interest is the divide between all of those “I”s of the public self and the “I” of the private self, “jibun.” The public “I” is concerned with interpersonal communicative situations, while the private “I” expresses one’s own consciousness. As the linguists Yoko Hasegawa and Yukio Hirose put it, “jibun” reflects the “naked” self, while the public self “I”s are the “clothes.” Like clothes, public reference to oneself can shift according to the situation, but the naked self remains unchanged.

As an example, Hasegawa and Hirose consider the phrase “the consciousness that I am a genius.” This is normally expressed in Japanese as “jibun wa tensai da to iu ishiki.” Substituting “watashi” for “jibun” sounds strange because the “I” of “watashi” does not have a private consciousness. However, if the “watashi” phrase is embedded in a communicative sentence reporting on the speaker’s consciousness to someone else, it becomes acceptable: “Watashi ga watashi wa tensai da to iu ishiki o motta no wa chodo sono toki deshita.” This means, “It was just at that point in time that I became aware of my genius.” The same sentence beginning instead with “Watashi ga jibun wa…” works equally well, but the experience of self-recognition of genius is characterized as an inward awareness.

Another linguist, Senko Maynard, has made discourse analyses of the interplay between “watashi” and “jibun” in a variety of novels, essays and interviews, and similarly concludes that there is a fundamental difference between what is conveyed by these two different “I”s. In an examination of part of an essay by the writer Hiroyuki Itsuki, Maynard notes that the sentence, “I have thought about suicide twice in my life” employs “watashi.” However, some sentences later, Itsuki writes, “Today, [I] even think it was a good thing that I had those experiences not only once, but twice,” omitting the first “I” and using “jibun” for the second. Maynard suggests the use of “watashi” highlights the “self-identifying, objectified self,” while “jibun” demonstrates a look inward to the “reflexively projected self,” or “the self divided from the self as a locutionary agent.”

Hasegawa and Hirose state the case even more emphatically: “The public self is a social being whose intent is to interact with others, whereas the private self is an individual being with no such intention.” This fascinating linguistic bifurcation of the self doesn’t exist in English, but Japanese speakers switch between the two types of “I” intuitively. It’s yet another super-cool facet of the Japanese language. At least that what “I” think.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.