When ‘You’ is Askew: Analyzing the Ambiguities of ‘Anata’

A website that provides advice to Japanese learners describes “anata” as “the most dangerous word in Japanese.” Another has a post titled, “Don’t you dare call me anata!!!” Further along, the same post decries the word as “useless.” Surely this is language-instruction hyperbole, aiming to trigger interest in a quotidian issue? Maybe not. As befitting an academic, linguist Yoko Yonezawa is a bit less dramatic yet nevertheless quietly intense in facing this fiddly second-person pronoun, titling her book “The Mysterious Address Term anata ‘you’ in Japanese.”

Anata is the lexical equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously polite and rude, distant and intimate. Or perhaps it is a shape-shifting superhero, a thought that struck me when I finished reading Yonezawa’s book with a heightened respect for all the roles this very special and quirky “you” fulfills. It’s certainly not useless, but its superpower may not be for everyone.

Yonezawa has made a comprehensive study of anata, based on a survey of ordinary Japanese people, as well as a review of its history, use in TV dramas and parliamentary debates, and periodic guidance related to its use from policymakers. Patterns of usage emerge, revealing that anata can convey a variety of attitudes, well beyond signaling “you, the person in front of me.”

Yonezawa asked 428 Japanese people ranging in age from their teens to their 60s about their sense of whether anata could be used to a social superior, a social inferior and an equal. Virtually no one used it toward a social superior, with “not at all” response rates in each age group ranging from 91% to 95%. But those in their teens and 20s had the highest rates of responding that it depends on the situation, with a frequency of 8% and 9%, respectively. A common scenario of anata use to superiors in these age groups was toward parents or teachers when annoyed by them. Anata marked the speaker’s flouting of social convention to express an antagonistic stance. In this sense, unwitting use by a Japanese learner could be “dangerous.” Interestingly, 88% of all respondents felt that using anata to a teacher or boss was “rude” but only 56% said it was “rude” toward parents, instead indicating it was too distant or official-sounding.

Use of anata to a social inferior was somewhat more likely across all age groups, but with much more potential use by older groups. Forty-four percent of those in their 60s responded “it depends” or “always,” 43% of people in their 50s, and 41% of the respondents in their 40s. The least likely to use anata to inferiors were people in their 20s, whose response rate for “it depends” or “always” was just 17%, followed by those in their teens at 21%, and people in their 30s with a frequency of 27%. A typical situation for use of anata to an inferior was when giving advice. Yonezawa suggests that the distance-creating function of anata serves counsel-bestowing circumstances by marking the occasion as special, as if to announce a “pay-attention mode.” Only 25% of people overall felt that anata to an inferior was “rude,” but some cautioned it could sound arrogant.

Among equals, anata was potentially used slightly more than toward inferiors, with 63% overall responding “not at all” compared to an overall frequency of 68% indicating no use toward an inferior. The biggest frequency differences were among those in their teens and 20s, who answered “it depends” 36% and 23%, respectively. Among those in their 60s, 10% responded they always use anata to equals. The two younger age groups noted that anata was used to rib an interlocutor. The “a-word” could be a means to communicate that anything said in mockery was not to be taken to heart, in a kind of “this doesn’t count because you’re anata now, not your regular self” way.

For those in their 60s who use anata, it may simply be a friendly, egalitarian term. Yonezawa draws attention to the use of it by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi on her popular TV talk show “Tetsuko’s Room,” which viewers experience as affable rather than formal. In fact, in 1952 the National Language Council of Japan proposed anata’s use as a standard address by anybody to anybody, in an effort to create a new, forward-looking Japan. Clearly, this did not catch on. Instead, varying pockets of anata use emerged — specific and sometimes conflicting.

According to Yonezawa’s research, in parliamentary debates, 68% of the uses of anata were in situations in which the speaker knew the addressee’s name and position. For example, a politician addressing the prime minister. In such cases, anata was used to express scorn, refusing the courtesy implied by use of the title or name. At the same time, in other situations anata can be used to focus on another’s core self in a manner far from derisive. Yonezawa refers to a dialogue from Nippon Television’s popular 2011 drama “I’m Mita, Your Housekeeper.” On Mita’s last day with the family, the father, who has naturally referred to her as Mita-san throughout the drama, gives a farewell speech in which he refers to the housekeeper as “anata” three times, divesting Mita-san of the social role she has fulfilled in order to convey his heartfelt message.

So, what is “anata”? Rude, arrogant, momentous, teasing, approachable, formal, disparaging or heartfelt? In an understated conclusion, Yonezawa writes that it has “aspects of language use which are far more dynamic than the model of prescriptive norms suggests.” Facets of the mystery have been explicated, but it can never quite be solved.

Kate Elwood

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