Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond The Basics
自分 is a Japanese word for "self." The nuance of the word is introspective, but it's a pronoun you can use for yourself, and pretty much anyone-self, depending on the context. When you use 自分 to refer to someone else but you, it's as if you are telling a story from their point of view as a surrogate speaker.
自分 is often compared to English reflexive pronouns like "myself," "yourself," "himself," "herself," and so on. However, that doesn't mean they are used in the same way or always have the same meaning. For example, 自分 is universally used regardless of gender or perspective, unlike the English reflexive pronouns with variety. It's also only used for animate things, like humans and animals.
自分 is grammatically not so different from other Japanese pronouns and nouns in general. Compared to English reflexive pronouns, 自分 has more flexibility of where it can be, what it can refer to, or how it's translated. To understand what 自分 really is, it's best to learn from actual examples, so keep reading to find out more!
自分 As Reflexive Pronoun
Let's start with something similar to English and something you're more familiar with. As mentioned earlier, 自分 can be used like English reflexive pronouns — the words ending in "-self" such as "myself" or "herself." In English, reflexive pronouns are used as objects most of the time, echoing back the sentence's subject. And 自分 can be used in the same way.
- Kyoko believes herself.
In the English translation, you see that Kyoko is the subject of the sentence, and "herself" is referring to Kyoko. Just like that, in Japanese, 自分 is referring to キョーコ — 自分 is used as the object, echoing the subject.
自分 is also frequently used as a pronoun to avoid repetition.
- Kyoko thinks she's right.
Technically, you could be repetitive and say キョーコはキョーコが正しいと思っている. Even though it feels redundant, it's grammatically okay to do so. You may even hear phrases repetitive like this in spoken Japanese, especially when emphasizing that Kyoko thinks Kyoko is the right one! However, especially in writing, it's common to use 自分 instead to avoid redundancy.
You might also wonder, "Why not using a third-person pronoun 彼女 (she) just like we do in English?" In Japanese, using third-person pronouns is not as common as in English either, especially 彼女 usually means "girlfriend" rather than "she" so 自分 would be the most proper choice here.
自分で For Things You Do Yourself
One of the common uses of 自分 is to specify that something is done by the person themselves, not someone else. The English reflexive pronouns have the same effect, which is called "Intensive pronouns." Now let's take a look at an example.
- Kyoko built a house.
With this sentence alone, it's not clear that Kyoko hired professionals to build a house (which is what most people would do) or she actually built a house on her own. But if Kyoko is a super hardcore DIYer and built her own home, it's noteworthy! And, 自分 is a perfect word to use when you want to explain that.
- Kyoko built a house herself.
Just like this, using 自分 with the particle で, you can add an emphasis that an action is done by the person. One thing to note here is 自分で doesn't specify whether the action is done yourself (you might've done it with someone else's help) or something is done by yourself (you did it on your own, without anyone else's help). To make it clear something is done by yourself, you would want to use 一人で (alone).
- Kyoko built a house by herself.
自分の For Things of Your Own
With particle の, 自分 is often used for things of your own, not something else's.
In the previous section, we talked about how to say "Kyoko built a house herself." But what if you wanted to specifically say that the house she built is for herself, not her pet hamster? Building a hamster house is still impressive, but not as cool as her building her own home!
We can use 自分 (again) to make sure that we explain that Kyoko impressively built a human house for herself.
- Kyoko built her own house herself.
Attaching の to turn 自分 into the possessive form like this, you can specify that the house is Kyoko's house.
自分 For General "Yourself"
自分 can also be used as "yourself" for an unspecified person or unspecified people. This is often seen in general sayings and expressions when you are not talking about a particular person but talk about people in general and themselves.
- Believe in yourself.
- What you've done comes back to you.
Beyond The Basics
自分 Without Subject
You might've noticed from previous examples, but 自分 works even if there's nothing to echo back in the sentence. This is because sentence components, especially subject, often gets omitted in Japanese depending on the context, so it's not rare that you see 自分 and you don't see what it refers to. 👻
For example, when someone says something like:
- I lack confidence in myself.
You can usually assume that the subject is the person who said it even if they did not explicitly say 私は ("I" or "as for me"). Or, if you are talking about your friend Kyoko, who seems to be too busy to help others. You can say something like:
- She seems occupied with her own business.
You know that it's a "she" aka Kyoko that 自分 refers to because she is the topic of your conversation. And I mean, of course, she is too busy with her hardcore DIY projects — What do you expect?
What 自分 Can Refer To
Although 自分 usually refers to the subject or the topic of sentences, what refers to is sometimes not clear in complex sentences with multiple perspectives. Or, sometimes, it just depends on the context.
Although reflexive pronouns only refer back to a word within the same clause in English, for example, 自分 can refer to the subject in a different clause.
- Mami was saying that Kanae is blaming 自分.
In English, whom Kanae is blaming or whom 自分 refers to, could only be Kanae. However, in Japanese, it's unclear what 自分 refers to — It could refer to Kanae, or even Mami, though the mention of Mami is far away in a separate clause.
Now, let's say your friend asks you why Mami is crying. The exchange can look something like:
- Your friend: マミは何で泣いてるの？
- Your friend: Why is Mami crying?
You: She was saying that Kanae is blaming 自分.
And even in this case, 自分 can still refer to either Mami or Kanae. Mami is even in a separate sentence, but in this context where Mami is whom you and your friend are talking about, it's very possible.
自分 as Personal Pronoun
自分 is also used in the first-person or second-person perspectives just like a personal pronoun.
Here's an example of 自分 when it's used in the first-person.
- I think so too.
Compared to other first-person pronouns, the nuance of 自分 is introspective, and it's often associated with the military/athletic community with a strong hierarchy. It is also considered to be relatively gender-neutral. For more details, check out our first-person pronoun article.
In addition to being used in the first-peron, in the Kansai dialect, 自分 also gets used in the second-person (referring to your listener).
- What are you doing?
This use carries the nuance of "caring" as if approaching someone while trying to wear their shoes.
Grammatically-speaking, 自分 is nothing different from nouns. That means you can modify 自分 with an adjective or clause.
Here are a couple examples of 自分 being modified with adjectives — シャイな (shy) and 本当の (true).
- My shy-self can't sing karaoke.
- Going on a trip to find true self.
It's also common to modify 自分 with a clause.
- I am disappointed by myself who couldn't confess.
- We filed a visa application ourselves.
- It's nothing to do with us.
Idiomatic Expressions Using 自分 As "Identity"
Since 自分 is an introspective word meaning "self," it could mean "identity." And there are idiomatic expressions using 自分, as a word for identity. Here are some examples to give you an idea.
- Suppressing one's self
(Literally: Killing one's identity)
- Being self-assured
(Literally: Having one's identity)
- Feeling lost
(Literally: Losing one's identity)