Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond The Basics
自分 is the Japanese word for "self." The word has an introspective nuance, but it's a pronoun you can use for yourself, and pretty much anyone else, depending on the context. When you use 自分 to refer to someone else other than yourself, 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 as those in English. For example, 自分 is universally used regardless of gender or perspective, unlike the English reflexive pronouns with more distinctions. It's also only used for animate things, like humans and animals.
自分 is grammatically not very different from other Japanese pronouns and nouns in general. Compared to English reflexive pronouns, 自分 has more flexibility in terms of where it can be used, 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 a 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. 自分 can be used in the same way.
- Kyoko believes in herself.
In the English translation, you see that Kyoko is the subject of the sentence, and "herself" refers to Kyoko. As you see here, in Japanese, 自分 is referring to キョーコ, where 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 repetitive phrases 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 use the 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, especially since 彼女 typically means "girlfriend" rather than "she," so 自分 would be the most suitable choice here.
自分で for Things You Do Yourself
Another common way that 自分 is used is when specifying that something is done by a person themself, not someone else. In English, reflexive pronouns have the same effect and are called "intensive pronouns." Now let's take a look at an example.
- Kyoko built a house.
With this sentence alone, it's not clear whether Kyoko hired professionals to build the house (which is what most people would do), or if she actually built the house on her own. But if Kyoko is a super hardcore DIYer and built her own home, it's noteworthy! And, 自分 is the perfect word to use when you want to explain that.
- Kyoko built the house herself.
By using 自分 with the particle で, you can add emphasis on how the action is done by the person. One thing to note here is 自分で doesn't specify whether the action is done only by yourself without anyone else's help or not. To make it clear that something was done by yourself only, you'd want to use 一人で (alone).
- Kyoko built a house all by herself.
自分の for Things of One's Own
With the particle の, 自分 is often used for something that's your own, not someone else's.
In the previous section, we talked about how to say "Kyoko built a house herself." But what if you want to specifically say that the house she built is for herself, not say, a house for her pet hamster? Building a hamster house is still very 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-sized house for herself.
- Kyoko built her own house by herself.
Attaching の to turn 自分 into the possessive form like this, you specify that the house is Kyoko's house.
自分 For "Yourself" in General
自分 can also be used as "oneself" for an unspecified person or for unspecified people. This is often seen in general sayings and expressions when you are not talking about a particular person but are referring to 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 that 自分 works even if there's nothing to echo back to in the sentence. This is because sentence components, especially the subject, often get omitted in Japanese depending on the context, so it's not rare to see 自分 and without specifying who it's referring 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"). For example, let's say you are talking about your friend Kyoko, who seems to be too busy to help others. You may 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, you know she is busy working on her hardcore DIY projects, what did you expect?
What 自分 Can Refer To
Although 自分 usually refers to the subject or the topic of a sentence, sometimes what it refers to is unclear 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, 自分 can refer to a subject in a different clause.
- Mami was saying that Kanae blames 自分.
In English, who Kanae is blaming or who 自分 refers to, could only be Kanae. However, in Japanese, it's unclear who 自分 is — it could refer to Kanae, or even Mami, despite the mention of Mami being far away in a separate clause.
Now, let's say your friend asks you why Mami is crying. The exchange could look something like:
- Your friend: マミは何で泣いてるの？
- Your friend: Why is Mami crying?
You: She said that Kanae blames 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 who you and your friend are talking about, it's very possible it could be about her.
自分 as a 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 or athletic community, which have strong hierarchies. It is also considered to be relatively gender-neutral. For more details, check out our first-person pronoun article.
In addition to using 自分 in first-person contexts, in the Kansai area dialect, 自分 also gets used in second-person (referring to your listener) contexts.
- What are you doing?
This use carries a "caring" nuance, as if you're approaching someone while trying to step into their shoes.
Grammatically-speaking, 自分 is not any different from nouns. That means you can modify 自分 with an adjective or a 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.
- I'm going on a trip to find my true self.
It's also common to modify 自分 with a clause.
- I am disappointed by my confession-lacking-self.
- We filed a visa application ourselves.
- It's got nothing to do with us.
Idiomatic Expressions Using 自分 As "Identity"
Since 自分 is an introspective word meaning "self," it could also mean "identity" in some contexts. There are some idiomatic expressions using 自分, as a word for identity. Here are a few 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)