First-Person Pronouns and Discursive Characterisation in Science Fiction Anime

First-Person Pronouns and Discursive Characterisation in Science Fiction Anime

By Kelvin Lee

Like a number of other languages, Japanese is a language with numerous pronouns. These do not vary according to the grammatical role of the referent/s (e.g. subject, object, etc.) such as I, my, me, mine, and myself in English. Instead, the variety of pronouns function to index social meanings such as broad sociodemographic (e.g. gender identity) and individual traits (e.g. personality).

For my PhD thesis, I decided to investigate how the indexical meanings associated with Japanese first-person pronouns (1PPs) in the real world are recontextualised in the dialogue of five Japanese animated (or anime) television series to construct characters and convey aspects of their identity. Specifically, I examined the use of the five most frequent 1PPs (ore, watashi, boku, ware, and atashi) in the newly constructed corpus of Science Fiction Anime dialogue (i.e. the SciFAn corpus), which is comprised of five sci-fi anime series: Kōdo Giasu: Hangyaku no Rurūshu (English title: Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, 2006–2007), Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999), Gintama (2006–2010), Kiseijū Sei no Kakuritsu (English title: Parasyte: The Maxim, 2014–2015), and Steins;Gate (2011).

Drawing primarily on a sociolinguistic framework (i.e. by examining 1PP use through the lens of indexicality) in conjunction with corpus linguistic methodologies and qualitative scene-based analysis, I found that different salient aspects of a character can be understood from the use of the focus 1PPs in the character’s dialogue.

Since gender is the social meaning most commonly noted in the literature as indexed being by 1PP choice (e.g. Brown & Cheek, 2017; Ide, 1979; SturtzSreetharan, 2006), I started my analysis by examining the extent to which the gender indexicalities of 1PP use in the SciFAn corpus align with those found (mostly) in the real-world. Using SPSS, I conducted statistical analyses on the normalised frequencies of 1PP use between the three gender groups that were identified in the data (i.e. female, male, and non-binary). The results showed that gender difference in 1PP use is only significant for three of the five most frequent 1PPs (i.e. ore, watashi, and atashi) but not the other two (i.e. boku and ware).

The significant gender differences in use of ore and atashi align with the strong gender indexical associations of these 1PPs (i.e. ore with ‘masculinity’, atashi with ‘femininity’). The results for watashi align with the ‘feminine’ gender indexical association (e.g. Brown & Cheek, 2017; Ono & Thompson, 2003), as opposed to the gender-neutral indexical association proposed by some studies (e.g. Hiramoto, 2012, 2013).

The non-significant results for boku and ware yielded by this quantitative analysis suggest indexical associations with gender neutrality in the data, which do not align with the indexical associations between the use of these 1PPs and ‘masculinity’ identified in previous studies (e.g. SturtzSreetharan, 2006; Whitman, 1999). However, further qualitative analysis of the female and non-binary characters who use boku revealed that these characters are using boku as part of their performance of ‘masculinity’ and thus, there is still an indexical association between the use of the 1PP with ‘masculinity’ in the data. In contrast, the findings from the qualitative analysis would suggest that the prevalent gender classification of ware as a ‘masculine’ pronoun warrants re-examination and reconsideration (in further research).

Overall, the findings regarding boku and ware suggest some degree of creative uses by the scriptwriters whereby the gender indexicalities of these 1PPs are recontextualised to construct sci-fi characters with different gender identities (including agender extra-terrestrial body snatchers from Kiseijū) and/or those in ‘unique’ narratives (e.g. a character’s change in biological sex and gender identity through different timelines in Steins;Gate).

Building on the analysis of gender-based indexicalities, I also examined other indexical meanings (e.g. age, stereotypes, and personality traits) as well as the use of multiple 1PPs (i.e. shifts between the use of two or more of the five focus 1PPs) by individual characters. You can read about these analyses and findings in my PhD thesis.


Brown, L., & Cheek, E. (2017). Gender identity in a second language: The use of first person pronouns by male learners of Japanese. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 16(2), 94–108.

Hiramoto, M. (2012). Anime and intertextualities: Hegemonic identities in Cowboy Bebop. In M. Hiramoto (Ed.), Media Intertextualities (pp. 57–80). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Hiramoto, M. (2013). Hey, you’re a girl? Gendered expressions in the popular Japanese anime, Cowboy Bebop. Multilingua, 32(1), 51–78.

Ide, S. (1979). A sociolinguistic analysis of person references by Japanese and American children. Language Sciences, 1(2), 272–293.

Ono, T., & Thompson, S. A. (2003). Japanese (w)atashi/ore/boku ‘I’: They’re not just pronouns. Cognitive Linguistics, 14(4), 321–347.

SturtzSreetharan, C. L. (2009). Ore and omae: Japanese men’s uses of first- and second-person pronouns. Pragmatics, 19(2), 253–278.

Whitman, J. (1999). Personal pronoun shift in Japanese: A case study in lexical change and point of view. In A. Kamio & K. Takami (Eds), Function and Structure (pp. 357–386). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Kelvin Lee recently completed a PhD in Japanese Studies at The University of Sydney. His broad research interests include sociolinguistics, language and identity, and mixed-methods research.
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