Social networking sites are used by almost everyone, regardless of age. With online communication now a major part of our lives, does the way we use language play the same role as it did in the past?

What are ‘role words’?

When watching Japanese anime, manga, or literary works, have you ever been surprised by the many expressions the characters use, which are not covered by Japanese teaching materials? For example, Son Goku from Dragon Ball calls himself オラ (I), but not many Japanese call themselves that. Such expressions are called 役割語(やくわりご) (role words). They are used to describe the character of the speaker.

Originally, it was a language usage that came from a particular region, social class, or occupation. While it is possible in English, for example, to express a person's social class and background through intonation and vocabulary, in Japanese the first person pronouns and choice of sentence endings can express a person's characteristics in more detail, such as gender, age, and occupation.

There are so many different types of first-person in Japanese that even a Japanese linguist cannot fully grasp them, and there are around 70 types available on Wikipedia alone.

The usefulness of ‘role words’ in reality

Do role words only exist in the world of fiction? They are also used in reality. Just as there are expressions that express respect for the other person, such as 尊敬語(そんけいご) (honorific expression) and 謙譲語 (けんじょうご) (humble expression), there are also expressions that are more intimate and casual. For example, parents of young children refer to themselves as パパ(dad) or ママ(mom) and add the sentence endings〜だよ, 〜だね, etc, to make them feel closer to their children. This type of talk does not take place in conversations between adults.

Another traditional communication strategy in Japan is to take advantage of gender stereotypes. For example, LGBT male celebrities use role words such as あたし, 〜よ, and 〜だわ, which are reminiscent of chatty middle-aged women, to soften the intimidation of harsh comments. Female writers sometimes use masculine pen names and role words such as 僕(ぼく), 〜だろ, and 〜かよ, without revealing their identity, to avoid harassment and unfair underestimation.

Most people accept those personalities as false. Do they accept them silently because they are afraid of clarification or confrontation? No. No one is harmed by the lies, so the truth does not need to be stated. In Japan, things that are not sincere and are coated with lies are frowned upon. On the other hand, excessive prying and demands for disclosure of the truth are also known as 野暮(やぼ) (overzealous behavior) and are a form of bad manners. This peculiar sense of justice allows for the retention of ambiguous identities.

Since communication on social networking sites has become mainstream, the act of "retaining a virtual persona in the public eye", such as Vtubers, has become more widely accepted. These are no longer just about avoiding discrimination and prejudice against individuals but are creative activities for their own sake. They are attempts to establish a more familiar and universal status by assuming visuals and settings that are like a common language of the community.

The real world is now more simulation than virtual reality

There is well-known data that wealthy people have one thing in common: they have rich parents. Life in the real world may be predictable to some extent by looking back on the status and deeds of our ancestors. In the metaverse, it is possible to avoid labeling based on physical characteristics or status and maintain a more personal and organic identity. In such an environment, the ability to communicate verbally will play a more important role.

Self-introductions that only aim to convey information, such as "I am an office worker" or "I enjoy yoga", can give the impression of being mechanical and opaque. On the contrary, using such phrases may lead to people being inadvertently categorized.

To express your humanity more richly, try to think about your 言葉遣い(way of using language) that is unique to you. Information such as occupation and hobbies may no longer be the most important things for building real online relationships. By all means, take advantage of the lessons and observe the role words used by native speakers.


Japanese pronouns. (2022, 22 May) in Wikipedia