In Modern Japanese there are two 3rd person pronouns that correspond to the Western mode of masculine and feminine ones, namely:

彼 (kare, “he”) and 彼女 (kanojo, “she”). For “it” there is もの (者・物, mono), using two distinct kanji, the former for persons and the latter for objects or non-humans. There is also 人 (hito, “person”), which is more polite than the colder tone of “mono”, which needs context to disambiguate.

When dealing in politer registers: 方 (kata, “personage”), there are also archaic if also highly formal options such as 御方 (okata, “esteemed personage”) and 御仁 (gojin, “esteemed personage”), both of these are gender-neutral, though the last one is considerably old fashioned, only ever appearing in period works such as jidai-geki, drama set during the Warring States period.

Etymologically speaking kare used to be gender-neutral, as late as the 1920s, where the emergence of kanojo (“she”) was a product of the Meiji Era’s intelligentsia’s infatuation with the western mode of thinking and hence wanting to apply a different frame of linguistics to Japanese, hence the invention of to fit with Indo-European languages that had these distinctions.

One translation of Don Quixote dated 1921, has this example, where a group of women in a brothel cannot stop snickering at the elderly knight’s raggedy attire and tushery:

その女たちは、そんな男が甲胄に身を堅め圓楯を拒って近寄って来るのを見て、ぶっくり仰天して旅籠屋の中へ引っこみかけた。ドン・キホーテは彼等が遁げるの見て (…)

Sono onna-tachi wa, sonna otoko ga kacchuu ni mi o katame enjun wo totte chikayotte kuru no o mite, pukkuri gyouten shite hatagoya no naka e hekkomi kaketa. Don Kihôte wa karera ga nigeru no mite (…)

“The women, when they saw this man clad in armour and grasping his stiff buckler nearing them, they all drew back to in amazement to the middle of the tavern. Don Quixote noticed that they (= the women) were withdrawing (…)

First introduced using a pluralisation of the noun 女 (onna“woman”) using 達 (tachi), a generic plural suffix, and then thereafter in the next sentence with 彼等(karera, “they”), which here could as well refer to any man or woman within the tavern itself, including Quixote, but the prior context suggests that it is the women. In modern Japanese this would nearly always purely be the third person masculine plural rather than a gender neutral one, where the feminine plural would be 彼女達 (kanojo-tachi, lit. “those women”).

In Old Japanese かれ (kare) signified the long-form* of the pronominal root ka which existed in other combinations such as かの (kano, “yonder, that one over there”) though literally the genitive mode of it, and we even see a remnant of this in 彼方 (kanata, “yonder, over there, distant thing”, lit. “that direction”), which is still used today with no hints of archaism.

At some point かれ got assigned the kanji 彼 from the Middle Chinese /pˠiᴇX/ (“that”), which corresponds to the kanji’s on-yomi, Chinese derived reading, hi. Its meaning in Modern Chinese is still that of a gender-neutral 3rdperson pronominal, i.e. “he, she, it” and thus the 3rdperson singular “they”.

In Modern Japanese, you see kare and kanojo being used as slang for “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”, respectively. 彼氏 (kareshi, “boyfriend”, lit. “Mister Him”) is also used as a word for boyfriend albeit less in slang.


*The previously mentioned ‘long form’ corresponds to other Old Japanese pronouns such as われ (我・吾, “I, we”) and なれ (汝・爾, “thou”), with the pluralised forms われら (warera) and なれら (narera), as well as genitive わが (waga) and なが (naga).