The Japanese symbol for 'I' (as in, referring to yourself) is 私. It's always written in the same way, but it has several pronunciations. You can use any of these:
Of those options, 'watakushi' and 'atakushi' are the most formal and 'ate' or 'atai' would be the most casual.
When I'm speaking, I tend to use 'atashi'. It's a little softer than starting with the 'w', and I've been told that it sounds more feminine.
(My previous, oblivious use of 'manly' Japanese is a whole other blog post.)
I've made a concerted effort to speak with 'female' words - no 'ore' or 'boku' for me. So I say 'atashi wa ne...' this and 'ah, demo atashi...' that, and I get by without anyone offering me an English version of the menu or a can of Lynx bodyspray.
Or so I thought.
I was talking to a Japanese friend recently, and he asked me how I got into the habit of dropping the 'w'.
He explained to me that, yes, 'atashi' is seen as a feminine way to say 'I'... but it's a VERY feminine way. More than I was going for.
To the point that I should be toting one of those classic film noir cigarette holders and tossing my long, auburn curls away from my face as I let out a coy giggle.
Reader, I turned crimson.
Nobody has ever called me out on my use of 'atashi' before. Ever.
This is because, as soon as the word leaves my mouth, it's a clear sign to the listener that I'm more than a textbook-trained Japanese speaker. It implies a higher level of language ability, like someone from Europe greeting people as 'me old mucker'.
Opting for 'atashi' shows that I took the trouble to research the language to a greater degree than your average tourist would. The thing is, it sounds like I did that by visiting Shinjuku's notorious 2-chome district, which is to Tokyo as Soho is to London. Eek.
Initially, I was mortified at the mistake. But after discussing it some more, I've decided to embrace the slang and stick with 'atashi'. And to invest in a cigarette holder for my next holiday.