Me, myself and I... and moi, darling
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.