In Japanese and Korean (and I have to assume the Okinawan / Ryukyuan languages also), pronouns are quite different from most other languages from most families in at least two ways I can think of:

  • Not quite a closed word class.
    Pronouns have come and gone over history, whereas in most language families pronouns are amongst the most conservative words.
  • Behave in many ways more like nouns than like a separate special word class.
  • (There are also many honorific / humble / polite pronouns, but this seems minor in comparison to the above points. It could however be part of the reason for the above points though.)
  • May their malleability be a social/cultural artifact? These special "I" words used only by the emperor, by nobles, by peasants addressing a superior... Japanese and Chinese have had them, plus the special "I" used only for samuries... of these, I believe some were artificial compounds created ex-professo – Joe Pineda Mar 24 '14 at 13:15
  • In virtually all languages pronouns behave like nouns, with special affordances because they're part of the grammar. And pronouns change with time, too; English used to have thou, thee, and ye, but doesn't any more. As for open pronoun classes, Malay has a very open class of pronouns. – jlawler Mar 24 '14 at 16:57
  • @jlawler: Yes both nouns and pronouns are nominals but in Japanese the pronouns are even closer to normal nouns than in other languages. I did have the feeling that many Asian languages also had relatively open pronoun classes too, but not confident enough to say so when I posted the question. – hippietrail Mar 25 '14 at 5:10

This was too long for a comment, and I think it starts to go towards an answer, so I've posted it as such.

Assumptions are, as I'm sure you're aware, often problematic. Modern Japanese, and to a lesser extent, Late Middle Japanese, are the odd men out when it comes to pronouns in Japonic languages. Old Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages have pronominal systems that do not really resemble their sister language.

Okinawan has what might be called a three dimensional pronominal system. First, there is a two-way distinction between non-polite and polite forms. Second, a four-way person distinction (first, second, third, and indefinite persons). And third, a two-way plurality contrast (singular and plural). This description is from Kinjou (1974)'s grammar of Naha dialect Okinawan.

All non-first person pronouns show the contrast between polite and non-polite forms. For instance, the non-polite form of the second person singular pronoun is 'yaa [ʔjaː], while the polite form is either 'unzu [ʔun.dʑu] or naa [naː]. Excluding the second person naa, all other polite pronouns are formed in an entirely regular way, by adding the contracted form of the attributive copula =n (uncontracted nu, homophonous in both forms with the genitive case clitic =nu) to the bare pronoun, along with a contracted form of the word tchu [ttɕu] 'person'. So the second person form given above, 'unzu, is from pre-Okinawan *uri nu ttchu, literally 'the person who is you'.

Plurality is similarly formed in a very regular fashion. The plural suffix -taa [taː] is added on to pronouns. Curiously, the pronouns lose any vowel length they may have had, and the intiial t- in the suffix geminates. So for instance, the first person singular pronoun is waa (in some morphophonological contexts, wan), while the plural is wattaa.

Person is interesting, because only the first and second person pronouns are not polysemous with some other function. The third person pronouns, for instance, are simply the demonstratives. Okinawan has a three-way contrast, between proximal, mesial, and distal, and speakers retain this even in their pronominal usages. So kuri is not only 'he/she', but 'he/she near me', and you can also have uri 'he/she near you', or even ari 'he/she near neither of us'. The indefinite person, taa doubles as the wh-word 'who'.

The Old Japanese pronominal system is even simpler than this, and is detailed in Vovin (2005)'s grammar of Western Old Japanese, as well as in Kupchik (2011)'s dissertation on the grammar of the various Eastern Old Japanese dialects.

So what does all this mean for your question? Well, I think Joe Pineda touched on this in his comment. It seems that the particular social circumstances of late medieval and early modern Japan radically altered the pronominal system into a very unusual form. However, it's not that unusual. The pronominal systems of many of the languages of Southeast Asia, like Vietnamese or Thai are usually held up as examples of extremely open (in the sense of an open class) pronominal systems. However, I wonder if it's even really the case that these words are pronouns anymore?

In any case, I think there are good arguments to be made that Japanese pronouns really are a special subclass of nominals (pronouns) that just happen to be less diachronically stable than, say, pronouns found in most other languages. See Ishiyama 2008 for more extensive arguments about this, but in summary, they don't exactly behave, morphosyntactically, like "regular" nouns (although they are much more noun-like than English pronouns); they are really not that open (you can't just go adding more to them at will); and they have very limited, but very pronoun-like, semantic content.


there is ongoing research by a UCLA graduate student (Jun Yashima) that suggests that Modern Japanese "pronouns" are in fact more like epithets in many of their properties (consistent with limetom's answer that that are more nominal than pronominal), and Yashima shows this with various syntactic and semantic tests.

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