In this article, we will learn how to use "what," "why" and how in Japanese. However, before we do, let’s go over a few important points about the differences between the basic particles.
A quick review of Japanese particles
The は (wa) particle
This is the “topic marker” particle. It’s role in the sentence is to indicate what the topic is.
- Kyou WA kurisumasu desu (japanese how to: read)
- It's Christmas today (literally: as for today, it is Christmas).
The が (ga) particle
This is the “subject marker” particle. It’s role in the sentence is to indicate what the subject is.
- Iie, ashita GA kurisumasu desu yo (japanese how to: read)
- No, tomorrow is Christmas.
Note: To learn more about the differences between は and が, please refer to the italki article The Ultimate Guide to: wa vs. ga.
The を (wo) particle
This is the “object marker” particle. It’s role in the sentence is to indicate what object is before a verb.
- Nihon-go WO benkyou shite-imasu (japanese how to: read)
- I've been learning Japanese.
In the example above, Nihon-go (Japanese) is the object. However, despite the fact that this particle is written with a W, we don't pronounce it as "wo." Instead, we pronounce is as just "o" (this is the same pronunciation as お).
The で particle
This particle indicates where the action is taking place. It’s the equivalent of "in" and "at" in English.
- Resutoran DE ban-gohan wo tabe-mashita (japanese how to: read)
- I had dinner at the restaurant.
The で particle can also mean "by using ~."
- Ohashi DE tabe-rare-masu
- I can eat with (by using) chopsticks.
- Kuruma DE shigoto ni iki-masu
- I go to work by (using a) car.
- Sukaipu de hanas-ou
- Let's talk on (by using) Skype!
The に particle
This indicates direction and will explain, how japanese people use it. Its English equivalent is the preposition "to."
- Rainen nihon NI iki-masu
- I'm going to Japan next year.
- Tomodachi NI denwa wo kaketa
- I called (to) my friend.
- Kanojo NI purezento wo age-masu
- I'll give a present to my girlfriend.
に can also mean "in” or “at," just like the で particle. However, this is only the case with verbs that express where one is or exists.
Examples of such verbs are:
- ある / いる : to exist / there is ...
- 住む sumu: to live
- 泊まる tomaru: to stay (in a hotel or at a friend's house)
- 滞在する taizai suru: to stay (in a country or city)
- 座る suwaru: to sit
- 立つ tatsu: to stand
Please note that the verb 寝る (neru, to sleep) is not included in the list above. We consider it to be an action rather than a verb that focuses on where you are.
- Ima doko NI iru
- Where are you now?
- Uchi ni iru yo
- I'm at home.
- Amerika NI sunde-imasu
- I live in the US.
- Chichi wa asoko NI tatte-imasu
- My father is standing (at) there.
Now that we’ve reviewed those particles, let's take a look at the words “what,” “why” and “how.”
One thing that is important to know before we begin is that the は particle does not come after these words.
“What” in Japanese (何 なに nani)
When you simply want to ask "What is (noun)?" then you should always use:
- A wa naN desu ka
- What is A?
- Sore wa nan desu ka
- What is that (near you / you have)?
Using “what” with the が particle
This consists of 何が nani ga + expressions that take が. Have a look at this article about the wa vs. ga particle to see more examples of them.
- Nani ga suki desu ka
- What do you like?
- Nani ga hoshii desu ka
- What do you want?
- Nani ga shi-tai desu ka
- What do you want to do?
- Nani ga ugoki-mashita ka
- What moved?
- Nani ga ookii desu ka
- What is big?
Using “what” with the を particle
"What" is used to ask about the object in a sentence. In English, when you ask a question with the word “what,” you must place “what” in a different position than the object it is referring to.
- “I (S) eat (V) sushi (O)” BECOMES “What (O) do (V1) you (S) eat (V2)?” (Not "you eat what").
However, we do not change this order in Japanese. Instead, "what" stays in the same place as the object it is referring to.
- (A wa) sushi wo tabe-masu BECOMES (A wa) nani wo tabe-masu ka
- Nani wo yonde-imasu ka
- What are you reading?
- Kyoukasho wa nani wo tsukatte-imasu ka
- As for the textbook, what are you using?/ What textbook are you using?
Using “what” with the で particle
- naNI de
- By using what? / How? (as in what method)
- Kyouto ni wa nani DE iki-masu ka
- How (by using what) will you go to Kyoto?
- Shinkansen DE iki-masu
- I'll go by shinkansen (bullet train).
So, for the question なにで, three examples of acceptable answers would be: "by car," "with a pen," and "with chopsticks."
“How” in Japanese
Expressing "how" is a bit tricky in Japanese, being that there are several different words for it. Let's have a look at them all, and discuss their differences.
When you want to ask "how is ~?" and are referring to the condition of something or a person’s opinion about it, then you should use どう:
- A wa dou desu ka
- How is "A"?
- Nihon no seikatsu wa dou desu ka
- How is life in Japan? / How do you like it?
- Ryokou wa dou deshita ka
- How was your trip?
There are lots of expressions that use どう. For example:
- "How about~?"
- Ashita wa dou desu ka
- How about tomorrow?
- How about ~ (or something)?
This is used when offering something to someone.
- Ocha demo dou desu ka
- How about a cup of tea (or something)?
- Biiru demo ippai dou
- How about a glass of beer? / Do you fancy a glass of beer?
Note: ippai refers to a cup of something to drink.
- ~ wa nihon-go de dou ii-masu ka
- How do you say ~ in Japanese?
- "article" wa nihon-go de dou ii-masu ka
- How do you say "article" in Japanese?
- kiji desu
- It's kiji.
- どう + する (literally: what + to do)
- ～はどうするの。 (informal)
- What are you going to do about it? / How are you going to deal with it?
- Ryuugaku shi-tai no wa wakaru kedo, okane wa dou suru no
- I understand that you want to study abroad, but what are you going to do about money?
- Ryokou suru tte...neko wa dou suru no. Dare-ka ni o-sewa shite-morau no
- You say that you will go traveling but… what are you going to do about your cat? Will you ask somebody to take care of it?
- どう + しよう (literally: How + let's do)
- What should I/we do…? (Oh gosh! There’s a problem!)
- Doushiyou! Machigaete, buchou ni ano meeru wo okucchatta
- Oh gosh! (What should I do!) I sent that e-mail to my boss by mistake!
- Dou omoi-masu ka
- What do you think about it? (literally: How do you think?)
Please note that while in English we use "what" to ask about what you are thinking, in Japanese we use the question word “how.” (that's how japanese language work) This is something that you will realize fairly quickly if you speak to Japanese people in English, being that they commonly make the mistake of asking "how do you think?" Keeping this in mind, please be kind to Japanese speakers and don’t make a mean remark like "with my brain."
Expressing “how” to do something
We’ve now learned that どう means "how is ~" and なにで means "by using what." So, what expression should we use for "how” in the context of “how to do something”? It’s easy! Just use:
やって comes from the verb やる which means "to do" (like する). Therefore, this expression is literally made up of "how + to do," which makes sense. Now, let's take a look at some examples.
- Kono apuri wa dou-yatte tsukau no
- How do you use this app?
- Okonomi-yaki wa dou-yatte tsukuru no
- How do you make Okonomiyaki? (Japanese pancake...YUM!)
- Dou-yatte kanji wo benkyou sureba ii desu ka
- How should I study kanji?
Differences between “why” and how in Japanese
なにで means "by using what" but be careful! If you read 何で as なんで (usually written in Hiragana), it means "why / how come?"
- Nande eigo ga sonna-ni jouzu-na no
- Why is your English so good?
You can also use:
However, なんで sounds slightly more colloquial.
して itself comes from する (to do). Does this sound familiar? It should because we have already seen どうやって (how), and どうして (why) is quite similar.
In fact, both of these expressions literally mean "how to do." You just need to remember that どうして specifically means "why" or "how come."
- Doushite nihon-go wo benkyou shi-hajimeta n desu ka
- How come you started learning Japanese?
- Doushite sora wa aoi no
- Why is the sky blue?
One final expression that can be translated as "how" in English is:
- Nan + TO
Please note that it is required to include the to after a quote or quoted speech.
- Yamashita-kun wa okureru to itte-ima-shita
- Yamashita said he'll be late.
何と (nan to) used as "how":
- Kono kanji wa nan to yomi-masu ka
- How do you read this kanji?
- A wa nihon-go de nan to ii-masu ka
Which is equivalent to:
- A wa nihon-go de dou ii-masu ka
- How do you say "A" in Japanese?
何と (nan to) not used as "how":
- Nanto ii mashita ka
- What did you say?
Now, do you remember that instead of asking "what do you think," we ask "how do you think" in Japanese? That is why the sentence below does not use the construction "what do you think about ~?"
- Kore wa nan DA to omoi-masu ka
- What do you think this is?
As you can see, the sentence above is made up of two parts:
- これは何 + だ
Also, please note that だ is added in this context because the to particle requires da after a noun.
A quick summary
- What: なに
- How: どう or どうやって or なにで
- Why: どうして or なんで
The の particle
Finally, for those who are wondering what the の particle or んですか does at the end of a sentence, here's the answer:
の is placed at the end of a sentence in order to express the nuance that you are giving an explanation, looking for an explanation or encouraging a conversation.
This consists of the plain form (without masu or desu) plus:
- の (for informal questions)
- んです (for formal affirmative sentences)
- んですか (for formal questions)
- nande kakurete(i)ru NO?
- Why are you hiding? (I want an explanation).
- ashita wa nani suru n desu ka
- Where are you doing tomorrow? (formal)
- ねえ、聞いて！彼氏ができたの！(female speech)
- nee, kiite! kareshi ga dekita NO!
- Hey, listen! I got a boyfriend! (I’m encouraging a conversation. I want you to ask me questions.)
Note: In affirmative sentences (not questions), males use んだ instead of の.
- 彼女ができたんだ！ (both male and female speech)
- kanojo ga dekita N DA!
- I got a girlfriend!
Note: You should use んです instead of の or んだ for formal speech.
In my next article, I'll be explaining how to use "where," "when," "who" and "which." Stay tuned!
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