The 5 Japanese Elements: What They Mean and Where to Find Them
In Japan, the five elements are known as 五大 (ごだい or “godai”) and include earth, water, fire, wind and void.
These are Buddhist concepts, but you can find them in everyday life—from science to ourselves.
Believe it or not, you can use these concepts to improve your Japanese fluency!
In this post, I’ll break down each of the Japanese elements—what they mean, where to find them and how to integrate them into your language learning.
- What Are the 5 Japanese Elements?
- Where to Find the Elements in Japanese Culture
- How to Use the 五大 to Speak Japanese More Fluently
What Are the 5 Japanese Elements?
土 (つち) — Earth
土 represents foundation, being acted upon, stability and stubbornness.
水 (みず) — Water
水 represents flow, change, emotion and adaptability.
火 (ひ) — Fire
火 represents creativity, motivation, passion, intensity and desire.
風 (かぜ) — Wind
風 represents growth, open-mindedness, wisdom and freedom.
空 (そら) — Void
空 represents the source of the human spirit, everything, nothing, absence and death.
Where to Find the Elements in Japanese Culture
Now that you have an understanding of what the Japanese elements are, let’s see where we can find them.
Since these elements started in nature, why not go back to the source?
Start off by connecting the elements with Japan’s natural sites. These places can give you a clearer picture of what the elements actually are.
Have you ever seen symbols on an anime character’s clothing that represent some aspect of their personality?
To give an obvious example, in the anime “Demon Slayer” ( 鬼滅の刃 or きめつのやいば), some of the Hashira ( 柱 or はしら) characters use one or a mixture of the 五大 as their weapon of choice. (Incidentally, the literal translation of 鬼滅の刃 is “demon-destroying blade,” while the literal meaning of 柱 is “pillar.”)
When you watch anime, do your best to recognize the elements used through the special talents, personalities and relationships of the characters.
These visual cues will stick with you and help you understand the elements better, such as how they’re used in everyday life.
Art and Architecture
One of the best places to find 五大 is in art and architecture.
Here, the effort that goes into exploring the subtle nuances of the elements and turning them into visual designs and structures is quite impressive.
For example, if you’ve ever seen a 五輪塔 (ごりんとう), which can be loosely translated as “five-ringed tower/pagoda,” you can pretty much see the elements in action. (Here’s a good article on 五輪塔.)
I’d also like to introduce you to the works of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto ( 杉本博司 or すぎもとひろし) for a further demonstration of 五大 in art.
You’re probably already familiar with the works of Hayao Miyazaki ( 宮崎 駿 or みやざきはやお). But did you know that 五大 features prominently in his works?
For example, the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away” ( 千と千尋の神隠し or せんとちひろのかみかくし) features elemental creatures as its characters. There’s also “The Wind Rises” ( 風立ちぬ or かぜたちぬ), which showcases Miyazaki’s love of aircraft. (Can you guess what element is featured there?)
How to Use the 五大 to Speak Japanese More Fluently
Now that you understand what 五大 are, let’s dig into how we can use them strategically to speak better Japanese.
Listen to Native Speech
Before you can use 五大 in conversations, you need to closely observe how native speakers use them.
I recommend listening to authentic Japanese video and audio and identifying how the elements manifest in conversation.
For example, you can find video resources at FluentU. Before watching a video, you can check its word list and see if any 五大 appear. You can then watch the clip or movie and observe how the elements are used and in what context. Since these are videos that native speakers actually watch, you can be sure they’ll be handy in actual conversations!
You can find other apps to learn Japanese words and phrases here.
Practice Conversations That Use 五大
Once you get a good grasp of how 五大 is used in daily conversation, your next step is to practice.
Get an overview of Japanese words and phrases that commonly crop up as well as their cultural context.
This way, once you’re in the heat of a conversation, you can practice talking (naturally!) about the five elements with your partner.
And when you finally sit down for some Anki reps or reading comprehension time, you can tie it all together with timeless phrases that reflect nature. These phrases contain the exact kanji of the elements, so it could be useful to remember them in the long run.
Some example phrases that use 五大 are:
- 地に足がついている (ちにあしがついている or “feet on the ground”). Similar to its English counterpart, 地に足がついている means being grounded or based in reality—like the element of Earth.
- 水を向ける (みずをむける or “to pour water”). Just as water puts out fire, 水を向ける means to calm someone down.
- 火の車 (ひのくるま or “a cart on fire”). 火の車 refers to an extremely difficult situation, usually financial in nature.
- 風のように去る (かぜのようにさる or “leave like the wind”). When someone “leaves like the wind,” it means they’re leaving quickly or suddenly.
- 虚無感 (きょむかん). If you translate this literally, it means “cavity no feeling.” Reading that may seem funny, but 虚無感 pretty much sums up the concept of the Void. It’s not a phrase you’ll hear often, but if you’re curious, you may want to hit up your friendly neighborhood Buddhist priest!
The elements started out as spiritual concepts used throughout history to understand the world and ourselves.
Now we can use them to improve our Japanese language skills!
By mastering the elements, not only will we impress native speakers, but we can also add plenty of personality to our speech.