The Curious Learner’s Guide to Using Japanese Question Words
Questions (and the words used to form them) are essential building blocks for communication.
Though occasionally effective, reliance upon wild gesticulations and prayers that the other person will understand you are not a reliable method of communicating.
The good news is that you can learn the basics of Japanese question words to ask a wide range of polite or informal questions. We’ll show you the fundamentals of what to look for and how to use these words.
- How to Identify Questions in Japanese
- Creating Simple, Polite Questions? Just Add か (Ka)
- Creating Simple Informal Questions
- Creating “Wh-” Word Questions
How to Identify Questions in Japanese
With written Japanese, ascertaining whether a sentence is a question or not will vary depending on the formality of the medium. In more casual communication channels such as texting, emails, manga and creative writing, there will be a question mark punctuation just like in English.
However, when it comes to formal Japanese texts they are nonexistent, with sentences ending in the Japanese full stop. (。) So, how is one supposed to know whether it is a question or not in such settings?
Well, just as the particles は and を mark the topic and direct object respectively in Japanese grammar, か (ka) is the particle that indicates a question and will be found at the end of the sentence, just before the full stop. か can be found in other parts of a sentence as a particle as well, but in those cases, it is serving a different purpose; only when it is at the end of a clause or sentence is it a question.
As for spoken Japanese, rising intonation at the end of a sentence indicates a question, just like in English. Additionally, the か particle at the end of a sentence is still featured prominently when speaking politely and formally, though it is often dropped in more casual conversation.
Creating Simple, Polite Questions? Just Add か (Ka)
With the basics of interrogative grammatical structure laid out, we can move on from merely recognizing questions in Japanese to creating our own. Knowing that ending a sentence with か designates an interrogative makes it easy to turn a simple statement into a simple question.
- 好きです。(すきです。) ― I like it.
好きですか？ (すきですか？) ― Do you like it?
- 彼女はそこにいます。(かのじょは そこに います。) ― She is there.
彼女はそこにいますか？ (かのじょは そこに いますか？) ― Is she there?
It is important to note that these examples are in the formal and polite vein, utilizing both the copula of です and ーます as well as the か particle; both must be present for a polite question.
Dropping the particle renders it a statement rather than a question, while leaving out the copula makes for an unnatural sentence.
Creating Simple Informal Questions
Informal question constructions can be easier than polite in some ways, but also involve nuance. For that reason, it is best to stick with the polite form when you are first learning to ask questions. However, for the sake of being able to recognize questions that appear outside of that narrow range, it is important to at least be familiar with common informal structures as well.
The simplest casual version drops both the copula and particle, relying on intonation when speaking and question mark punctuation in casual writing to convey a question.
暑い (あつい) ― Hot
暑い？ (あつい？) ― Hot?
Another possibility is to still use the copula, either the polite (conjugated) or casual (root) form, along with intonation or punctuation, but without the particle.
彼は外にいる。(かれは そとにいる。) ― He is outside.
彼は外にいる？ (かれは そとにいる？) ― Is he outside?
Lastly, there is another particle that can turn up at the end of a sentence to make an informal question: の. Though more often utilized by women and children, it is not necessarily out of bounds for usage by men.
いい ― Good.
いいの？― Is it good/ok?
Creating “Wh-” Word Questions
The next step required for acquainting oneself with Japanese questions is the vocabulary.
In English, the essential question words to know are: who, what, when, where, why and how. Sometimes referred to as the Five Ws. Even though there are six of them. And one starts with an “h.”
Japanese has corollaries for such question words, and just as in English, they are vital for inquiry and problem solving.
First up is the question word regarding persons:
誰 (だれ) ― Who
It is used much the same way as in English. For example:
それは誰ですか？ (それは だれですか？) ― Who is that?
誰が私のイチゴを食べた？ (だれが わたしの いちごをたべた？) ― Who ate my strawberry?
However, when it comes to the possessive form, “whose,” Japanese structure deviates from English. Rather than declining the pronoun as we do in English, Japanese already has a system in place to signify which words serve what function within a sentence grammatically: particles. As such, the root pronoun, 誰 (だれ), simply gets the possessive particle の to make “whose.”
誰の (だれの) ―Whose
これは誰の本ですか？ (これは だれの ほんですか？) ―Whose book is this?
Next is “what,” the catchall question word in English and frequently in Japanese, too.
- 何 (なに) ― What
昨日は何をしましたか？ (きのうは なにをしましたか？) ―What did you do yesterday?
- 何 (なん) ― What
何ですか？ (なんですか？) ― What is it?
The most common ways the question word “what” is expressed come in the two forms above. They both use the same kanji, mean the same thing and even sound very similar; so why are there two?
Simply put: auditory aesthetics and flow. In writing, there is no difference between them; they are the same word. But the “i” at the end sometimes gets dropped when speaking to aid in smoothing out the sound of words, depending on what they are situated between.
So, how does one know when to use なに vs. なん when speaking? Well, the best way is to really just get a feel for it by listening to fluent speakers since it is an evolution of speech and pronunciation rather than set grammar. But, there are some examples throughout this post.
There are also two ways to indicate “which.”
- どちら ― Which
寿司かラーメン、どちらがいいですか？ (すしか らーめん、どちらが いいですか？) ―Which is better, sushi or ramen?
- どれ ― Which
田中さんの家はどれですか？ (たなかさんの いえは どれですか？) ―Which house is Tanaka’s?
Mercifully, the reason for the difference between those two is much more straightforward. どちら is for “which” between two things, while どれ is for more than two.
Time for the next question word! Get it? Because it is the question word about time? Haha, ha, ha… Well, get used to it; puns are the go-to jokes in Japanese.
- いつ ― When
いつ日本に来ましたか？ (いつ にほんに きましたか？) ― When did you come to Japan?
- 何時 (なんじ) ― What time
何時ですか？ (なんじですか？) ― What time is it?
何時 (なんじ) is one of those “what”-based words where the “i” is dropped from 何 (なに) that was mentioned earlier. 何 (なに) + 時 (じ) literally means “what hour.”
The vocabulary for “where,” determining place, is fairly direct.
どこ ― Where
トイレはどこですか？ (といれは どこですか？) ― Where is the bathroom?
The obnoxious favorite question word of children, “why,” has a number of iterations in Japanese. The first two essentially mean the same thing, but vary in formality.
- なぜ ― Why
なぜ電車は遅れていますか？ (なぜ でんしゃは おくれていますか？) ― Why is the train late?
- どうして ― How come
どうしてこのパンは黒いですか？ (どうして このぱんは くろいですか？) ― Why is this bread black?
The third is trickier:
何で (なんで) ― For what reason
何で私に嘘を吐いたの？(なんで わたしに うそをついたの？) ― Why did you lie to me?
The complication is due to the fact that 何で can mean both “why” and “how,” depending on the context.
One way to help separate them and make yourself clear when speaking is to reserve 何で (なんで) for “why” and pronounce the “how” version by combing 何 (なに) and the particle で, signaling “by way of,” which together make “by what means.” (Or you could just use one of the “how” words covered in the next section.)
Both 何で (なんで) and どうして are more informal. Use なぜ for polite conversation.
Lastly, the irregular question word breaking the Five W mold: “how.” As seen previously, some question words will have various instantiations or different endings added onto the same root. This one does both.
- どう ― How
どうですか？ ― How is it?
- どうやって ― How do you do it
ハンバーガーをどうやって食べますか？ (はんばーがーを どうやって たべますか？) ― How do you eat a hamburger?
- いくら ― How much
この靴はいくらですか？ (このくつは いくらですか？) ― How much are these shoes?
- いくつ ― How many
いくつ欲しいの？ (いくつ ほしいの？) ― How many do you want?
Though there are several ways of asking “how,” they all have different flavors and are appropriate for different situations.
So now we have mastered Japanese questions!
Well, not entirely.
In fact, there are still quite a lot question words are capable of and much more nuance regarding questions in general. But, at least you’ve got a solid grasp of the essentials so you can engage in conversation. And if you have questions, now you can just ask!