6 Appropriate Ways to Ask “Why” in Japanese Without Losing Face

If you grow up and work in a Western culture, you are probably encouraged to ask how and why, and to question how things work. This is perceived positively as a sign of curiosity and pro-activeness.

But on the other side of the Pacific, in Japan, things are different. Communication is indirect and silence is valued.

For example, if you are a new Japanese employee, you are expected to learn most of what you need to know without being told. It is common for the Japanese to remain quiet and watch.

The Culture of Questions in Japan

The Japanese typically remain quiet because, traditionally in Japanese culture, asking “why” is considered rude and asking “how” is an admission of ignorance. And admitting ignorance of anything results in a loss of face.

From a young age, Japanese people are commonly taught virtues such as “silence is golden,” and “many words to a fool, half a word to the wise.” This silent absorption process is also the key factor in the traditional master-apprentice method of teaching and learning in Japan’s arts, crafts and businesses in general.

It is a learning process that takes place over many years, which sorely frustrates Westerners who cannot see or feel any progress being made.

Phrases to Ask “Why” in Japanese

As a foreigner learning Japanese, you were probably first taught that “why” in Japanese is どうして. But do you know that there are different ways to ask “why” in Japanese, ranging from formal to informal? If you don’t want to sound like a whiny child or a clueless employee, it is important to learn the right way to ask “why” in Japanese.

You can get some extra practice and see “why” in Japanese in use by native Japanese speakers with FluentU.

The phrases below all mean “why” in Japanese. By the end of this article, you’ll have learned how to use the appropriate version depending on the context. Let’s start with the most formal.

6 Ways to Ask “Why” in Japanese

why in japanese

1. なぜ

Where and when do you use this phrase?

You use this phrase in formal writing and speech, such as essays, books, magazines, websites, reports and public speaking. This phrase is rarely used in everyday conversation.

Example of how this phrase is used:

I took this screen shot of a book cover from Amazon Japan. Here, the author uses なぜ in his book title rather than どうして because a book is considered formal writing.


Next on the list is something neutral.

2. どうして

Where and when do you use this phrase?

You use this phrase at any time with anyone. It is rather informal and soft, and can be used in everyday situations.

Special note: Please do not mix this phrase up with どうしたの, which means “What’s the matter?” or “What’s wrong?”

Examples of how this phrase is used:

どうして泣くの? (どうして なくの?)
Why are you crying?

Why is it?

If you just want to ask why in a polite way, just add ですか to the end. This is probably the best and safest way for Japanese learners to ask “why.”

3. 何のために (なんのために)

Where and when do you use this phrase?

This phrase is neutral and rather similar to どうして in terms of usage. Also, Japanese people often use this phrase when they are asking themselves a rhetorical question.

Examples of how this phrase is used:

みんなお金をできるだけたくさん稼ぎたがっているけど、お金って何のために稼ぐの?(みんな おかねをできるだけ たくさん かせぎたがっているけど、おかねって なんのために かせぐの?)
Everyone wants to earn as much money as possible, but what for?

何のためにここへ来たの? (なんのために ここへ きたの?)
What has brought you here? / What are you here for?

Lastly, you have the least formal of the lot.

4. 何で (なんで)

Where and when do you use this phrase?

You use this phrase in casual settings with your close friends or family. It can sound rough so avoid using it at work and in situations where you want to be polite.

Example of how this phrase is used:

何でそんなことをするの? (なんで そんなことをするの?)
Why do you do something like that?

Next, here are some alternative phrases you can use, especially in the work context, to emphasize on wanting to learn the reasons behind something.

They mean something like “what for?”, “how come?” or “for what kinds of reasons?”

5. どんな訳で (どんなわけで) or どんな理由で (どんなりゆうで)

Where and when do you use this phrase?

These two phrases are more formal than the other phrases we have covered so far. Even though you can use them in your speech, they sound rather severe.

Also, Japanese people do not use them that often in daily conversation. Why is this so?

This is because if you are asked these questions, it sounds as if you are at fault and to be blamed for something you have done. So use these phrases with caution.

Special note: 訳 (わけ) and 理由 (りゆう) are very similar words (almost the same and interchangeable) so you can choose to use either version. Below you can see an example of each version.

Examples of how this phrase is used:

どんな訳で来たのですか? (どんなわけで きたのですか?)
Why have you come?

どんな理由でここにいるのですか?(どんなりゆうで ここに いるのですか?)
Why are you here? / For what reason are you here?

6. どういう訳で (どういうわけで) or どういう理由で (どういうりゆうで)

Where and when do you use this phrase?

These two phrases are very similar to those in Point 5 above and are used in the same types of situations.

Look at the first two examples below in particular. Can you tell that there is an element of finger-pointing and perceived wrong-doing floating ominously in the subtext of the question?

Examples of how these phrases are used:

どういう訳で辞職するのですか?(どういうわけで じしょく するのですか?)
Why do you wish to resign?

どういう訳で遅刻したのですか?(どういうわけで ちこく したのですか?)
Why are you late?

どういう理由で泣いたの?(どういうりゆうで ないたの?)
For what reason did you cry?

彼が日本から来たというあなたの判断は、どういう理由で?(かれが にほんから きたという あなたの はんだんは、どういうりゆうで?)
This sentence means “Why did you decide that he was from Japan?” or “Based on what reasons did you decide he was from Japan?”

Today, we looked at the difference between how asking questions is perceived in the Western culture vs. in the Japanese culture. While asking “how” and “why” is encouraged in the West, it is sometimes frowned upon in Japan. In particular, asking “why” is considered rude and asking “how” is an admission of ignorance, which can result in a loss of face.

Thus, it is important to learn the right way to ask “why” in Japanese to avoid being seen as a rookie. There are different ways to ask why in Japanese, ranging from formal to informal. You have seen 6 ways to ask why, when and where to use them and real life examples of how they are used, and you should strive to use the appropriate version depending on the situation and who you are with.

Don’t make a faux pas and use the causal form with your boss or the overly formal form with your buddies.

Good luck, 頑張って (がんばって)!

Karen’s love affair with the Japanese language started from the song “Say Yes” by Chage & Aska. She currently runs a Japanese learning website to marry her love of Japanese and flash games. You can learn and listen to other useful Japanese phrases at her website.

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