Japanese Particles

Particles in Japanese act like the "cement" of a structure, holding the major components together and serving as indicators for the words they follow or are stuck between. There are even times when they have their own meaning, usually as prepositions. They can be friendly at times and pesky at others, and some can even be omitted in familiar conversation.

This is a general guide for using the particles. I trust that it will serve nicely for daily conversation and writing, but I really must emphasize general here because of the many exceptions and surprises that do exist. In fact, there are some exceptions that defy all reason. While some particles more or less follow certain rules regarding use, others do not and must be learned "case by case" and remembered as such. I have spent hours with native speakers trying to get straight, logical answers concerning the strange behavior of some of the particles, but I often just get blank stares and the "case by case" answer. I will do my best to point these out, but it will be impossible to cover everything here.

One thing that is nice about Japanese is that it's not as "grammatically fussy" as English. If you happen to omit or make a mistake concerning particles, you won't sound as ridiculous or illiterate speaking this "broken Japanese" as you would if you did the same thing in English. (That's not meant to be an excuse; it's just to assure you that it's okay to make mistakes along the way.)

© Tim R. Matheson

Table of Contents

1. Subject indicators wa and ga

2. Direct object indicator o

3. Indirect object indicator ni

4. Destination indicator e

5. Action indicator de

6. Possession indicator no

7. Connectors to and ya

8. Includer mo

9. Question maker ka

10. Emphasizer yo

11. Terribly overused ne

12. Quasi-adjective indicator na

1. Subject indicators wa and ga

Wa and ga indicate subjects by coming after them. You could say that wa is the "standard" or main subject indicator. It indicates the general topic and, if anything, emphasizes what comes after it:

  • Nihon no natsu wa atsui desu. (Summers in Japan are hot.)

In this example, wa tells us that the topic of conversation is summers in Japan, and that the important thing about them is the fact that they are hot.

  • Kimiko wa mainichi eigo o benkyou shite imasu. (Kimiko studies English every day.)

Here we are talking about Kimiko, and want her diligence concerning English studies to be made known.

Ga points to "active" subjects, emphasized subjects, and subjects within a larger topic:

  • John ga suru shigoto wa muzukashii desu. (The job that John does is difficult.)

In this one, wa tells us that we're talking about a job, and that it's a difficult one, and ga tells us that it's not just any job we're talking about, but the job that John does.

  • Ima Seiko ga shite imasu. (Seiko is doing it now.)

This one, which is a reply to someone's question, needs to point to Seiko as the person doing whatever, so ga is used. The thing she is doing is already known, so it needs no emphasis.

Ga is used with simple question subjects in many cases:

  • Dare ga kono gyuunyuu o koboshita? (Who spilled this milk?)
  • Nani ga tabetai no? (What do you want to eat?)
  • Itsu ga ii? (When is a good time?)

And ga is used to emphasize the answers to those questions:

  • Tommy ga yatta. (Tommy did it.)
  • Gyouza ga tabetai. (I want to eat gyouza.)
  • Sanji ga ii. (Three o'clock's good.)

...unless there's something still indefinite about it:

  • Gyouza o tabemashou ka. (Shall we have gyouza?)
  • Gyouza wa dou desu ka. (How about some gyouza?)
  • Rokuji wa dou? (How about six o'clock?)

As you can see, it can get confusing. More than trying to remember set rules, I've found that memorizing "set phrases" is the safest way to go, even though it does take some time. Here's where learning "case by case" becomes necessary, because the particle used will sometimes change depending on what is being emphasized, as well as the verb tense and conjugation used.

Ga sometimes indicates "but":

  • Watashitachi wa pikuniku o tanoshimi ni shite ita ga, ame ga futta. (We were looking forward to the picnic, but it rained.)

Notice how the three ga's are used here:

  • Keeki ga tabetakatta ga, onaka ga ippai datta. (I wanted to have some cake, but I was too full.)

Wa could replace the third ga here, but most native speakers in casual conversation would just omit the first or third ga, or even both of them.

As a strange particle quirk, subject indicator wa is always written using the hiragana for ha. For reference, see my hiragana table here.


2. Direct object indicator o

You could call o a "limited use particle." Its only job is to show us what the direct object is:

  • Jisho o kashite kureru? (Would you please loan me your dictionary?)
  • Atarashii kamera o katta. (I bought a new camera.)
  • Pizza o tabemashou ka. (Shall we get a pizza?)

However, ga is usually preferred when using the -tai ending:

  • Ramen ga tabetai. (I want to eat ramen.)

Also, use ga, not o, before the verbs iru (to be present; to exist), iru (to need), aru, wakaru, dekiru, and the weird quasi-verb/adjectives suki, kirai and hoshii:

  • Bob no heya ni tokage ga iru. (There's a lizard in Bob's room.)
  • Boku wa atarashii kasa ga iranai. (I don't need a new umbrella.)
  • Shizu wa jitensha ga arimasu ka. (Does Shizu have a bicycle?)
  • Kenji no itte iru koto ga wakaranai. (I don't understand what Kenji's saying.)
  • Emiko wa ryouri ga dekiru? (Can Emiko cook?)
  • Chuuka ryouri ga suki desu ka. (Do you like Chinese food?)
  • Tom wa hikouki ga kirai. (Tom hates airplanes.)
  • Ano nuigurumi ga hoshii! (I want that stuffed animal!)

It is sometimes easy to confuse the particle o with the o- prefix which is used as an honorific indicator for some selected nouns, so be careful. Some of these are:

  • o-tenki: the weather
  • o-cha: tea
  • o-mizu: water
  • o-niku: meat
  • o-naka: stomach
  • o-kuruma: car

These can be very interesting. Some use the o- prefix only in some instances and not in others. For example, when talking about your own car or cars in general, you would never use the o- prefix. You will probably only hear it when salespeople or servicepeople are talking about the car you are going to buy or have bought from them. Some, like o-tenki and o-cha, are almost always used with this honorific prefix.

I might as well mention here that there is a verb conjugation that uses this honorific prefix. It's o- with Base 2, and has several endings. Here are examples of two:

  • Douzo, o-cha o o-nomi kudasai. (Please, have some tea.)
  • O-niku wa o-tabe ni narimashita ka. (Did you have some meat?)

These are very polite constructions. Can you sense the honor and respect oozing from them?

Although this particle is usually written o in romaji these days, in older documents it may be seen written wo. It's the same particle with the same role, but with an alternate spelling in romaji. You may also hear some Japanese pronounce it more like wo than o.


3. Indirect object indicator ni

Ni shows us what the indirect object is — who or what an action is directed to:

  • John ni jisho o kashite kureru? (Would you please loan John your dictionary?)
  • Susan ni atarashii kamera o ageta. (I gave Susan a new camera.)
  • Inu ni esa o yarinasai. (Feed the dog.)

Ni is also a preposition which indicates destinations, places, dates and times:

  • Nihon ni kono hako o okuritai desu. (I want to send this box to Japan.)
  • John wa Okayama ni ikimashita. (John went to Okayama.)
  • Neko wa isu no shita ni iru. (The cat is under the chair.)
  • Kare wa suiyoubi ni kuru. (He'll come on Wednesday.)
  • Shichi gatsu touka ni kaigi ga arimasu. (There will be a meeting on July 10.)
  • Bob wa rokuji han ni tsuku. (Bob will arrive at six thirty.)

Ni, not o, is used with the verbs noru (to ride) and noboru (to climb):

  • Hayaku! Densha ni notte! (Hurry! Get on the train!)
  • Kenji wa jitensha ni noru koto ga dekiru. (Kenji can ride a bicycle.)
  • Ki ni noborimashou. (Let's climb up the tree.)
  • Kinou kodomotachi wa yama ni nobotta. (The kids climbed the mountain yesterday.)

Ni is often combined with wa to show that something exists or is included in the subject:

  • Nihon niwa chiisai shima ga takusan arimasu. (There are many small islands in Japan.)
  • Suzuki-san niwa san nin no kodomo ga imasu. (Mrs. Suzuki has three children.)


4. Destination indicator e

While not as flexible as ni, e is sometimes used in place of it to emphasize a destination:

  • Soto e ikitai. (I want to go outside.)
  • Kyou wa doko e? (Where are you going today?) (Yes, the verb can be omitted here.)
  • Ashita bijutsukan e ikimasu. (We're going to the art museum tomorrow.)

As another strange particle quirk, destination indicator e is always written using the hiragana for he. For reference, see my hiragana table here.


5. Action indicator de

Particle de is a preposition that shows us where an action takes place:

  • Kyou ie de taberu. (I'll eat at home today.)
  • Kodomotachi wa kouen de asonde imasu. (The kids are playing in the park.)

Some exceptions are: Use ni when the verb shows attachment to an object or place, and o when the action passes a place or intentionally covers a wide area:

  • Kana wa ano isu ni suwatte iru. (Kana is sitting in that chair over there.)
  • Bill wa Nagoya ni sunde imasu. (Bill lives in Nagoya.)
  • Futatsu me no kado o magatte kudasai. (Please turn at the second corner.)
  • Kouen o sanpo shimashou. (Let's take a walk in the park.)

De is used for "among":

  • Watashi no yuujin de, piano o hikeru hito ga inai. (There is no one among my friends that can play the piano.)

De also indicates a method:

  • Onamae wa pen de kaite kudasai. (Please write your name with a pen.)
  • Genkin de haraimashou. (Let's pay with cash.)
  • Eigo de hanashite kureru? (Would you please speak English?)

De is sometimes used before ii to say that something is good or sufficient as it is:

  • Kore de ii. (This is okay. [It's good enough.])
  • Ashita de ii. (Tomorrow will be okay.)

De is sometimes combined with wa to show that something is done within the subject:

  • Tokushima dewa maitoshi yuumei na matsuri ga okonawareru. (A famous festival is held in Tokushima every year.)


6. Possession indicator no

This one also has many roles in Japanese grammar. It shows possession:

  • Sore wa Keiko no kasa desu. (That's Keiko's umbrella.)
  • Jack no inu no namae wa Aki desu. (Jack's dog's name is Aki.)

It can sometimes replace ga, and is used especially in clauses that modify a noun:

  • Hontou ni mondai no nai tabi deshita. (It really was a trouble-free trip.)
  • Watashi no oshieru gakusei wa, eigo no dekinai ko bakari desu. (None of the kids that I teach can speak English.)

It comes after some adjectives:

  • Kyoto no matsuri ni takusan no hito ga ita. (Many people were at the festival in Kyoto.)
  • Kumi wa midori no fuusen ga hoshii. (Kumi wants a green balloon.)

It makes informal questions:

  • Yuushoku wa tabenai no? (Aren't you going to eat dinner?)
  • Nanji ni kuru no? (What time will you come?)

And it is also used between prepositions and nouns to make the noun the object of the preposition. Compare the following sentences:

  • Kono tegami wa Yuuko kara kita. (This letter came from Yuuko.)
  • Kore wa Yuuko kara no tegami desu. (This is a letter from Yuuko.)

And these:

  • Kono tegami o Yuuko ni okuru. (I'm going to send this letter to Yuuko.)
  • Kore wa Yuuko e no tegami desu. (This is a letter to Yuuko.)

Note: Ni is not used with no in this way.


7. Connectors to and ya

These work like "and" in English. Use to to include only what is actually mentioned, and ya to include other things which are not mentioned but may be relevant or supposed:

  • Ashita boushi to undou gutsu o motte kite kudasai. (Bring a hat and athletic shoes tomorrow.)
  • Gakkou ga hajimattara, pen ya nooto ya jisho ga hitsuyo desu. (When school starts, you'll need things like a pen, a notebook, and a dictionary.)

To also indicates quotes and thoughts, whether they are direct or indirect:

  • Jane wa konban gaishoku shitai to itta. (Jane said she wants to eat out tonight.)
  • Sore wa totemo ii keikaku da to omoimasu. (I think that's a very good plan.)

Some oddball adverbs use to optionally:

  • Ken wa hakkiri (to) kotowatta. (Ken flatly refused.)
  • Motto yukkuri (to) hanashite kureru? (Would you please speak more slowly?)

Sometimes to is used to mean "with":

  • Dare to kouen ni iku? (Who are you going with to the park?)
  • Kimiko wa Sally to issho ni kaimono ni ikimashita. (Kimiko went shopping with Sally.)

Note: Issho (ni) means "together (with)" and is often used after to. Use it when there's a chance that to alone might not be clearly understood.

After verbs, to often means "if" or "when":

  • Massugu iku to kouen ga miemasu. (If you go straight you'll see the park.)
  • Watashi wa soba o taberu to byouki ni naru. (I get sick whenever I eat buckwheat noodles.)


8. Includer mo

Forgive me for making up my own English, but "includer" just works perfectly here because mo includes things, the way "also" and "too" do in English. After subjects or objects, it replaces the wa, ga or o that would normally be there:

  • Watashi mo ikitai! (I want to go, too!)
  • Yasuko mo atarashii pasokon o katta. (Yasuko also bought a new computer.)
  • Boku wa hamu sando o tabeta. Yakimeshi mo tabeta. (I ate a ham sandwich. I also ate some fried rice.)

Note: The Japanese have many of their own abbreviations for English words, and sando is one that they often use for sandwich.

Mo is also used to emphasize "any," sometimes being combined with other particles:

  • Ima watashi wa nani mo taberenai. (I can't eat anything now.)
  • Kare wa doko nimo ikitakunai. (He doesn't want to go anywhere.)
  • Paul wa nan demo dekimasu. (Paul can do anything.)

Note: There are also elongated mou's that have totally different usages. One is used to mean "already," and another is used for whining about something:

  • Watashi mou shimashita. (I already did it.)
  • Mou, anata itsumo osoi! (Oh, you are always slow!)

By the way, mou is what Japanese cows say.


9. Question maker ka

Ka makes questions, both plain and polite:

  • Kodomotachi wa mou tabemashita ka. (Have the kids already eaten?)
  • Jennie no kasa o karita ka. (Did you borrow Jennie's umbrella?)

When it comes to making questions, there are both written and unwritten rules that will keep you wondering. While ka can be used in most instances, there are times when no is preferred. These can be interchangeable in some cases, but not in others. Both of them — no ka — are even used together sometimes.


10. Emphasizer yo

Yo is usually used at the end of a short phrase or sentence, and it generally has two purposes: to emphasize an action or fact, or to brag about one:

  • Heya o souji shimashita yo. (I DID clean the room.)
  • Eigo no shiken, goukaku shita yo. (I [of course] passed the English exam.)

Note: As in English, to correctly use the "brag" version you have to keep a straight, matter-of-fact, "no big deal" face.


11. Terribly overused ne

The correct place for ne is at the end of a sentence, where it is used to check or request the agreement of the listener, like we use tag questions in English:

  • Ashita watashitachi to issho ni ikimasu ne. (You're going with us tomorrow, right?)
  • Ii otenki desu ne. (Nice weather, isn't it. [with a falling intonation])

However, like "y'know" in English, too many people have the habit of grossly overusing ne. I've even heard speeches where it was put between almost every word. Be careful not to overdo it.


12. Quasi-adjective indicator na

In the world of Japanese adjectives, there are "true" and "quasi" types. When a "quasi-adjective" modifies a noun in a straightforward manner, na comes after the adjective, and the noun comes after that:

  • Sono mise wa benri na basho ni aru. (That store's in a convenient place.)
  • Ooki na inu desu ne. (That's a big dog, isn't it. [with a falling intonation])
  • Kantan na shigoto deshita ne. (That was an easy job, wasn't it. [with a falling intonation])

Changing na to ni converts quasi-adjectives to adverbs:

  • Dare demo kantan ni dekimasu yo. (Anyone can easily do it.)

See my Japanese Adjectives for more.

Na may sometimes be heard here and there in familiar situations as a substitute for ne. This is considered impolite at best, and should be avoided.

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