The word 方 is complex to say the least. At its basic understand, it means “direction” or “method.” It is used in both a physical and a temporal sense, and quite a few meanings have come about due to this. However, this is not as simple as learning a word with several meanings. This word exists as hō, a borrowing from Chinese, and the native equivalent kata. Both words have survived, and their basic meanings are the same. To understand either, one has to also know the other.
As mentioned in the introduction, Japanese has always had its own word for “direction.” That word is kata. Although you won’t hear it used in that sense in daily conversation anymore, it’s the basic meaning from which everything else came about.
There are two broad ways humans conceptualize direction. We either talk about where we’re going or we talk about the flow of time. Our lives are on both a timeline and a path.
This phrase comes from older grammar that allowed verbs to modify nouns in the past participle. Essentially, this literally means “the direction one has come,” but it was used both in the sense of time and sense of direction. The opposite of this is yukusue 行く末, which is still used in poetic speech.
To this day, kata かた exists in temporal phrases indicating general time frame, but in the form -gata.
ii. Akegata 明け方 (dawn), yūgata夕方 (evening), kuregata 暮れ方 (dusk).
Direction words in Japanese tend to in way or another be used to refer to people, and kata has been no different. You can see it used as a polite means of saying hito 人 (person), and you can even see it after particular nouns to create a respectful plural phrase in the form -gata.
Dansei no kata nomi
Okusama-gata no idobata kaigi
Idle gossip among wives
Although iv. Is more a less a set phrase, “wives” can still generally be referred to respectfully as okusama-gata 奥様方. In addition to standing for the noun hito 人 and the suffix -tachi ～たち, it can also stand for the counter -nin 人. However, this only works for numbers 1, 2, and 3 and the prefix o- お～ must precede the number.
v. O-hitokata お一方 (one person), o-futakata お二方 (two people), o-sankata お三方 (three people).
Naturally, kata かた may also be used to mean “side” in reference to people. Have you ever wondered how to say “my grandfather on my mom’s side”? Luckily for you, kata かた lets you do that. In this case, it can either be read as /kata/ or /gata/.
Haha-kata/gata no sofu
One’s grandfather on one’s mother’s side
It may also be used in letters when one is trying to address someone that lives with someone but that individual isn’t the owner of the residence. In essence, you’re recognizing to whom someone else is under. For instance, say Mayuko Suzuki lives with someone by the surname of Izumi, but it is Mr. Izumi that owns the residence. A package you wish to send to her instead of him would go something like vii.
vii. 東京都渋谷区神宮前○－○－○泉様方 鈴木真悠子様
Tōkyō-to Shibuya-ku Jingūmae maru-no-maru-no-maru Izumi-sama-gata Suzuki Mayuko-sama
#-#-# Jingūmae, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo Metropolis
To Mayuko Suzuki in the care of Mr. Izumi
If a word for “direction” can also refer to the people—which go places—and methods that those people do something, it’s logical to conclude that this word might be able to mean “how to (do something)” and by extension, doing it altogether.
How to use
Sen kata nai
It can’t be helped
Phrase Note: Although viii. Is a usage we are all familiar with, ix. is difficult because it introduces confusing spelling and older grammar. The sen comes from suru する (to do) in a form that is equivalent to today’s shiyō しよう, which shows volition to do something. Essentially, this is an older phrase for expressing there’s nothing that can be done, or at least in a willful sense. Although the sen is from a verb, the character詮 became used because it happens to have the meaning “method.”
Phrase Note: This phrase is a remnant of older grammar used to indicate doing. Nowadays we use nominalizers like no の or koto こと to help us do this, but at one time, kata かた was another viable option. Today, it’s relegated to old-time expressions that viii. as well as bureaucratic honorifics like in xi.
Go-shōchi-kata o-negai shimasu.
Go-shōchi oki kudasai.
Please be aware.
Phrase Note: In the first version of iv., the sentence in question would likely be written in a document of some form, perhaps an e-mail, sent among bureaucrats. The second version would be what a normal person would say, but the addressee cannot be somewhat above one’s own status, and the sentence itself is indicative of the written language. The oki in the phrase actually comes from the verb oku 置く.
Just when you think kata かた couldn’t be more diverse, it turns out that it is. In addition to the usages above, it also developed the ability to refer to general amount. After all, if it can show relative time like in the word akegata 明け方 (dawn), then using it in numbers isn’t that much of a stretch since we assign numbers to time anyway. This usage, however, is no longer in general use.
Sōba wa, san’wari[-gata/hodo] geraku shita.
The market value dropped approximately three-tenths.
Phrase Note: Nowadays, phrases like hodo ほど are used for this sort of situation.
Why, then, did the Japanese feel like borrowing hō ほう if there was already kata かた, and why did they make us have to figure out which one is meant by writing them the same way? Sometimes, people don’t make the wisest choices, but we are often stuck with the consequences of actions done by past individuals, and this is no different.
Words are often borrowed into languages simply because the other language one is borrowing from is more prestigious. Chinese has been to Japanese what Latin has been to English. Gradually, hō ほう replaced kata かた in many of its usages.
Spelling Note: Before we dive into the usages of hō ほう, it’s important to note that many Japanese learners are taught that it is improper to write it out in Hiragana as ほう and to always write it out as 方. This is further from the truth. Sometimes, especially when both kata かた and hō ほう make sense, speakers will write hō as ほう to differentiate between the two. Although it is best to write hō in Kanji whenever ambiguity is not an issue, it wouldn’t be ‘wrong’ to leave it as ほう.
If you want to say which general direction you’re going, you can add no hō の方 to your destination. You can use a general direction word or an actual place. Therefore, something like kita no hō 北の方 would be the same as “northward” and Ōsaka no hō 大阪の方 would be the same as saying “the Ōsaka area.” To literally say “direction,” though, you would need to use the word hōkō 方向, which not surprisingly has 方 in it.
Kyūkyo, Ōsaka kara Kyūshū no hō e iku koto ni narimashita.
It’s been decided in haste that I go from Ōsaka to the Kyushu area.
Spelling Note: Kyūkyo may also be spelled as 急遽.
Eki no hō e mukaimashita.
I went towards the train station.
Tōkyō no hō ni shigoto ni itte imasu.
I go to work in the Tokyo area.
When trying to describe someone as one type or another, we use hō 方. We also use it to tell “which” one we’re talking about.
Boku wa moto kara i ga yowai hō da.
I’ve always had a weak stomach.
Sentence Note: This sentence literally means “As for me, I’m the one who always has had a weak stomach.”
Eigo yori kankokugo no hō ga tokui desu.
I’m better at Korean than English.
Goyō no hō ga hiroku tsutawatte iru.
The misuse is what’s most widely circulating.
Kochira no hō ga warukatta yo.
I’m the one who was wrong.
Bāgākingu no hō ga, makudonarudo yori suki desu.
I like Burger King more than McDonald's.
Aka wain no hō ga, biiru yori karada ni ii desu yo.
Red wine is better for you than beer.
Heya wa hiroi hō ga ii ja nai desu ka?
Isn’t it better that the room be wide?
Nigeru yori tatakau hō ga ii zo!
It’s better to fight than run away!
Dochira no hō ga suki desu ka?
Which do you like (better)?
If hō ほう can show general direction and “which” thing you’re talking about, it’s not that much of a stretch for it to be used to vaguely indicate what you do for a living. After all, your livelihood is carried out somewhere, and by using hō ほう, you are telling the person in what general field you’re working in.
Uchi no chichi wa zaimushō no hō ni tsutomete imasu.
My father works at the Ministry of Finance.
“O-shigoto wa?” “Kin’yū no hō desu.”
“What do you do for work? “I’m in financing.”
Use in Honorifics: Avoiding Directness
Clearly, there is a general pattern that hō 方 is used in generalizations, as can be said for kata かた. Some Japanese speakers assert that its use in indicating occupation vaguely is incorrect and unfounded, but that’s not the case. This usage has existed for a long time, and although it is not grammatically necessary, that’s not the reason why people use it. If you live to the west of someplace, why would you need to use hō 方? It would be just as easy for you to only use nishi 西? That’s not, though, what often goes through the mind of a Japanese speaker. Whenever a speaker feels it’s important to emphasis the general direction of someplace, you will hear that person use hō 方.
The same logic works for why someone may use hō 方to refer to general occupation. It’s not needed in the sentence, but people use it anyways to be less direct, and by doing so, to be politer. This urge to be as less direct and as polite as possible has led to many speakers, especially in the customer service industry and business, to lower the direct nature of essentially anything. Many speakers are taught to use hō 方 in this manner profusely, especially when they work at fast food restaurants and part time jobs where employees are taught how to address customers/clients via a manual.
In the sentences below, every instance of hō 方 is grammatically unnecessary. They are also all grammatically questionable due to hō 方’s lack of purpose in the sentence. Occasionally, especially when it’s used with a place, it may cause confusion as to whether the speaker is pointing out a general location or is just trying to politer. Granted, however, even if this ‘can’ be the case, someone would have to be purposely rude or incompetent not to know how the word is intended.
O-nimotsu no hō, o-azukari shimasu.
I will hold onto your luggage.
Wata(ku)shi no hō de yarasete itadakimasu.
I will be doing it.
Menyū no hō, o-sage shimasu.
Allow me to take your menu.
O-karada no hō wa dō desu ka?
How is your body feeling?
Katto no hō, sasete itadakimasu.
I’ll be cutting your hair.
Mūsu no hō, o-tsuke shimasu.
I’m going to now apply muse.
Dezāto no hō, o-dashi shite yoroshii desu ka?
Shall I bring out desert?
Wata(ku)shi no hō kara setsumei sasete itadakimasu.
I will be the one explaining.
Wata(ku)shi no hō de tantō itashimasu.
I will be the one leading.
Keiyakusho no hō wo o-mochi itashimasu.
I will bring the contract.
Kōhii no hō, o-mochi shimashita.
I’ve brought your coffee.
O-shokuji no hō wo o-mochi itashimashita.
I’ve brought your meal.
O-kaikei no hō, sen’gohyakuen ni narimashita.
Your bill has come out to 1500 yen.
Kochira no hō, go-riyō kudasai.
Please use this (one ???).
Sentence Note: This instance could legitimately instead mean “please use this one.” This means that it conversely indicates which should be used rather than being vague. This is because kochira no hō こちらのほう and the like can be seen as set phrases, and seeing them triggers the interpretation of “which” for hō 方.
Go-chūmon no hō wa, o-kimari desu ka?
Have you decided on your order?
Uriba no hō wo go-an’nai shimasu.
I’ll show you the sales floor.
Sentence Note: This sentence could potentially mean “I will guide you in and around the sales area, but that is only do the grammatical possibility of it meaning that. The chance that a speaker is actually using this phrase to mean such is slim to none.
These examples demonstrate the wide variety of instances in which hō ほう is used in honorifics, whether some speakers like it or not. It is important to know that it is here to stay, and in the next two decades or sooner, it will undoubtedly become standardized grammar that most speakers will be compelled to follow. As for you, the Japanese learner, unless you are actually working at a Japanese convenience store, it is safer to follow prescriptive rules on honorifics and not use hō ほう in this manner. However, if you find that most of your colleagues use hō ほう in this manner, you ought to do as the Romans do and follow suit. Essentially, get a feel for your surroundings and how the people you interact use this word to guide your own linguistic choices.