At its basic understand, the word 方 means “direction” or “method.” It is used in both a physical and a temporal sense. This word exists as ほう, a borrowing from Chinese, and as かた, the native equivalent. Both forms have survived to the present and their basic meanings are the same. To understand either, one has to also know the other.
The original word for direction in Japanese is かた. Although no longer used in daily conversation, it is the basic meaning from which every other meaning derives. There are two broad ways humans conceptualize direction. We either talk about where we’re going or about the flow of time. Our lives are on both a timeline and a path.
Reading Note: This phrase is read as either こしかた or きしかた.
This phrase literally means “the direction one has come,” but it was used both in the sense of time and direction. To this day, かた exists in temporal phrases indicating general time frame, but in the form がた.
Direction words in Japanese tend to duly refer to people, and かた is no different. You can see it used as a polite means of saying hito 人 (person), as well as a respectful plural phrase as がた.
Idle gossip among wives
かた can also stand for the counter ～人. However, this only works for numbers 1, 2, and 3, and the prefix お～ must precede the number.
v. お一方 (one person), お二方 (two people), お三方 (three people).
Naturally, 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, かた lets you do that. In this case, it can either be read as /kata/ or /gata/.
One’s grandfather on one’s mother’s side
がた may be used in letters when trying to address someone that isn’t the owner of the residence. For instance, say Mayuko Suzuki lives with someone by the surname of Izumi, but it is Mr. Izumi that owns the residence, yet you wish to send something to her.
vii. 東京都渋谷区神宮前○－○－○泉様方 鈴木真悠子様
#-#-# 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 also mean “how to (do something)” and by extension, doing it altogether.
How to use
It can’t be helped
Phrase Note: Although viii. is a usage we're familiar with, ix. is difficult because of its confusing spelling and older grammar. The せん comes from する (to do) in a form that is equivalent to today’s 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 せん is from a verb, 詮 is used because it means “method.”
Phrase Note: This phrase is a remnant of older grammar used to indicate doing. Nowadays, we use nominalizers like の or こと to help us do this, but at one time, かた was another viable option. Today, it’s relegated to old-time expressions and bureaucratic honorifics like in xi.
Please be aware.
Phrase Note: In xi.i, the sentence in question would likely be written in a document of some form, perhaps an e-mail, sent among bureaucrats. xi.ii would be what a normal person would write, but the addressee cannot be someone above one’s own status.
In addition to the usages above, がた also developed the ability to refer to general amount. After all, it indicates relative time in words like 明け方 (dawn). This usage, however, is no longer in general use.
The market value dropped approximately three-tenths.
Phrase Note: Nowadays, phrases like ほど are used for this sort of situation.
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, ほう replaced かた in many of its usages for this very reason.
Spelling Note: Before we dive into the usages of 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. However, especially when both かた and ほう make sense, writers will write ほう in Hiragana to differentiate between the two.
If you want to say which general direction you’re going, you can add の方 to your destination. You can use a general direction word or an actual place. Therefore, something like 北の方 would be the same as “northward” and 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 方向, which not surprisingly has 方 in it.
It’s been decided in haste that I go from Ōsaka to the Kyushu area.
Spelling Note: 急きょ may also be spelled as 急遽.
I went towards the train station.
I go to work in the Tokyo area.
"Which" Part of a Comparison
When trying to describe someone as one type or another (comparison), we use hō 方. We also use it to tell “which” one we’re talking about.
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.”
I’m better at Korean than English.
The misuse is what’s most widely circulating.
I’m the one who was wrong.
I like Burger King more than McDonald's.
Red wine is better for you than beer.
Isn’t it better that the room be wide?
It’s better to fight than run away!
Which do you like (better)?
If 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 ほう, you are telling the person in what general field you’re working in.
My father works at the Ministry of Finance.
“What do you do for work? “I’m in financing.”
Use in Honorifics: Avoiding Directness
There is a general pattern that 方 is used in generalizations. Some speakers assert that its use in indicating occupation is incorrect and unfounded, but that’s not the case. This usage has existed for a long time, and although it isn't grammatically necessary, that’s not why people use it. If you live to the west , why would you need to use 方? It would be just as easy for you to only use 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, that person will use 方.
The same logic works for when 方 refers to general occupation. Using it makes the statement less direct, and by doing so, also making it politer. Many speakers are taught to use 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 方 is grammatically unnecessary. 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. Even if this ‘can’ be the case, someone would have to be purposely rude or incompetent not to know how the word is intended.
I will hold onto your luggage.
I will be doing it.
Allow me to take your menu.
How is your body feeling?
I’ll be cutting your hair.
I’m going to now apply muse.
Shall I bring out desert?
I will be the one explaining.
I will be the one leading.
I will bring the contract.
I’ve brought your coffee.
I’ve brought your meal.
Your bill has come out to 1500 yen.
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 こちらのほう and the like can be seen as set phrases, and seeing them triggers the interpretation of “which” for 方.
Have you decided on your order?
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 ほう is used in honorifics. As for you, the Japanese learner, get a feel for your surroundings and how the people you interact use this word to guide your own linguistic choices.