In English in order to make a question, we utilize word order and changes in stress to make our question known. Take for example the following.
i. Tom will go to the park.
ii. Will Tom go to the park?
As you can see, the words "Tom" and "will" flip whenever you turn the statement in Ex. i into a question. In addition, stress is placed on the word "park." In Japanese no word order change is necessary to form a question, but the question must be marked somehow at the end of the sentence. There are many ways to do this, and they all differ in the exact tone and purpose of the question. In a way, what English gets across via intonation is more explicitly stated with the aid of verbal emoticons (final particles.)
Because Japanese is more complicated in this respect, it's important for us to first start off with the most basic of questions and work our way up, understanding that more grammar is to come. In this endeavor, we will begin by studying the particle ka か.
・高校生 Kōkōsei – High school student
・休憩 Kyūkei – Break
・（お）名前 (O)namae – Name
・（お）誕生日 (O)tanjōbi - Birthday
・試験 Shiken – Exam(ination)
・結婚式 Kekkonshiki – Wedding
・趣味 Shumi - Hobby
・トイレ Toire – Bathroom/toilet
・住所 Jūsho - Address
・サラダ Sarada - Salad
・人 Hito - Person
・座席 Zaseki – Seat(s)
・都合 Tsugō - Convenience
・足 Ashi – Foot/feet
・お土産 Omiyage – Souvenir(s)
・（お）飲み物 (O)nomimono Drink
・社長 Shachō – Company president
・問題 Mondai - Problem
・時間 Jikan - Time
・クモ Kumo - Spider
・雨 Ame - Rain
・鍵 Kagi – Key(s)
・あんた Anta – You (Rough)
・君 Kimi – You (Informal)
・山田さん Yamada-san – Mr./Mr(s). Yamada
・山下さん Yamashita-san – Mr./Mr(s). Yamashita
・日本 Nihon/Nippon – Japan
・上野公園 Ueno kōen – Ueno Park
・これ Kore – This (noun)
・それ Sore – That (noun)
・あれ Are – That over there (noun)
・あの Ano – That over there (adj.)
・かわいい Kawaii – Cute
・都合がいい Tsugō ga ii - Convenient
・痛い Itai - Painful
・いい Ii – Good
・可能だ Kanō da – To be possible
・好きだ Suki da – To like
・嫌いだ Kirai da – To hate
・元気だ Genki da – To be well
・大丈夫だ Daijōbu da – To be alright
・あほだ Aho da – To be dumb/stupid
・はい Hai – Yes
・さ（あ） Sa(a) – Well (now)/come now
・では De wa – Well (now)/(well) then
・ああ Ā – Ah
・もうMō – Already/(not) anymore/before long
(u) Godan Verbs
・変わる Kawaru – To change (intr.)
・取る Toru – To take (trans.)
・行く Iku – To go (intr.)
・思う Omou – To think (trans.)
・分かるWakaru – To become clear/be known/understand (intr.)
・違う Chigau – To differ/be wrong (intr.)
Interrogatives (Question Words)
・誰 Dare – Who
・何 Nani/nan – What
・いつ Itsu – When
・どこ Doko – Where
・どうして Dōshite – Why
・どう Dō – How
The majority of questions we make on a daily basis revolve around the words "who," "what," when," "where," "why," and "how." Japanese is similar in this regard, but because a lot more complexity is placed on things like politeness, tone, and purpose of the question, things can get tricky very quickly. Putting all that aside, the basic means of expressing these questions in Japanese are as follows:
In English, these question words can be used more than just to literally create a question. For instance, they may denote a subordinate clause like in "I forgot what I did yesterday." They may also deviate further such as in "when I go to school" or "use this when you need help.' These unique circumstances call for particular grammar to be used in Japanese, some of which involves more than the basics we're going over now. You must first understand what exactly the Japanese words refer to in order to build upon them.
Form Note: The base form of "what" in Japanese is nani 何.
As you can see, these words are treated far more literally in Japanese. Itsu いつ, for instance, cannot be used to mean the "when" in "when I go to school" because there isn't anything unknown about this statement unless you were to change it to "when am I going to school?"
The Basic Question
The formula for a basic question in Japanese will be defined as a polite sentence with no deviation in tone from a simple, harmless question. Add anything to the mix and the result will likely be different. Now that we've seen what the basic question words are in Japanese, let's go over the very straightforward means of using ka か in a sentence: just add it to the end and you're done. That is quite literally all you have to do. Just so that questions don't take over your mind, however, we will see how exactly this all looks like with the parts of speech we've covered thus far.
|Part of Speech||+ ka か|
|Noun||Kōkōsei desu ka? 高校生ですか (Is..a high school student?)|
|Adjective||Kawaii desu ka? かわいいですか (Is...cute?)|
|Adjectival Noun||Kanō desu ka? 可能ですか (Is...possible?)|
|Verb||Kawarimasu ka? 変わりますか (Will...change?)|
As you can see, there isn't anything particularly difficult about all this. With that being said, it's time to see how this all works in very real examples. Although you may not be able to ask all the questions in the world in Japanese just yet, you can still ask away.
Kyūkei wo torimasu ka?
Will you take a break?
Yamada-san wa doko desu ka?
Where is Mr./Mr(s). Yamada?
(O)namae wa nan desu ka?
What is your name?
(O)tanjōbi wa itsu desu ka?
When is your birthday?
Shiken wa itsu desu ka?
When is the exam(ination)?
Kekkonshiki wa itsu desu ka?
When is the wedding?
Will you go?/Shall we go?
Shumi wa nan desu ka?
What are your hobbies?
Toire wa doko desu ka?
Where is the bathroom?
Jūsho wa doko desu ka?
What is your address?
Dō omoimasu ka?
What do you think (of it)?
Do you follow/understand?
Have you got it?/Do you understand?
Is it wrong?/Am I wrong?
Kore wa nan desu ka?
What is this?
Sarada ga kirai desu ka?
Do you hate salad?
Ano hito wa Yamada-san desu ka?
Is that person over there Mr./Mr(s). Yamashita?
“Ogenki desu ka” “Hai, genki desu.”
“How are you?” “I’m doing well.”
Literally: “Are you doing well?” “Yes, I’m doing well.”
Phrase Note: This phrase is perhaps one of the most iconic phrases in Japanese. The o attached to genki 元気 indicates politeness, and it will continue to appear a few more times in this lesson.
X wa Y (question word) ga Z
When question words aren’t used as the predicate of the sentence, as has been the case for all the examples thus far, the grammar of the sentence changes oh so slightly. This is when the difference between wa は and ga が becomes most apparent.
As far as part of speech is concerned, all the question words discussed can be used as either nouns or adverbs except dō どう (how), which can only be used as an adverb. This aligns with English quite well.
Zaseki wa doko ga ii desu ka?
What seat(s) is/are good?
Literally: As for seat(s), where at is good?
Itsu (ga) tsugō ga ii desu ka?
When will be convenient for you?
Literally: As for you, when is convenient?
Particle Note: Although itsu いつ can be used as a noun, this is not nearly as common, and so が is always optional after it. In this example sentence, tsugō ga ii 都合がいい is a set phrase meaning “convenient,” which is why it is possible for two ga が to be in the same clause.
Nihon no doko ga suki desu ka?
What part of Japan do you like?
Literally: What of Japan do you like?
Particle Note: The particle no の is used here to indicate “of.” We will learn more about it later in IMABI, but it’s useful here to help make more substantive questions.
Ashi no doko ga itai desu ka?
What part of your leg hurts?/Where on your leg is it that you are hurting?
Literary: What of your leg hurts?
Omiyage wa nani ga ii desu ka?
What would be good for souvenirs?
Literally: As for souvenirs, what is good?
(O)nomimono wa nani ga ii desu ka?
What would you like to drink?
As you can see, the very fundamental pattern "X + wa は + Y + ga が + Z" affects question words the same way as any other words, but this also means you’ll have to pay some attention to nuance. Consider the difference between the two following sentences.
Shachō wa dare desu ka?
Who is the company president?
The topic of conversation here is clearly the company president. The question is “who is he/she”? This sentence would be used when you are asking someone to identify who the person is out of a group of people. You are simply confirming what can be verifiable in front of you, and the conversation naturally led to this question.
Dare ga shachō desu ka?
Who is the company president?
By itself, this sentence will catch most native speakers off-guard as an odd question. This is because more context is needed for this to be used naturally. The basic nature of ga が presenting new information comes into play here. The person in question may or may not be around the speaker, but the speaker is still directly asking someone to identify the individual. The direct nature of dare ga 誰が happens to be far stronger than with the other question words, which is why is not preferred over other phrasing. The directness can be felt with the other question words as well.
Mondai wa nan desu ka?
Nani ga mondai desu ka?
What is the problem?
Just as in English, the same sternness that this question possesses comes across in the Japanese as well. Although both sentences could be translated as "what is the problem," the former is not as direct and is merely innocently asking the question at hand.
Basic Questions in Plain Speech
The lack of desu です or -masu ます in forming questions in plain speech makes using ka か a little bit more tricky, largely because it's not typically used at all. Rather, the phrase becomes a question by the use of high intonation.
Are you okay?
Sore wa nani?
What is that?
Are wa kumo?
Is that a spider over there?
Ueno kōen wa doko?
Where's Ueno Park?
When ka か does happen to be used, a few words of caution are needed. First, it does not attach to da だ like it does with desu です. The only time this is acceptable is when ka か is used to make subordinate clauses, which we'll study in the next lesson. Therefore, da ka だか is wrong and must be changed to either ka か or dropped entirely. This means it will always attach straight to nouns and adjectival nouns without the copula intervening.
Secondly, ka か is primarily used in this fashion by male speakers among friends and or toward people of lower status. When it is used out of these arenas, you create a question that shows no reservation/modesty toward the listener. As such, it is typically favored by men in very casual situations among each other or whenever they are speaking to people inferior to themselves. If this pattern is used toward someone who is not one’s friend nor someone who has a lower status that oneself, the question will create a tone that borders on interrogation, making the speaker sound like a pompous brute, to say the least.
Kimi wa aho ka?
Are you stupid or something?
Anta, iku ka?
Tone Note: The use of 35 is largely restricted to males in coarse conversation.
Say if the question isn't directed at anyone, but instead, you're talking to oneself or reacting to something and make a rhetorical question to that effect, then か loses its potency. As the following examples demonstrate, this applies to polite speech as well.
Mō jikan (desu) ka.
It's already time, huh...
Sa, iku ka.
Well, time to go.
De wa, ikimasu ka.
Alright, time to go.
Ame, futta ka.
It rained, huh.
Ā, sō ka.
Ah, really?/I see.
Question Word + ka か: X
Ignoring grammar concerning subordinate clauses which we haven't covered yet, you can't simply add ka か to question words like you can with other nouns in plain speech. Instead, you either need to add the particle yo よ for exclamatory effect or use da だ instead, as non-intuitive as that might seem.
|Who||Dare → Dare da (yo)||だれ → だれだ（よ）|
|What||Nani → Nan da (yo)||なに → なんだ（よ）|
|When||Itsu → Itsu||いつ → いつ|
|Where||Doko → Doko da yo||どこ → どこだ（よ）|
|Why|| Dōshite → Dōshite da (yo)||どうして → どうしてだ（よ）|
The use of the particle yo よ adds to the weight of frustration the speaker has, and as such, it is not a given that the question is rhetorical or not. As the chart above suggests, because itsu いつ is almost always adverbial, it is treated differently in heated questions such as these.
Nan da, kore ?
What the heck is this?
Eh, nan da yo!
W-what the heck?
Kagi wa doko da?
Where are the keys?/Where is the key?
Kagi wa doko da yo!?
Where are the dang keys!? /Where is the dang key?
Kimi, dōshite da yo!?