In English, we create questions with what are colloquially called "wh-words." Although there are quite a few of these words in English, it's customary to view "who," "what," "when," "where," and "why" as the basic five.
In grammar, these words are called "interrogatives." These words in English, though, have two fundamental kinds of usage. The following examples demonstrate this with the words "when" and "where."
i. When did he go home?
ii. I like it when you dance.
iii. Where do you live.
iv. The place where I bought my dog is really nice.
In Japanese, interrogatives are called gimonshi 疑問詞. This word literally means "part of speech for questioning." As this name implies, the meanings of these words revolve around questioning. Although each individual word may have a variety of usages, unlike English, they will always be used in some sense in questions/describing uncertainty.
In English, there is a grammatical rule that interrogatives go at the start of a sentence and/or clause. In Japanese, there is no such rule. To put this in perspective, consider the following examples.
v. Who went with you to the park?
vi. Last night when I came home from work, [who was it to that you were talking on the phone with]?
In v. and vi., "who" must be at the start of their respective independent clauses. However, this as you will see in this lesson, is not the case in Japanese. As we learn about the rules of Japanese interrogatives, try to superimpose your understanding of English interrogatives on to them.
In this lesson, we will learn about the basic question words of Japanese. To simplify things, we will only look at polite speech. This is because there is a lot of variation regarding speech styles. Due to the emphasis placed on politeness in Japanese, questioning is something that you have to go about with caution. Yet, basic personal questions, unlike in Western culture, are deemed natural and key to starting conversations as icebreakers.
As a Japanese learner, being able to ask questions is especially important. Otherwise, you'll lose the ability to figure out how and when questions are formed. As the Japanese learner, however, there is a general understanding that you will be asking all sorts of questions, similar to children as they are still trying to grasp what things mean. Use this expectation to your advantage as it will certainly speed up the language learning process.
The first interrogatives that we will be going over are "who," "what," "when," "where," and "why." In Japanese, these words can appear in more places in the sentence than in English. This difference happens to affect various factors in how they're used. In the following chart, take note of the differences between interrogatives used at the start of a sentence and interrogatives used at the end of a sentence.
|Interrogative||Start of a Sentence||End of a Sentence|
|Who||Dare ga...desu ka? 誰が…ですか？||...wa dare desu ka? …は誰ですか？|
|What||Nani ga...desu ka? 何が...ですか？||...wa nan desu ka? ...は何ですか？|
|When||Itsu (ga)...desu ka? いつ（が）...ですか？||...wa itsu desu ka? ...はいつですか？|
|Where||Doko ga...desu ka?どこが...ですか？||...wa doko desu ka? ...はどこですか？|
|Why||Naze...no/n desu ka? 何故...｛の・ん｝ですか？||...(no) wa naze desu ka? ...(の)は何故ですか？|
The placement of interrogatives is determined by how much emphasis you are placing on the individual words in the sentence. The closer to the front of a sentence something is, the more emphasis is placed on it. This principle helps determine the nuances in the examples below designed to give you a thorough range of grammatical complexity that comes about simply from the patterns above.
Dare ga shachō desu ka?
Shachō wa dare desu ka?
Who is the company president?
Sentence Note: Ex. 1a. would only be used in the sense of “who is the company president?” It would only be used when asking about who the company president is in a conversation where said person would not be present. This is unlike 1b. which could be used to ask who the company president is out of a group of people visible/near the speaker and listener(s).
Dare ga suki desu ka?
Who do you like?
Tsuma wa dare ni niteru to omoimasu ka?
Who do you think my wife looks like?
Dare to issho ni sunde imasu ka?
Who do you live together with?
Ichiban suki na kagakusha wa dare desu ka?
Who is your favorite scientist?
Tantōsha wa wa dare ni narimasu ka?
Who will be(come) the manager?
Nani ga kawatta no desu ka?
What has changed?
Omiyage wa nani ga ii desu ka?
What would be good for souvenirs?
Hakimono wa nani ga ii desu ka?
What would be good for footwear?
Kyō wa nan no hi desu ka?
What day is it today?
E, nan desu ka?
O-shigoto wa nan desu ka?
What is your job?
Phrasing Note: Ex. 12 could be rephrased as nan no shigoto wo shite imasu ka? 何の仕事をしていますか. In this phrasing, greater emphasis is placed on "what." As such, it could be translated as "What line of work are you in?"
O-namae wa nan desu ka?
What is your name?
Shumi wa nan desu ka?
What are your hobbies?
Eakon wa itsu ga yasui n desu ka?
When is it that air conditioning is cheap?
Grammar Note: いつ, along with なぜ, are typically used as adverbs. The other interrogatives are always used as nouns. As for いつ, it can also be used as a noun, and when it is used as a noun, it's very similar to "what time (period)?"
Jūtaku wo yūri ni kau jiki wa itsu ga ii n desu ka?
What time is good to lucratively buy a home?
Hina-ningyō wo kazaru jiki wa itsu-goro ga ii desu ka?
About what time would be alright to display hina dolls?
Phrase Note: -goro 頃 is used after time phrases like "when" to mean "around..."
Kono sapuri(mento) wa, nomu taimingu ga itsu ga besuto na n desu ka?
As for this supplement, what timing would be best to drink it?
Seikyū wa itsu ni narimasu ka?
When will billing be?
Itsu shiagarumasu ka?
When will you be finished?
Grammar Note: Using ni に after itsu いつ in this sentence would be grammatically incorrect.
Ichigo wa itsu naru n desu ka?
When do strawberries ripen?
Spelling Note: Ichigo may occasionally be spelled as 苺.
Grammar Note: Itsu ni naru いつになる translates as "when will...be?" The "when" is essentially the same as "what time?" If you were to not use ni に, naru なる would have to interpreted as 生る (to ripen), 鳴る (to sound/ring), or 成る (to come into fruition).
Kētai no kinkyū jishin sokuhō wa itsu naru n desu ka?
When does the mobile emergency earthquake alert go off?
Word Note: The formal word for cellular phone in Japanese is keitai denwa 携帯電話. Because /ei/ can be pronounced as /ē/, this explains the colloquial spelling ケータイ.
Fukkō wa itsu naru no desu ka?
When will restoration come into fruition?
“Itsu ga aitemasu?” “Nishūkan-go ga aitemasu!”
“What time is available?” “Two weeks from now is available!”
Grammar Note: With the use of ga が after the respective time phrases, it is apparent that openings in schedules are being referred to.
Ima (wa), itsu desu ka?
What point in time is it now?
Sentence Note: One can imagine this sentence would be used by someone from the future confused as to what point in time he has traveled to. The use of the particle wa は enhances the emphasis placed on the "now" in the sentence.
Itsu Marēshia ni kimashita ka?
When did you come to Malaysia?
Denchi wa, itsu, dare ga hatsumei shimashita ka?
As for the battery, when and who invented it?
Sumisu-san wa doko de nani wo kowashimashita ka?
What did Mr. Smith break and where?
Nihon no [nani/doko] ga suki desu ka?
What about/where in Japan do you like?
Sentence Note: The use of doko どこ can actually stand for either nuance whereas the use of nani 何 would only result in the first nuance.
Sūgaku no doko ga suki desu ka?
What part about math do you like?
Jūsho wa doko desu ka?
What is your address?
Grammar Note: Contrary to English, the word for "where" needs to be used in asking what someone's address is.
[Toire/otearai] wa doko desu ka?
Where is the bathroom?
Phrase Note: Otearai お手洗い is a more refined means of saying "bathroom" in the same way "restroom" is more refined than saying "bathroom."
Naze machi e itta no desu ka?
Why did you go to town?
Kombini no onigiri, doko ga oishii to omoimasu ka?
As for convenience store rice balls, where are they really good at?
Hikōki no zaseki wa doko ga ii desu ka?
What seats on a(n air)plane are good?
Yūbinkyoku wa doko desu ka?
Where is the post office?
To use the word for "why" other than when you're just saying naze (desu ka?) なぜ（ですか）, you need to use the particle no の with it in some fashion. When naze なぜ is at the front of a sentence, the sentence should end in n/no desu ka ん・のですか. Contracting no の to n ん is done largely in the spoken language. When following verbs or adjectives, nothing else need to be done to the sentence, but if following nouns or adjectival nouns, then na な will need to placed in between the noun/adjectival noun and n/no desu ka ん・のですか.
Ushi wa, naze mainichi chichi ga deru n desu ka?
Why do cows produce milk every day?
Kazan wa naze funka suru n desu ka?
Why do volcanoes erupt?
Naze meishi na n desu ka?
Why is it a noun?
Under the same principles, if naze なぜ is at the end of the sentence, a noun phrase has to precede it. If the phrase is a full sentence, then the particle no の needs to be used to make it into a noun before naze なぜ can create the question. In this situation, no の shouldn't ever be contracted.
Hitobito ga kami ni inoru no wa naze desu ka?
Why do people pray to God/the gods.
Futotta no wa naze da to omoimasu ka?
Why do you think it is you got fat?