Basic Japanese Questions: How to Easily Ask and Answer

While at the beginner level of a language, it often happens to us where we don’t know what we are asked. Sometimes, we meet new people, and they try to ask basic questions. However, they’re not aware of our personal level so sometimes the line of questions gets difficult. At some point, we are left with an awkward silence in the conversation and wonder ‘I wish I could understand what he/she said!’. So how to ask basic Japanese questions?

For such happenings, there are some small observations that can help us comprehend the situation. Let’s think about WH words: who, what, where, when, and why. In English, from these WH words, we can somewhat imagine what the person will ask, even before he completes his sentence, right? It’s the same for the Japanese. They also have their own WH words! Luckily, they use them in the first part of the sentence as well.

In this guide, we will see how to ask and answer basic questions in Japanese, following the WH words.

1. Who: 誰・だれ

First of all, “who” is dare ・ だれ. Use it to refer to people, without a distinction in gender or number.

In addition, remember the word donata・どなた, which is its formal counterpart. Here are some examples:

あの人はだれですか。(informal)Ano hito wa dare desuka?Who is that person?
あの方はどなたですか。 (formal*)Ano kata wa donata desuka?Who is that person?
*In Japanese, words change based on the formal or informal style you are using. For example, あの人 becomes あの方 if you want to be formal.

After だれ and どなた, you can add particles to create interrogative pronouns or other parts of the speech you need to be more specific.

If you are a beginner and don’t know how important they are, check this article about how to use the main Japanese particles.

これはだれの本ですか。Kore wa dare no hon desuka?Whose book is this?
だれもいいから、手伝ってほしい。Daremo ii kara, tetsudatte hoshii. Anyone who can help would be welcomed.
だれと話していたか。Dare to hanashiteitaka?Who were you talking to?

2. What: 何・なに

This is probably the most popular Japanese word in the world, due to Kenshiro’s famous sentence: 「お前はもう死んでいる」 「⁉」(omaewa mou shindeiruNani!? ・ You’re already dead. – What!?)

However, this interrogative adverb has 2 pronunciations, depending on what follows it: Nan / Nani. Use it to refer to objects and animals, without distinction in gender or number.

してるの?Ima nani shiteiruno?What are you doing?
何時ですか。Ima nanji desuka?What time is it?
これ、何語ですか。Kore, nanigo desuka?What language is this?
お父さんの仕事はですか。Otousan no shigoto wa nandesuka?What‘s your father’s job?
あれはですか。 ゴリラです。Are wa nandesuka? Gorira desu.What is that? It’s a gorilla.

3. Where: どこ

どこ (doko): If you can pick the word どこ from someone’s question, it means they’re asking for a location. It can be about you, or something around you, or related to you. Additionally, you can also use this to ask about location in times of need.

大学はどこですか。Daigaku wa doko desuka?Where is the university?
明日どこで勉強しますか。Ashita dokode benkyoushimasuka?Where will you study tomorrow?

4. When: いつ

いつ (itsu) is pretty easy too. It means “when”, and can be followed only by a few particles. For example, いつかitsuka, means “some time”, or it can refer to something that is already done once (before, once). いつでもitsudemo, means “always, any time”.

日本語試験はいつですか。Nihongo shiken wa itsu desuka?When will the Japanese language exam occur?
いつ出発しますか。Itsu shuppatsushimasuka?When are you leaving?
またいつか会うね。Mata itsuka aune.Let’s see again sometime.
この道はいつか来た道です。Kono michi wa itsuka kita michi desu.This is the path we took before.
いつでも電話ください。Itsudemo denwa kudasai.Call me any time.

5. Why: なぜ・どうして

Finally, the last WH word. なぜ (naze) is the one to ask “Why”.

なぜ日本へきましたか。 Naze nihon he kimashitaka?Why did you come to Japan?
なぜ立っているの」 「席がないからです」Naze tatteiru no? Seki ga nai karadesu.Why are you standing? Because there are no vacant seats.

As you can see, there’s no need for a word to say “because” in the answer. However, be careful to the other “why” word: どうして.

In fact, どうして (doushite) has 2 meanings: can you guess the slight difference from the context?

  • the first one is “why”, and is used as なぜ, but more in the speaking.
  • the second meaning is “how”.
どうしてダメなの?Doushite dame nano?Why not?
どうしてそんなに怒っているのですか。Doushite sonnani okotteiru no desuka?Why are you so mad?
そんなことがどうしてわかるの?Sonna koto ga doushite wakaru no?How do you know that?
どうして彼女と知り合いのですかDoushite kanojo to shiriai no desuka?How did you get to know her?

In conclusion, just like these, from observing what the other person is saying we can detect the WH word and guess what they’re asking when we only know the meaning for some fragments of the sentence. However, it doesn’t mean we can always guess right, for that practicing sentence making, conversing, and learning new words are a must.

Thank you for reading!

Author: Valeria (graduated at Ca’Foscari University Japanese Studies)

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