Particles are a vital part of the Japanese language. They are the modifiers that state the grammatical role of the noun they refer to and express what that noun is doing in the sentence. So how do you use particles in the Japanese language, you might ask? You will learn more about how to use the main Japanese particles in this article.
As you may know, Japanese is a SOV language, where the subject is always expressed at the beginning (can be implied) and other complements and the direct Object always precedes the verb, which is always located at the end of the sentence. This one always goes at the end of the sentence. In addition, the order of the elements is free, as you can see in this example:
Kyōkosan wa toshokan de eigo wo benkyōshiteimasu.
Kyōko is studying Japanese language in the library.
Kyōkosan wa eigo wo toshokan de benkyōshiteimasu.
Kyōko is studying in the library Japanese language.
Both sentences are grammatically correct, but keep in mind that the closer a complement is to the verb, the more important it is. In this example, if we consider it as the answer to the question “What is Kyōko studying?”, then we prefer the first sentence to the second one. However, if the question is “Where is Kyōko studying”, then we would choose the second one.
Things to remember about Japanese particles
In Japanese, particles are called 助詞 joshi , meaning literally “helping the words/text”, as the kanji 助ける tasukeru means “to help” and 詞 shi means “words or text”.
Nihon de oshōgatsu ni otona ga kodomo ni okane wo agemasu.
In Japan, on New Year’s Day, adults give money to their children.
Kyōkosan wa senshū Ryūjisan to kyōkai de kekkonshimashita.
Last week, Kyōko and Ryūji married in a church.
As you can see, each complement comes with a different particle: は for the subject, で to state the place of the action, and を for the direct object. In fact, this is exactly the role of the postpositional particles: they clarify the role of the noun or nouns they follow in a statement. Particles are always positioned after the noun they are referred to, therefore, you should be careful while using them because it’s easy to cause a misunderstanding by placing them wrong.
Mariasan wa fōku de supaghetti wo tabemasu.
Maria eats spaghetti with a fork.
Mariasan wa fōku wo supaghetti de tabemasu.
Maria eats a fork with spaghetti.
Additionally, keep in mind that each particle can have more than one function and can state more than one complement. We will explain the most used particles to understand basic Japanese sentences.
Basic Japanese particles: は wa, が ga, を wo, and の no
The は and が particles
The particle は (wa) states the subject doing the action in the sentence. Despite it being written “ha”, it is pronounced “wa”. Here are some examples:
Watashi wa itariajin desu.
I am Italian.
Otōsan wa totemo odorokimashita.
My father was surprised.
- Similar to は is the particle が ga, because both state “the subject doing the action”. Their role can be confusing, but keep this in mind: が is used when we want to emphasize the noun before it. Let’s look at two examples to understand it clearly.
Sakurasan ga kono kasa wa hoshii desu.
Sakura wants this umbrella.
By placing が after “Sakura”, the emphasis is put on her, the person who wants the umbrella, as if it was the answer to the question
“Who wants the umbrella?”. Note that changing the particles order results in a slight different meaning:
Sakurasan wa kono kasa ga hoshii desu.
This sentence emphasizes what Sakura wants, as if it was the answer to the question “What does Sakura want?”. There is no such difference in English, therefore we can translate them in the same way.
Japanese particles: を and の
を (wo) is very simple to use because it states the direct object.
Watashi wa gohan wo tabemasu.
I eat rice.
Sarasan wa tegami wo kaiteimasu.
Sara is writing a letter.
Furthermore, を is also used to express “passing through” , “crossing something” or “leaving a place”.
家を出る。 Uchi o deru. Leaving home.
橋を渡る。 Hashi wo wataru. Crossing a bridge.
Watashi wa mainichi kōen wo sanposhimasu.
Everyday, I walk through the park.
- の (no) particle is the one particle you have the least chance of mixing it up. When you want to express that “N1 belongs to N2”, you say “N2の N1”. Just as in English, where we use ‘X’s’, in Japanese we say ‘X の’. Here are some axamples:
私のお父さん Watashi no otōsan My father
あなたの彼氏 Anata no kareshi Your boyfriend
桜の花 Sakura no hana. Cherry blossom
(the meaning is: cherry blossom’s flower)
英語の本 Eigo no hon English book
Kore wa dare no pen desuka?
Whose pen is this?
Kore wa watashi no pen desu.
This is my pen.
Particles of Place and Direction
Main uses of に particle
The に (ni) particle has more than one using: it states the place where the subject is, referring to animate or inanimate objects.
Ki no ue ni neko ga imasu.
There is a cat on the tree.
Kyōto ni sundeimasu.
I live in Kyōto.
Tsukue no shita ni kasa ga arimasu.
There is an umbrella under the desk.
- Also states the direction or the arrival point:
Mainichi daigaku ni ikimasu.
I go to University every day.
Kesa Rōma ni tsukimashita.
I arrived in Rome this morning.
- In addition, に expresses the time when the action occurs. Note that when you state something as “today, this week, this month” the particle is not mandatory, as in the previous sentence.
Kyō wa kuji ni okimashita.
Today I woke up at 9 o’clock.
Densha wa jūji ni shuppatsushimasu.
The train leaves at 10.
- Combined with the verb なります narimasu to express a changing that occurs:
元気になります / 病気になります。
Genki ni narimashita / Byōki ni narimashita.
To become healthy/sick.
Kongetsu jūhachi ni narimasu.
I will be 18 this month.
Shōrai nani ni naritai? Isha ni naritai.
What do you want to be in the future? I want to become a doctor.
The へ particle
The へ he particle generally states the destination point. It can be used in the same way as に, but this one specifies more the “towards” meaning, both with a verb of movement and to express “for” someone.
Rōma he mukau.
Heading towards Rome.
Tōkyō he iku.
Going to Tōkyō.
Kochira he dōzo.
Come this way, please.
Okāsan he tegami wo kakimasu.
Write a letter to one’s mother.
Harukochan he no purezento.
A present for Haruko.
Moreover, you can use two particles together, like in this case: the present is for Haruko, so you will have to use 春子へ, but at the same time it is also her present, Haruko’s present, so you need to state that too with 春子のプレゼント. Putting the two particles together results in the last sentence, with “N1へのN2”.
Main uses of the で particle
で de is usually translated with prepositions “at”, “in”, and “on”, but has various meanings:
- Place where the action occurs
田舎で イタリアで 日本で 暮らす。
Inaka de/Itaria de/Nihon de kurasu.
Living in the countryside/in Italy/in Japan.
Watashi no uchi de pātī wo suru.
Have a party in my house.
Niwa de asobu.
Playing in the garden,
- With transportation words, and to state the complement that specifies the tool
列車で Ressha de With the train
飛行機で Hikōki de With the aeroplane
Ohashi de umaku taberaremasen.
I can’t eat well with chopsticks.
Jisho de tango wo shirabemasu.
Look up a word using the dictionary.
- To express the materials of which things are done
Kami de dekiteiru ningyō.
A doll made of paper.
Ki de dekita supūn.
A spoon made of wood.
- To express the complement that specifies the cause:
Kyō wa ame de dekakeraremasendeshita.
I couldn’t go out today because of the rain.
Chichi wa sensō de shinda.
My father died because of the war./ My father died in the war.
- To express time:
Kono mise ha hachiji de shimeru.
This store closes at eight.
Sanjuppun de modottekimasu.
I’ll be back in half an hour.
Sanjikan de shigoto wo owarimashita.
I finished the work in 3 hours.
と: the particle of company
と to is used to express “company”, and it is usually translated as “with” and “against”…
Tomodachi to ryōkōshimashita.
I traveled with my friend.
Sētā to jinzu wo katta.
I bought a sweater and a pair of jeans.
Dainijisekaitaisen de nihon wa beikoku to tatakatta.
Japan fought against the U.S. in World War II.
… But it is also used to express a comparison:
Kare no kangae wa watashi to chiagaimasu.
His ideas are different from mine.
Ringo to orenji to dochira ga skidesuka?
Which one do you prefer, the apple or the orange?
If you want to know more about Japanese particles and grammar, you should know that there are also some Ending particles to use in order to speak Japanese more naturally!
Hope you found this article useful!
Author: Valeria (graduated at Ca’Foscari University Japanese Studies)
Want to learn more of Japanese culture and Japanese language?