It’s crucial to keep in mind three guidelines that almost every Japanese particle must abide by before we get started.
1. A particle in a sentence in Japanese is always used to modify the word before it.
2. Particles can be omitted, particularly in informal speech, but it’s best to do so only when it’s possible to infer the particles and the words they modify from the context.
3. Particles are hardly ever used to complete a sentence.
Let’s look at the main Japanese particles you’ll encounter in every sentence while keeping these rules in mind.
Many common Japanese sentences can be formed using these particles. While some particles serve as markers for topics, things, or actions, others play more specific roles, such as indicating location or time. While some of the particles in this section resemble other particles in some ways, each Japanese particle has a specific role that they play.
は (wa) – Marks the Sentence Topic
は (wa) marks the topic of the sentence, or the word that will be the focus of the following phrase or conversation. That means that wa will always follow either a noun or a personal pronoun. As personal pronoun topics can sometimes be omitted in Japanese, you might notice that wa can tend to disappear from sentences as well. But don’t be alarmed—leaving the topic and wa in your sentence is perfectly okay if you don’t feel comfortable omitting it. In English, wa could best be translated to am, is, or are. Here are some examples of sentences using Japanese particle wa.
- Nice to meet you. I’m Tom. はじめまして。私はトムです。(Hajimemashite. Watashi wa Tom desu.)
- He is good at soccer. 彼はサッカーが上手です。 (Kare wa jouzu desu.)
- That dog is very noisy. あの犬はとてもうるさいです。 (Ano inu wa totemo urusai desu.)
が (ga) – Marks the Subject; Emphasizes Words
が (ga) is often hard to distinguish from wa for many Western studiers of Japanese. These two Japanese particles can and often do appear in similar sentences. While wa points to the topic of the conversation, ga appears when necessary to differentiate the topic from the subject.
For example, let’s look at this sentence:
- 私は彼の名前が覚えられない (Watashi wa kare no namae ga oboerarenai).
It means, I can’t remember his name. I, or the person speaking, is the topic of the sentence. This example is about you not being able to remember his name. But the name cannot be remembered is the subject, and is therefore marked with ga. Another way ga is used in a sentence is to emphasize or narrow the focus down to the word it precedes. Using the same example, a second wa can technically be inserted in the place of ga. That would make the sentence look like this:
- 私は彼の名前は覚えられない。 (Watashi wa kare no namae wa oboerarenai.)
The meaning of this sentence to English is still the same: I can’t remember his name. However, the use of wa changes the nuance of the sentence. It doesn’t narrow the focus down to his name, and thus implies that the speaker has several other names that they cannot remember.
However, 私は彼の名前が覚えられない (Watashi wa kare no namae ga oboerarenai.) narrows the indication of this sentence down to his name only. The speaker cannot remember this man’s name, but they probably remember other names just fine. This might be a little confusing, but don’t worry. The differences between wa and ga will often become a natural instinct you gain with practice. Here are a few more examples to look at before we move on to the next Japanese particle.
- I like Harry Potter. 私はハリーポッターが好きです。 (Watashi wa Harry Potter ga suki desu.)
- I didn’t know that Tom plays the piano. 私はトムがピアノを弾けるなんて知らなかった。 (Watashi wa Tom ga piano o hikeru nante shiranakatta.)
に (ni) – Marks the Direction of an Action
The particle に (ni) has two uses. First, it directs the action of a following verb to the word it follows. For example, the sentence:
- 私はトムにパンをあげました 。 (Watashi wa Tom ni pan o agemashita.)
means I gave bread to him. Whom or what was the bread given to? Tom. This is why the English prepositions to, from, or at are mostly used as translations for ni. Ni is also used to indicate a time, place, or direction. For example, the sentence I will go to the market at 12:00 translates to:
- 私は 12 時にスーパーマーケットに行きます。 (Watashi wa juuni ji ni suupaa maaketto ni ikimasu.)
Here are a few more example sentences to help you understand the particle ni.
- I will go to my friend’s house today. 今日、私は友達の家に行きます。(Kyou, watashi wa tomodachi no ie ni ikimasu.)
- The sunset always happens at the west. 夕焼けはいつも西に起こります。(Yuuyake wa itsumo nishi ni okorimasu.)
へ (e) – Marks Destination, and Direction
へ (e) is similar to ni in that it indicates direction and destination. The biggest differences between e and ni are that e is limited to indicating destination and direction and that unlike ni, it can be combined with other Japanese particles. The most common English translation of e is towards. This might not be a literal translation, but it sums up the nuance of this particle quite well. Take this Japanese sentence, for example:
- 彼女は太陽へ向きました。 (Kanojo wa taiyou e mukimashita.)
The English translation of this sentence is, The girl faced the sun, but it can also be
translated as, The girl faced towards the sun. E marks the direction in which the girl is
As far as marking destination is concerned, e is practically interchangeable with ni. We
can use it in the supermarket example from the previous section:
- I will go to the market at 12:00. 私は 12 時にスーパーマーケットへ行きます。 (Watashi wa juuni ji ni suupaamaaketto e ikimasu.)
This does sound a bit clunkier than when ni is used after “supermarket,” but it’s still an acceptable sentence. Note that e cannot replace ni to mark the time of 12:00. E is more limited in its use than ni in this regard.
- I want to go to Japan. 私は日本へ行きたい。 (Watashi wa Nihon e ikitai.)
- Tom ran forwards. トムは前へ走りました。 (Tom wamae e hashirimashita.)
を (o) – Indicates the Direct Object
The usage of を (o) in a sentence is pretty straightforward. This particle follows the direct object of the sentence. For example, the sentence Takashi kicked the ball is translated to:
- 孝さんはボールを蹴った。 (Takeshi-san wa booru o ketta.)
What did Takashi perform the verb of kicking upon? His action was with the ball. So long as you can remember what the object of the sentence is, using o will become a breeze.
- I ate all of those cream puffs. 私はそのシュークリームを全部食べました。(Watashi was ono shuu curiimu o zenbu tabemashita.)
- Tom touched the cat. トムは猫を触りました。 (Tom waneko o sawarimashita.)
で (de) Indicates How or Where an Action Takes Place
The word that the Japanese particle で (de) is attached to will often be a location or situation that gives more information regarding the following action. For example, 日本で台風が発生しました (Nihon de taifuu ga hassei shimashita.) means A typhoon appeared in Japan.
De is also used for methods of transportation. I go to school by bike in Japanese is 私は自転車で学校に行きます。(Watashi wa jitensha de gakkou ni ikimasu.) If the word you are using describes how or where and action takes place, it will most likely be followed by the particle de.
- There was a fire at my school yesterday. 昨日、私の学校で火事がありました。 (Kinou, watashi no gakkou de kaji ga arimashita.)
- Can you get to Tokyo be train? 東京まで電車で行けますか？ (Tokyo made densha de ikemasu ka?)
の (no) – Indicates Possession
The Japanese particle の (no) is translated as the possessive apostrophe-s or as “of.” It indicates possession.
- I got the girl’s phone number. 彼女の電話番号をもらいました。(Kanojo no denwa bangou o moraimashita.)
- That’s Sarah’s pen! それはサラさんのペンです！ (Sore wa Sarah-san no pen desu!)
も (mo) – Means Too or Also
In Japanese, the particle も (mo) is used in the same way the English words too and also are in a sentence. The easiest example would be the Japanese sentence for, “Me too!” It is simply 私も！ (Watashi mo!)
- Please let her play, also. 彼女もやらせてください。 (Kanojo mo yarasete kudasai.)
- I have a little brother, too. 私も弟がいます。 (Watashi mo otouto ga imasu.)
Lesser Japanese Particles
After going over the main Japanese particles, let’s move on to a few that are equally significant but frequently appear in longer sentences. These particles might not appear in your textbook as frequently if you’re just starting to learn Japanese, but it’s still a good idea to keep them in mind as you proceed with your lessons.
と (to) – “And”, “Also”
The Japanese particle と (to, pronounced “t-oh”) is used to connect clauses the way the word and would in English. While commas are used in Japanese, to connect several clauses to form a complete list of nouns the speaker believes is exhaustive. To is also used when directly quoting what someone else has said.
- I want you to buy oranges, eggs, and pork. オレンジと卵と豚肉を買って欲しいです。 (Orenji to tamago to buta niku o katte hoshii desu.)
- He said, “I want us to break up.” 「俺は別れたい」と彼が言った。 (“Ore wawakaretai,” to kare ga itta.)
や (ya) – “Or”
The particle や (ya) is used in Japanese to list clauses when the speaker believes the list is non-exhaustive. It’s used the way we would use or in English.
- I’d like to eat either chocolate or caramel. 私はチョコレートやキャラメルを食べたいです。 (Watashi wa chocoreeto ya kyarameru o tabetai desu.)
か (ka) – Indicates a Question
か (ka) is the only Japanese particle on our list that is used at the end of the sentence. It’s done so to indicate a question, and often in written Japanese can replace the question mark entirely; questions can be ended with the Japanese period “。” if ka appears at the end of the question. Ka can also be used the way we would use or in English.
- What’s for dinner today? 今日のご飯は何ですか。 (Kyou no gohan wa nandesu ka?)
- Do you have a notebook that you don’t need? 要らないノートがありますか。 (Iranai nooto ga arimasu ka?)
- Which do you want, orange juice or coffee? オレンジジュースかコーヒー、どっちにする？ (Oreenji juusu ka coohii, docchi ni suru?)
Using Japanese Particles to Build a Sentence
In Japanese sentences, you can rearrange the clauses without changing the meaning of the sentence they’re in. So long as you keep the particles paired with their preceding words, you can almost always move things around without any trouble. 私は昨⽇の夜にカレンと会いました can just as easily become 昨⽇の夜に私はカレンと会いました。
The meaning remains the same.
You can also omit the subject from the sentence, so long as it can be implied by context. If the speaker omitted the subject from the previous sentence, listeners would still infer that it was the speaker who had met with Karen:
- (私は)昨日の夜にカレンと会いました。 ((Watashi wa) kinou no your ni Karen to aimashita.)
Japanese Particles: Summary
Using Japanese particles can be simple—and even enjoyable—if you take the time to study each one and its function in a sentence. There are a few more particles that are too complex to include here, but if you decide to study Japanese with us at Valiant Language School, our teachers will help you not only understand each particles but ensure you are using it correctly in the future during conversation practices