You may remember studying the “5ws” (and how) in English class at some point. These words are essential communication tools in Japanese.
In this guide, we’ll break each word down and explain it in full detail. Some of these question words have multiple forms (for polite/formal conversations). Take time to read each explanation carefully and pay attention to differences in use and meaning between forms.
Here is the list of words we’ll cover this this guide:
|English||Japanese||Variations of the Word|
|Who||誰 (dare)||何方 (donata) / どなた様 (donata sama) / どちら様 (dochira sama)|
|What||何 (nani / nan)|
|When||どこ (doko)||どちら (dochira)|
|Why||どうして (dōshite)||なぜ (naze) / なんで (nande)|
|How||どう (dō)||いかが (ikaga)|
“Who” in Japanese: 誰 (Dare)
To start, let’s discuss the “who” question word in Japanese; 誰 (dare). It is used in the same way as “who” in English.
Basic Example Sentences Using 誰 (Dare):
(Sakki dare ga denwa shita no?)
Who called just now?
(Ano kabe ni yorikakatteru hito wa dare?)
Who’s that person leaning against that wall over there?
An important point to remember is that 誰 (dare) is the casual form of the “who” in Japanese, so it is not used in formal or polite conversations. In addition, 誰 (dare) is usually used to refer to someone who is not directly involved in the conversation (unless you are asking someone, “Who are you?”)
More Example Sentences with 誰 (Dare):
(Tanaka san no tanjōbi pātī desu ga, dare ni shōtaijō o okuritai desu ka?)
I have a question about Tanaka-san’s birthday party; to whom do you want to send invitations?
(Watashi ga eigo ga peraperada nante, dare ni kiitan desu ka?)
From whom did you hear that I speak English fluently?
What is the Polite Way to Say “Who” in Japanese?
For more polite conversation, especially when referring to someone directly, the who question word instead takes the form of 何方 (donata). Donata can be written in kanji, but it is much more common for it to be written in hiragana, like this: どなた (donata).
If you talk to someone with a higher social status than you (boss, customer, teacher, etc.) or even with strangers, you should use the more polite expression どなた (donata).
Example Sentences Using どなた (Donata) :
(Kyō todoita tegami wa donata kara deshō ka?)
From whom is the letter that was delivered today?
(Kyō wa donata to irasshaimashita ka?)
Who did you come with today?
For exceptionally polite situations, (like when talking to the president of your company or customers*) the forms of どなた様 (donata sama) and どちら様 (dochira sama) should be used for additional formality.
*Note: Since customer service is incredibly important in Japan, customers have a much “higher” status than the employees.
Example Sentences with どなた様 (Donata Sama) and どちら様 (Dochira Sama):
(Raishū no goyoyaku desu ga, otomari ni naru kata wa donata-sama deshō ka?)
In regards to next week’s reservation, who will be staying with us?
2. Situation: Someone says hi to you, but you can’t remember who this person is. You can ask them:
(Shitsurei desu ga dochira sama desu ka?)
I hope you don’t mind me asking, but may ask who you are?
“What” in Japanese: 何 (Nani)
“What” is represented by the kanji “何” in Japanese. Depending on the context, this kanji has different readings, which we will discuss below.
1. 何 (Nani)
One reading for 何 is “nani.”
This is the reading used when you read the 何 character on it’s own, without any other characters “attached” to it (multiple kanji characters). Or if 何 is followed by a word start starts with any other letter other than D, T, or N, it will be read as “nani. These will often be particles like か、 が、を、も (ka, ga, o, mo).
Example Sentences with 何 (Nani):
1. 何！？ (No other characters following 何)
(Nani o tabetai desu ka?)
What do you want to eat?
(Nani ni tsukau?)
What will you use it for?
(Nani ga suki desu ka?)
What do you like?
(Nani mo omoshirokunai seikatsu)
An uninteresting life(style)
Also, if you are asking “what kind” or “which” type of questions with a noun, you will use “nani.”
- 何屋 (nani ya): What (kind of) store
- 何色 (nani iro): What color
- 何語 (nani go): What language
Example Sentences Using 何 (Nani) + Noun:
(Nani iro ga suki desu ka?)
What color do you like?
(Asoko wa honya ni naru mae wa nani ya san ga attan dakke?)
What store was there before the bookstore?
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Two examples you’ll hear often are:
How old (are you)
2. 何 (Nan)
The second reading is なん (nan), which is used in combination with the “to be” verb です (desu), or if 何 is followed by a constant (usually d, t, n).
Example Sentences Using 何 (Nan):
(Nan desu ka?)
What is it?
(Nan no koto desu ka?)
What are you talking about?
(Nan to iimasu ka?)
What is it called?
Why / By what means?
(Nande ikanain desu ka?)
Why are you not going?
何 is also read as “nan” if you are using a counter to ask how much/many of something there is.
Examples of 何 (Nan) + Counter Word:
- 何個 (なんこ): How many small objects?
- 何枚 (なんまい): How many flat objects?
- 何回 (なんかい): How many times?
“Where” in Japanese: どこ (Doko)
The most common word for “where” in Japanese is どこ (doko). The kanji for どこ is 何処 (doko), but it is more commonly written in hiragana.
Example Sentences Using どこ (Doko):
(Sumimasen, eki wa doko desu ka?)
Excuse me, where is the station?
(Densha no kippu wa dokode kaemasu ka?)
Where can I buy a train ticket?
Polite Way to Say “Where” in Japanese
This form is well-known among Japanese learners, but there is also a polite form, どちら (dochira). This is the same word used for “who,” so meaning depends on context.
Example Sentences Using どちら (Dochira). :
(Sumimasen, shokuinshitsu wa dochira deshō ka?)
Excuse me, where is the teacher’s room?
(Shusshin wa dochira desu ka?)
Where are you from?
When どちら is followed by 様 (sama), it always means “who.” Otherwise, the word’s meaning is dependent on context, so be sure to read the sentence carefully.
“When” in Japanese: 何時 (Itsu)
何時 (itsu) is the kanji for “when” in Japanese, but it is more commonly written in hiragana like this: いつ (itsu). This word can be used in both casual and formal conversations.
Example Sentences Using 何時 (Itsu):
(Itsu Itaria ni ikitai?)
When do you want to go to Italy?
(Gakkō wa itsu hajimarimasu ka?)
When does school start?
If you want to ask for a specific time, you can use 何 (nan) as discussed above, with the appropriate time measurement such as 時 (ji) for hours or 年 (nen) for years.
Example Sentences with いつ (Itsu) + Time Word:
(Densha wa nanji ni tsukimasu ka?)
When (what time) does the train arrive?
(Otōsan ga daigaku o sotsugyō shita no wa nan nen?)
What year did dad graduate from college?
“Why” in Japanese: 3 Different Ways
“Why” in Japanese is more complex than the previous words because there are 3 different words for it: どうして (dōshite), なんで (nande), and なぜ (naze).
While all of these words mean the same thing, they are used in slightly different ways.
どうして (dōshite) is the most common of the three words. どう (dō) means “how” (explained below) but when used with して (shite), its meaning becomes “why.”
どうして (dōshite) is slightly more polite than the other words for “why,” but it can also be used in casual conversation. In general, どうして (dōshite) is used to ask about intention or reason.
Example Sentences Using どうして (Dōshite)
(Dōshite sō omou no?)
Why do you think so?
(Dōshite itsumo chikoku suru no?)
Why are you always late?
2. なんで (Nande)
なんで (nande) is also used to ask about intention or reason. However, なんで (nande) is very casual and is therefore not used often in polite conversation. You’ll hear this word being used in conversations with people who know each other well (friends, close co-workers, family, etc.).
Example Sentences Using なんで (Nande):
(Nande kuruma o katta?)
Why did you buy a car?
(Nande Suzuki-kun to wakareta no?)
Why did you break up with Suzuki-kun?
In addition, なんで is often used rhetorically for emphasis.
(Nande sonna koto o surun da!)
Why would you do such a thing!
(Nande sonna koto o iu no?)
Why would you say such a thing?
3. なぜ (Naze)
Finally, なぜ has a similar level of formality to どうして (dōshite) but is instead often used to ask about the method or the cause of a result. This means that it is often used in formal or scientific questions.
Example Sentences Using なぜ (Naze):
(Naze kono ekitai wo kuwaeru to kappatsu ni narimasu ka?)
Why does it become active when this liquid is added?
(Kare wa naze kyū ni kaisha o yameta no desu ka?)
Why did he quit his job all of a sudden?
In addition, combining なぜ with なら (nara) or ならば (naraba) creates the phrase “The reason being ~.”
Example Sentneces with なぜなら (Nazenara)
(Kore kara no kaigi o rokuon suru koto ni narimashita. Nazenara, kako ni hanashita naiyō o sankō ni dekiru kara desu.)
It has been decided that all meetings from now on will be recorded. The reason being that it will become possible to reference all past discussions.
(Boku wa ojīchan ni yoku tegami o kakimasu. Nazenara, ojīchan wa mimi ga tōi node denwa de hanashi o surunoga muzukashii kara desu.)
I often write letters to my grandfather. The reason being that he is hard of hearing so it’s hard to talk to him on the phone.
“How” in Japanese: どう (Dō)
The basic way to say “how” in Japanese is どう (dō). However, there are some slight differences in how you can use it compared with the English “how.”
Example Sentences Using どう (Dō):
(Sono aisu wa dō?)
How is that ice cream?
(Kono kotoba wa dō yomimasu ka?)
How do you read this word?
One use of どう (dō) that differs from the use of the English “how” is the “to do” verb する (suru). When used together, the meaning becomes “what to do.”
Example Sentences with どう (Dō) + する (Suru):
(Kono mondai wa dō shimasu ka?)
What should we do about this problem?
(Yasai wa aratte mijingiri ni shita yo. Kono ato dō suru no?)
I’ve already washed and minced vegetables. What do I do after this?
Another use of どう (dō) is for suggestions, such as “how about~?” In these cases, どう (dō) is combined with です (desu), and can mean “what do you think about ~?” or “would you like~?”
Examples Using どう (Dō) + です (Desu)
(Sengetsu haitte kita shinnyūshain wa dō desu ka?)
What do you think about the new employee who started last month?
(Kyō shigoto ga owattara ippai dō desu ka?)
Would you like to get a drink after work today?
One final use of どう (dō) is asking how things are done (the way something is done), which is accomplished with the phrase どうやって (dō yatte). To use this, add it before the verb phrase explaining the action you want to ask about.
Examples with どうやって (Dō Yatte):
(Dō yatte kono kēki tsukutta no?)
How did you make this cake?
(Dō yatte sonnani yaseta no?)
How did you lose so much weight?
Formal/Polite Way to “Say” How in Japanese
In formal contexts, the form of the question verb changes to いかが (ikaga), represented by the kanji 如何. The meaning of these two forms is the same, but いかが (ikaga) is very polite, so it is used when speaking to superiors or customers.
Example Sentences Using いかが (Ikaga):
(Keiyaku no naiyō wa ikaga deshō ka?)
What do you think about the contents of the contract?
(Kyōto wa ikaga deshita ka?)
How was Kyoto?
Who, What, Where, & When + も (Mo) = “Every~”, Always
Adding the particle も (mo) to 誰 (dare), 何 (nani), どこ (doko), & いつ (itsu) creates the meaning of “every.”
- 誰 + も = だれも (daremo): everyone
- 何 + も = 何も (nanimo): everything
- どこ + も = どこも (dokomo): everywhere
- いつ + も = いつも (itsumo): always
Note: “Why” and “How” cannot be combined with も (mo) to create a similar meaning. There is the word どうも (dōmo) in Japanese, but it does not mean “every-how.” It means “thanks,” “very/much,” or “somehow” in Japanese.
Who, What, Where, & When + もない (Nai) = “No~”, Never
In addition, when the ない (nai) suffix is also added, it creates the meaning of “a lack of” or “no” in context.
- 誰 + もない = だれもいない** (daremonai): no one
- 何 + もない = 何もない (nanimonai): nothing
- どこ + もない = どこもない (dokomonai): nowhere
- いつ + もない = いつもない (itsumonai): never
**Note: Because 誰 is used for humans, the negative form of the verb いる (iru) is used.
Who, What, Where, & When + か (Ka) = “Some~”
The concept of “some” can also be expressed by adding the particle か (ka).
- 誰 + か = 誰か (dareka): someone
- 何 + か = 何か (nanika): something
- いつ + か = いつか (itsuka): sometime
- どこ + か = どこか (dokoka): somewhere
There is the word どうか (dōka) in Japanese, but it is not related to this grammar pattern (どう+か). This word actually means “please” in a desperate way when asking or requesting something. Think of someone asking “If there’s any way at all, please help me.” in English. The word “somehow” is どうにか (dōnika) in Japanese.
Who, What, Where, When, & How + でも (Demo) = “Any~”
Finally, to express the concept of “any,” the particle でも (demo) can be added to these question words.
- 誰 + でも = 誰でも (daredemo): anyone
- 何 + でも = 何でも (nandemo): anything
- いつ + でも = いつでも (itsudemo): anytime
- どこ + でも = どこでも (dokodemo): anywhere
- どう + でも = どうでも (dōdemo): anyway, anyhow***
***Note: Unlike the other grammar patterns listed above, どう can be used with this pattern to form どうでも (dōdemo), meaning “anyway” or “anyhow.”
While this has been a longer explanation of the question words in Japanese, hopefully, it has given you a clear picture of what they mean and how to use them. These words and their many forms help expand your communication skills. Mastering the 5Ws (and how) in Japanese is invaluable to interacting with others. Good luck in your studies, and as always, never stop asking questions!