Japanese Question Words: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How : Have you ever wondered how to say question words in Japanese? In English, it’s easy to remember who, what, where, when, why, and how, because almost all of them start with “w.” It’s also easy because there aren’t really variations for any of them.

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Japanese Question Words: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How

But, of course, Japanese is a little different. Let’s look at Japanese question words in this article, and learn when and how to use them.

JapaneseRomajiEnglish (Meaning)



Japanese Question Words: Who?(だれ)

Who do you think you are? How to use “Who(だれ)” in Japanese
Who is it ?

The word “who” in Japanese is pretty simple. It’s just “dare” (誰). “Dare” doesn’t change at all, no matter how many people you’re talking about, your level of formality, or really anything. Okay, well, if you’re going to be really formal there’s stuff like “Dochira-sama” (どちら様), but honestly, you won’t be speaking like that very often at all.

“Dare” is perfectly fine to use in any normal conversation, even when speaking with your boss.

Japanese Question Words: What?(なに)

How to use “What” “なん” ”なに” in Japanese
Oh!! What is this ?
[Korewa nandesuka]
“What do you want to eat?” → 「何が食(た)べたいですか。」
“What is your dream?” → 「あなたの夢(ゆめ)は何ですか。」

Note that 何ですか is used when we use the word what at the end of the sentence.

If you’ve seen any anime, you’ve heard the word “nani” (何) before. And for good reason. It means “what,” and it’s used all the time. 

“Nani” can also be shortened to “nan” depending on what comes after it, and it still takes the same kanji. This is to make reading easier. A common example of this is the phrase “Nan darou” (何だろう), which also means “what,” but adds a bit of uncertainty to it. Kind of like “Yeah, I wonder what it is.” It’s also shortened in compound words such as “nanji” (何時), or “what time?” 

As far as exclamations go, it’s less common for people to just yell out “Nani??” as you may have heard in a show. To say “What?” or “Huh?” it’s more likely that people will use vocalizations that aren’t really words. This includes things like “Eee?” and “Hah?” The speaker will use tone and length of the sound to express how confused or surprised they are. 

Japanese Question Words: Where?(どこ)

How to use どこ “Where” in Japanese
Where is the bathroom?
[Toirewa dokodesuka]
 “Where are we meeting up tomorrow?” → 「明日(あした)はどこで会(あ)う?」

The word for “where” is one of those ko-so-a-do words, which makes it easy to remember. “Where” is “doko” (どこ), which can be answered with the other words in its group, “koko” (ここ: here), “soko” (そこ: there), and “asoko” (あそこ: over there). 

This is also a good place to mention other ko-so-a-do words, because the ones that start with “do” are all question words. “Dochira” (どちら) means “which way,” and can be abbreviated in informal speech to “docchi” (どっち). These can both be answered with the other words from their groups as well (kochira/kocchi, sochira/socchi, and achira/acchi). 

The word “dore” (どれ) means “which,” and follows all of these same rules with “kore,” “sore,” and “are.”

Japanese Question Words: When?(いつ)

How to use “When” いつ 何時 in Japanese
When is your birthday?
[Tanjyoubiwa itsudesuka]
“When is the library going to close?” → 「図書館(としょかん)はいつ閉(し)まるの?」

Remember that these words come after the subject (place, object, time) comes first.

The basic word for “when” is “itsu” (いつ). It’s important to remember that this is only used as a question word. You can say “When will you go home?” with “Itsu kaerimasu ka?” (いつ帰りますか?). However, you cannot use “itsu” in a sentence like “I’ll do my homework when I get home.” That “when” requires a different grammar structure because it isn’t a question. 

Japanese Question Words: Why?(なぜ、なんで)

How to use the various “Why” なぜ なんで in Japanese
Why do you study Japanese?
[Naze nihongowo benkyou surunodesuka]
“Why are you wearing a jacket when it is so hot outside?”
→ 「こんなに外(そと)は暑(あつ)いのに なんで/どうして ジャケットを着(き)てるの?」

The word I’ve heard used most often for “why” is “nande” (なんで). If you want to be more formal, you can kick it up to “naze” (なぜ). 

If you want to drop the formality even more and sound like you’re from Kansai, a signature Kansai-ben phrase is “Nande ya nen” (なんでやねん). It also kind of just means “why,” but it’s definitely region-specific slang.

“Doushite” (どうして) can also be used to say “why.” But it can also mean “how” depending on context. 

Japanese Question Words: How?(どう)

Asking the right questions in Japanese: How Many or Much 「いくつ(Ikutsu)」「いくら(Ikura)」
Why do you know?
[Doushite Shitteruno]

The reason “doushite” can be used for “how” as well is because the basic word for “how” is “dou” (どう). You can use “dou” on its own, such as the sentence “How is it?” with “Dou desu ka?” (どうですか?). 

You can also tack verbs on after “dou” to ask “How do I (verb)?” or “What do you (verb)?” Common examples of this include, “How do I read this kanji?” as “Kono kanji wa dou yomimasu ka?” (この漢字はどう読みますか?) and “What do you think?” as “Dou omoimasu ka?” (どう思いますか?). 

“Dou” is similar to the ko-so-a-do groups because it can be answered with “kou” (こう: like this) and “sou” (そう: like that). I’m not sure if there is an “a” word in this group, which just goes to show that you will probably never need to use it, if it exists. 

The formal version of “dou” is “ikaga” (如何), and they actually have the same kanji that pretty much no one uses. You may hear people offering you things with “ikaga” by using the phrase “Ikaga deshou ka?” (如何でしょうか?) or “How about this?” Overall, you’re more likely to use “dou” than “ikaga” in everyday conversation. 

Some Tips and Tricks

Make sure to remember that question words usually use the particle “ga” (が) over “wa” (は). This is because they signify unknown information.

Try to learn the ko-so-a-do words especially. Words that are grouped up like this can really help you build your vocabulary because they’re pretty much a 4-for-1 special. They also help a lot when you need to give or receive directions, so, hey, they’re practical! 

It’s also good to try not to mentally group these question words into our English translations of them. If you noticed, sometimes words were translated differently based on context, such as “dou” being translated as “what.” I grouped them here into our English question words to help explain them, but these words will sometimes jump around in meaning based on how they are used. Keep up your studying, and you’ll get these down in no time!

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