Shiru? Wakaru? What’s the difference? After all, the two are often translated as “to know” or “to understand.” In today’s lesson, we’re going to look at the real meaning of the words 知る and 分かる and learn which one to use at the right time.
In order to understand the meaning of shiru more deeply, let’s first take a look at the Chinese character 知 (chi).
知 is made up of two radicals: 矢 (shi) and 口 (kuchi). 矢 means “dart; arrow” and 口 means “mouth.” Put them together, and you get 知, which means “know; wisdom.”
矢 + 口 = 知
Now that we know the etymology of the word 知る, let’s get into what it actually means in practice. 知る is most easily translated as “to know,” which is a great definition to default to in the beginning. You either know something—or know about something—or you don’t.
If someone asks you…
“Ano hito wo shitte imasu ka”
“Do you know that person?”
…they are asking if you have met them before. They might also be asking if you know anything whatsoever about them. If this is your first time seeing this person and you know nothing about them, then your response would be…
I don’t know (that person).
(BONUS: A 知らない人 (shiranai hito) in English means “stranger”—or, translated literally, “a person unknown [to me].”)
A common phrase using 知る is…
I don’t know about (something) very well.
If you have a friend who’s a scientist, and you know almost nothing about science, this means she will have a comprehensive knowledge of things that you’ve never even heard of. For example, if she asks you what your opinion is on quantum mechanics, your response would be 「Quantum mechanicsはよく知らない」, or, more precisely, 「Quantum mechanicsは全然知らない」(“Quantum mechanics wa zenzen shiranai,” “I know absolutely nothing about quantum mechanics”).
It’s also common to see the word お知らせ (oshirase) written above important announcements posted on bulletin boards. お知らせ is equivalent to “NOTICE” in English. The word お知らせ is used because the person reading the bulletin is being shown the information for the first time. It is information that they did not know previously.
知る is a transitive verb in the Japanese language. This means that it takes on a direct object with the particle を (wo). (That being said, there are a few occasions where the particle が [ga] can be used.)
Kare wo shitte imasu ka?
Do you know him?
Hai, shitte imasu yo.
Yes, I do (know him).
Touhoku no sansa-doori wo shitte imasu ka?
Do you know the Sansa Doori Festival in Touhoku?
B: いいえ、知らないです。 Iie, shiranai desu.
No, I don’t (know it).
*Notice that the response is “shiranai” and not “shitte inai,” which would be wrong.
As you may have noticed, 知る is often conjugated into the present progressive 知っている. In English this would literally translate as “to be knowing,” which may sound strange. However, in Japanese grammar, if you know something, you “are knowing” it now, too. Therefore, get used to this conjugation for 知る because that’s how it’s used.
The Chinese character 分 (bun) is made up of the two radicals ハ (hachi) and 刀 (tou). ハ means “eight” and 刀 means “sword; saber; knife.” Put them together, and you get 分, which means “understand.”
ハ + 刀 = 分
In contrast to 知る (to know [in general]), 分かる (wakaru) means “to understand.” Understanding something involves not only knowing it, but also understanding it on a more-than-surface level.
So, instead of someone asking you, 「あの人を知っていますか？」, let’s say they ask you…
“Kare no jooku ga wakarimasu ka?”
“Do you understand his jokes?”
Of course you know (or at least know of) the man in question…but do you understand his jokes? Do you laugh? Are they funny? If you don’t find them funny (and, frankly, can’t understand why everyone else is laughing), then the appropriate response would be…
“I don’t understand (that person).”
In contrast to the above phrase よく知らない, you can also say…
I don’t understand (something) very well.
よく知らない means that you don’t know something. However, よく分からない means that you’re aware of the concept, but it doesn’t go anywhere beyond that.
Let’s go back to our scientist friend. Let’s say that, in this case, you are both scientists and at least have a surface-level knowledge of what the other person’s line of research involves. Your friend may ask you, 「Quantum mechanicsが分かりますか？」This means that he knows you may be aware of the concept of quantum mechanics but is inquiring if you know about it in depth. Your response could be…
Wakaru kedo, amari kuwashikunai.
I’m aware of the concept, but I don’t know much about it in detail.
Kono suugaku no mondai ga wakarimasu ka?
Do you understand this math problem?
Iie, wakaranai desu.
No, I don’t (understand it).
Nihongo ga wakarimasu ka?
Do you understand Japanese?
Hai, wakarimasu yo.
Yes, I do (understand it).
Now that you know the difference between 知る and 分かる, it’s time to get out there and practice with your language exchange partner! Remember, practice makes perfect, so get out there already, and practice, practice, practice!