For Japanese students, -nai is one of the first basic things you learn. We all know it as the negative form of the verb it’s attached to. However, for this blog, we will focus on nai(無い) to express nonexistence. Confused? Read and embark on this blog journey with us to hopefully get some clarity. 

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The root: What does the kanji無” mean?

If you’ve noticed, we have included the Kanji for Nai (無い)in this blog despite it’s hiragana form being more constantly used. As we all know, you can usually have a better understanding of the meaning of a word by looking at it’s kanji and its meaning.

To put it simply, the kanji, “Mu” (無), essentially means nothing. You will probably never hear anyone say “Mu” as it isn’t usually used by itself and is commonly used in a word as a prefix that functions as “not..”, “in-”, “-less”, and “im-” in English. Here are a few examples of words you have probably used before that contains “Mu” (無).

無理 (むり・muri): not possible/ impossible
無駄 (むだ・muda): pointless/ useless
無料 (むりょう・muryou): no charge/ free of charge
無鉛ガソリン (むえんガソリン・muengasorin): unleaded gasoline

It is definitely more common than you think! Can you think of other Japanese vocabulary that you have learned that contains the kanji, “Mu” (無)?

Nai (無い・ない: to not exist/ non existence

If you take another look at the examples we have in the first part of this blog, you can see a pattern where “無” usually negates the word it is attached to. Following this pattern, it applies to using “無” with verbs and adjectives as well, but instead of adding “mu” to the beginning of the word, we add it in the end in the form of “無い” (nai). We as language students have been exposed to using -nai from the very beginning of our Japanese learning journey–mainly the hiragana version but it’s the same nonetheless! Here are a few examples of using “〜無い・〜ない” with verbs, adjectives, and even nouns!

食べる (taberu: to eat) →  食べない (tabenai: to not eat)
書く (kaku: to write) →  書かない (kakanai: to not write)
寒い (samui: cold) →  寒くない (samukunai: not cold)
高い (takai: tall) →  高くない (takakunai: not tall)
猫だ (neko da: It is a cat) →  猫じゃない (neko jya nai: It is not a cat)

In some cases, nai can also be used as a base word itself, an adjective meaning “nonexistent”. By itself however, the word “Mu” (無) is not commonly used as you are more likely to hearl hear the word, “Nai” (無い)”, which means “nothing”.

To further expound on what “nonexistent” means, it’s quite similar to how we conversationally say, “there is no..” and “…without a”. Take a look at the sentence example below to help you visualise and make sense of what you just read!

Byouin de wa terebi ga nai.
There is no TV at the hospital (conversation/ normal way) 

TV is nonexistent at the hospital (technical but still correct way) 

Looking at the example above, we can also determine that nai can also signify “the absence of…” or even to “not have..”. Please look below for more sentence examples!

Mondai nai.
There is no problem. / The problem is non-existent.
Hokani michi wa nai.
There is no other way. / The other way is non-existent.
Sensou yori warui mono wa nai.
There is nothing worse than war. / A thing that is worse that war is non-existent.
Futatsu no kuruma ni taishita sa wa nai.
There is no difference between the two cars. / The difference between the two cars is non-existent.

Antonyms: Aru( 在る) versus Aru (有る)

Antonyms are defined as the opposite of a certain word. In this case, we are going to talk about “Aru/Arimasu”. As we are used to using the hiragana for both nai and aru/arimasu, it might’ve been quite a surprise for you readers to see the caption for this part of the blog. Yes, there are two types of “Aru” with different kanjis. Let’s take a look at them!

Aru( 在る) – “to exist”

If you take a look at the kanji for this “Aru”, it is the same kanji we use for the word “Sonzai” (存在: existence), this of course, gives us context clues to what this “aru” means. This aru is used to express “to exist”, so pretty much just expressing that something IS and is there. When “Nai” is used as an antonym of this “Aru”, we get “non-existent” or something is not there. Please look to the sentence below for an example!

テレビが在る (terebi ga aru: there is a TV) テレビが無い (terebi ga nai: there is no tv/ the tv is non-existent)

Aru (有る) – “to have”

Yes, it sounds and has the same hiragana of the “Aru” above BUT it actually has a different meaning. It’s quite subtle as you can technically interchange it if what you’re saying is not specific to either one. This “Aru” is used to express “to have” or “to possess”.  When “Nai” is used as an antonym of this “Aru”, we get “to not have” or “to not possess”. Please look below for a sample sentence–I’ll use a similar sentence structure I used in the other aru.

テレビが有る (terebi ga aru: To have a tv) テレビが無い (terebi ga nai: To not have a TV)

The better and more confident you are at Japanese, the less you put “Watashi wa” in the beginning of your sentences. This is how you get the sample sentence above! Do you see the subtle difference between the two “Arus”? 

What did we learn today?

Nai (無い) is not as simple as it seems! Us Japanese language students have been conditioned to using it as a suffix that we have neglected to look into it as deeply as we do the other parts of the Japanese vocabulary. We hope this blog has given you a bit of clarity in using Nai (無い) and hopefully, you learned something new today!

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