For Japanese students, -nai is one of the first basic things you learn. We all know it as the negative form of the 動詞 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 漢字無” mean?

If you’ve noticed, we have included the 漢字 for Nai (無い)in this blog despite it’s ひらがな 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 漢字 and its meaning.

To put it simply, the 漢字, “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): ではない possible/ im可能
無駄 (むだ・muda): pointless/ useless
無料 (むりょう・muryou): いいえ charge/ free of charge
無鉛ガソリン (むえんガソリン・muengasorin): 国連leaded gasoline

It is definitely more common than you think! Can you think of other Japanese 単語 that you have learned that contains the 漢字, “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 動詞 そして 形容詞 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 ひらがな version but it’s the same nonetheless! Here are a few examples of using “〜無い・〜ない” with 動詞, 形容詞, and even nouns!

食べる (taberu: to eat) →  食べない (たべない: to ではない eat)
書く (kaku: to write) →  書かない (kakaない: to ではない write)
寒い (samui: cold) →  寒くない (samukuない: ではない cold)
高い (takai: tall) →  高くない (takakuない: ではない tall)
猫だ (neko da: It is a cat) →  猫じゃない (neko jya ない: It is ではない a cat)

In some cases, nai can also be used as a base word itself, an 形容詞 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!

病院ではテレビが無いです。
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!

問題無い。 
Mondai nai.
There is no problem. / The problem is non-existent.
他に道は無い。 
Hokani michi wa nai.
There is no other way. / The other way is non-existent.
 戦争より悪い物は無い。
Sensou yori warui mono wa nai.
There is nothing worse than war. / A thing that is worse that war is non-existent.
2つの車に大した差は無い。
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 ひらがな 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 漢字 for this “Aru”, it is the same 漢字 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 ひらがな 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.

テレビがある (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 単語. 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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