Japanese Direction Particles: へ(e) vs. に(ni) : Giving and understanding directions is an important part of learning any language, especially if you plan on traveling to a foreign country.

[Summary]JLPT N4 How to use Japanese “Particles” 助詞(じょし) in Japanese

In Japanese, particles can make a huge difference in meaning, so it’s good to know the difference between them. Plus, you’re going to need to use particles to speak Japanese.

Let’s take a look at two particles that, on the surface, seem to mean the exact same thing. We’ll talk about how they are similar and different, and how you can properly use them.

Japanese Direction Particles: へ(e) vs. に(ni)

Japanese Direction Particles –に (ni)

First, let’s take a look at に. This particle has a lot of uses, and it can be translated as “at,” “to,” “on,” or even other English words, depending on context. I’m going to break these down into the seven different uses my grammar book has listed.

1. Point of Time

The first use is to mark a specific point of time. You may have read my article about で (de), so you’ll know that で can also do this. The difference is, で marks a point of change while に just marks a point of time. You could say “I left home at two o’clock” by saying

“Niji ni uchi wo demashita” (二時にうちを出ました). 

2. Indirect Object

The object in a sentence is whatever the verb is acting on. The indirect object is when there are two objects, and the verb affects both of them, but one more directly than the other. Sorry, this is a weird explanation. I’ll use an example to help.

“To read a book” is a full phrase. In Japanese, it could be “hon wo yomu” (本を読む). The book is the object in this sentence. But if we change the sentence to “To read a book to me,” then “book” and “me” are both objects. The book is the direct object, because “read” directly affects it. “Me” is the indirect object, because the phrase still affects it, but not as directly as “book.” In Japanese, you would say

“Watashi ni hon wo yomu” (私に本を読む). 

に marks “watashi” as the indirect object.

3. Source

に can also mark the source of an action. So if you received a book from your friend, you could say

“Watashi wa kanojo ni hon wo moratta” (私は彼女に本をもらった). 

You might think, “Hey, I could just use ‘kara’ here.” And sometimes you can. に adds a more personal connection. So if you are getting something from a business or something that isn’t human, “kara” would probably be more appropriate.

4. Direct Contact

This translates as “on” or “onto” in English.

“Kami ni kaita” (紙に書いた)
“I wrote on the paper.”

This isn’t the same as a location marker. It’s just showing direct contact with something.

5. Purpose

You can tack に onto the end of a verb (in a specific conjugation) to combine verbs. For example, in English we can say “I’m going out to eat.” “Going” and “eat” are both verbs, and they combine into one action in this sentence. You can do that with に in Japanese. You can say

“Tabe ni ikimasu” (食べに行きます), 

which means essentially the same thing.

6. Location

に can be used to mark location. The main difference here between に and で is that に can be used with “aru” (ある) and “iru” (いる) to show the location of existence. You can say

“Koko ni aru” (ここにある) or “It is here.” 

But you can’t use で in this way.

7. Direction

Like the title says, に can be a directional particle. This translates to “to” or “towards” in English. Despite this being the last use I’m explaining, you’ll probably hear it a lot, and it basic examples like “I’m going to Tokyo” or “Tokyo ni ikimasu” (東京に行きます).

Japanese Direction Particles – へ (e)

So how does へ fit into all of this? First of all, remember that へ as a particle is pronounced “e,” even though it is written as “he.” 

When I learned these particles, I learned that に showed direction with a very specific endpoint while へ showed a more general direction (“towards” rather than “to”). But that’s kind of not true. 

Japanese people will use へ and に almost interchangeably with the 4th and 7th uses I gave above. Those would be the “direct contact” and “direction” uses. It’s mostly just based on personal preference with your speaking style. 

The one rule is that you can’t put “no” (の) after に, so you need to use へ in those situations. So you could say

“Tokyo e no basu” (東京へのバス), meaning “the bus going to Tokyo,” 

but you couldn’t replace へ with に. 

Personally, I find myself using に more often than へ simply because に has far more flexibility when it comes to uses. However, some people really like to use へ, and it might help you distinguish something in your mind as you’re talking. 

Try out both of them as you practice. See what feels the most comfortable with you. After all, Japanese people will understand both に and へ as long as you use them correctly. 

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The Japanese Particle で(de)
How to use Japanese particles: と (to), や (ya), and の (no)