Japanese Question Words: “What”, “Where”, When”, “Who”, “How” and “Why” in Japanese
Sooner or later, you’re going to have to master how to ask a question in Japanese. After all, knowing how to ask “What” in Japanese — as in “What’s this?” — is a lifesaver when you first start learning the language.
Besides that, questions are how you develop meaningful conversations with others. If you can’t ask questions about them, how can you get to know them?
So not only am I going to cover the basic Who/What/When/Where/Why/How words in Japanese, but I’m also going to give you examples of how to use them in common sentences. Plus, I’ll share some of the most common Japanese question phrases you’ll need to know.
So, let’s work on building your conversation skills together with this list of Japanese question words!
Asking a Question in Japanese
First, let’s understand how to ask and form a question in Japanese.
“Question” in Japanese is 質問 (shitsumon). You can say 質問があります (shitsumon ga arimasu), which means “I have a question.” Or, politely ask “May I ask a question” with: 質問していいですか？ (Shitsumon shite ii desu ka?).
The verb, “to ask” can be said a few different ways. You can use 質問する (shitsumon suru), 尋ねる (tazuneru), or 聞く (kiku). These are used in slightly different ways, though.
質問する is used more like “to make a question.” 尋ねる means “to ask” and it’s more on the formal side. 聞く, on the other hand, is the one you’ll hear the most for “to ask.”
But any sentence can be turned into a question simply by adding the particle か to the end!
Benkyou shite imasu ka
“Are you studying?”
A quick note here. Because か is the “?” at the end of the sentence, you don’t actually need a question mark. You can still use one, but it’s much more common and correct to use the Japanese maru 。
You use the question mark in writing when you are talking casually, and it’s normally a word you would say on its own with a raised intonation to mark the question.
Here’s the last thing to know when forming a sentence in Japanese. Most question words are connected with the particle が (ga) before them. So the grammar structure is (noun or noun phrase) + が + (question word) + (verb) + か.
An example: スマホがどこですか。(Sumaho ga doko desu ka) That means “Where is my smartphone?” Sumaho is the noun + particle ga + question word doko + verb desu + question particle ka.
Japanese Question Words: The Basics
Here are the basic and most common Japanese question words you’ll hear. These will be invaluable to memorize, so you can ask how to say things, where something is, and when to meet someone.
What in Japanese – 何
“What” in Japanese is 何, read both “nan” and “nani.” Here are some examples:
Onamae wa nan desu ka.
“What’s your name?”
“What? I didn’t hear you.”
You can also attach particles to 何 to make other common, helpful terms. 何か (nanika) means “something” while 何も (nanimo) means “nothing.” You can also use でも to make 何でも for “anything.” Super useful!
Who in Japanese – 誰
To ask “who,” you use the question word 誰 (dare). You can also just say 誰？ to ask “Who are you?” in Japanese… But that’s informal and not very polite.
Here are some ways to use it:
Dare desu ka
“Who is it?”
Dare to hanashite ita no?
“Who were you talking to?”
Like 何, you can also combine 誰 with the particles も, でも, and か to make new words:
- 誰も (daremo) – “everybody”, or “nobody” when used with a negative statement
- 誰でも (daredemo) – “anybody”
- 誰か (dareka) – “somebody”
Why in Japanese – どうして
There are actually three ways to ask “why” in Japanese, but they all mean almost the same thing.
First, どうして (doushite). This means “why” and is the most standard. It’s neither formal or informal, so it’s perfect for most situations.
なぜ means “why” or “how come.” The nuance here is it’s used in more formal situations, or in writing.
なんで is the most casual and used between friends and family. It means “why” or “for what reason.” It’s also used as a conversation filler for when you forget the word, kind of like “Ah, what is it again…”
Here are some examples with each:
Doushite totemo nemui desu ka
“Why are you so sleepy?”
Nande meccha kawaii no
“Why is it so cute??”
Naze desu ka
“Why is that?” (Polite)
There are also some variations of どうして with particles, but it changes the meaning quite a bit. They are:
- どうしても (doushitemo) – “No matter what”
- どうしてか (doushiteka) – “For some reason”
- どうしてかな (doushite kana) – “I wonder why”
When in Japanese – いつ
いつ (itsu) is “when” in Japanese. When you attach the particle も, it becomes いつも (itsumo), meaning “always.”
You can also use いつでも (itsudemo) for “anytime” and いつか (itsuka) for “sometimes.”
Tanjoubi wa itsu desu ka
“When is your birthday?”
Where in Japanese – どこ
Need directions? Lost something and wondering where it went? Use どこ (doko) to ask “where” in Japanese.
Let's take a look at the question word + particle combos here:
- どこも (dokomo) – “everywhere”, or “nowhere” when used in a negative sentence
- どこでも (dokodemo) – “anywhere”
- どこか (dokoka) – “somewhere”
Eki ga doko desu ka
“Where is the train station?”
How in Japanese – どう
どう (dou) is “how” in Japanese.
You can add on to this one, too. どうか (douka) is “somehow” and どうでも is “anyhow” or “no matter what.” But since there’s no such thing as “everyhow”, adding the も particle to this one would turn it into “thanks” — どうも (doumo).
Dou sureba yoi desu ka
“How do I do this?”
Which in Japanese – どちら
You can use どちら (dochira) to ask “which” or “which way” to go. But, to ask “which one”, you would use the word どれ (dore).
And with the particles:
- どちらも (dochiramo) – “both”
- どちらでも (dochirademo) – “either”
- どちらか (dochiraka) – “which one” or “one way” when choosing between two options
Dochira wo erabimasu ka
“Which will you choose?”
Hopefully, you see how the particles change each question word. Adding -も makes it the extreme – “every” or “always.” -でも makes it “any.” And -か turns it into “some.”
Japanese Questions Words List with Common Questions
Now let’s cover some common questions you may be wondering how to ask!
“What is this?” In Japanese
これは何ですか (kore wa nan desu ka) is one of the most useful phrases you could learn. If you don’t know how to say something in Japanese, ask using that phrase to ask what it is.
Similarly, you can say それは何ですか (sore wa nan desu ka) to ask “What’s that?” or “What is it?” in Japanese. The only difference is これ means “this” and それ means “that.”
These two phrases are also useful:
Kore wa nihongo de nan to iimasu ka
“How do you say this in Japanese?”
*Nihongo de _ wa nan desu ka*
“What is __ in Japanese?”
“How much?” in Japanese
To ask the price of something, you can use いくら (ikura) for “how much?” For “how many” you use いくつ (ikutsu).
Ikura hitsuyou desu ka
“How much do you need?”
Ikutsu motte imasu ka
“How many do you have?”
“Where are you?” in Japanese
Looking for someone in a crowd? Call them on their スマホ (sumaho, “smartphone”) and ask どこにいますか (doko ni imasu ka). Which means, “Where are you?”
You could also ask questions like:
- どこに住んでいますか (doko ni sunde imasu ka) – “Where do you live?”
- どこで働いていますか (doko de hataraite imasu ka) – “Where do you work?”
- トイレがどこですか (toire ga doko desu ka) – “Where is the bathroom?”
“Where are you from?” in Japanese
出身がどちらですか (shusshin ga dochira desu ka) means “Where are you from?” in Japanese, or “Which is your hometown?” It sounds a bit odd translated directly into English, but many people often ask where you’re originally from. Even in Japan, since so many people move to Tokyo from all over the country.
Some other questions you can ask to get to know others:
- 趣味は何ですか (Shumi wa nan desu ka) – “What are your hobbies?”
- 何歳ですか (Nansai desu ka) – “How old are you?”
- 仕事は何ですか (Shigoto wa nan desu ka) – “Where do you work?”
“How are you?” In Japanese
“How are you?” in Japanese is お元気ですか (o-genki desu ka). It literally means “Are you well?” There’s another phrase you’ll sometimes hear, too: いかがですか (ikaga desu ka). It still means “How are you?” but can also mean “How’s it going?” and be applied to other topics, like a work project. Both phrases are on the formal side.
You can ask “How was your day” with the phrase 今日はどうでしたか (kyou wa dou deshita ka).
One thing to note, though, is that it’s not common to ask お元気ですか like it is in English. Japanese people use this phrase only when it’s been a while since they’ve seen the other person. And in that case, they say it in past tense: お元気でしたか (o-genki deshita ka).
“Are you…” in Japanese
A basic sentence pattern for asking questions is _ ですか (_ desu ka). You can ask “Are you…” in Japanese with this phrase. Like:
- 日本人ですか (Nihonjin desu ka) – “Are you Japanese?”
- 大丈夫ですか (Daijoubu desu ka) – “Are you okay?”
- 作家ですか (Sakka desu ka) – “Are you a writer?”
This only works with nouns, because verbs conjugate on their own. But it’s a very helpful, simple pattern!
Ask All the Questions in Japanese!
Now you’ve learned a lot of ways to ask questions, as well as the grammar and basic Japanese questions words. So go out, meet some new Japanese friends, and start asking away!