One of the most versatile words in Japanese is the word 気（き・ki）which can roughly be translated to mean “mind”, “soul”, or “mood”, amongst other definitions. It is derived from the Chinese word Qi, which you may be familiar with as the energy that is traditionally considered to flow through all living things.
Over the centuries, 気 has worked itself into dozens of expressions with various meanings, to the point where it can arguably be considered part of the grammar of the language itself. As a result, it is almost impossible to speak Japanese without understanding the word 気. Here is a brief introduction to 5 of its most common uses.
This first expression is probably the most important phrase with 気 you will learn. Literally meaning “to attach (your) ki”, it idiomatically means to “to be careful” or “to take care”. This expression is so common that the command form, 気をつけて, has become a standard fixed expression in its own right, meaning “Take Care!” . 気をつけて is a common thing to say to somebody as they are leaving, either to go on a trip or to go back home or any other situation where they are physically heading away from you. When used along with the sentence ending particle ね, it can also be used as a friendly and casual reminder to be mindful of what you’re doing.
気をつけて！ – Take Care!
ハサミを使うときは気をつけてね – Be careful when using scissors (maybe said by a mother to her child).
飲みすぎないように気をつけたほうがいいよ。 – You should be careful not to drink too much
This next expression, if literally translated, means “to become Ki” but more idiomatically means to worry or to have on one’s mind. It is used for when something is occupying your thoughts, or when something just happens to catch your attention or bother you. There is a nuance here that you have little control over your feelings. There is just something that is eating away at you and you can’t help it. The reason for this nuance is made more apparent by the fact that 気になる is an intransitive verb expression. As a result, it typically follows the pattern of 「X」が気になる, where X is the thing that is occupying your thoughts.
最近、 元彼のことが気になってしまっている – Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my ex boyfriend.
電車で居眠りしている人のいびきが気になる – The snoring from the person sleeping on the train is getting on my nerves.
This next expression can also mean to worry and is in some ways similar to 気になる. However, it’s used for when you are actively worried about or fretting over something. You, as a conscious agent, are making an explicit choice to concern yourself with something. For example, maybe you are eating spaghetti and are worried about spilling sauce on your new shirt. This is the core distinction between this expression and 気になる, which as mentioned before, is for when something passively grabs your attention and/or annoys you. Again, this nuance is reflected in the grammar itself. 気にする is a transitive expression, and follows the pattern 「X」を気にする, where X, the thing you are worried about, is marked with the object particle を.
太るのを気にしている – I’m worried about getting fat
私のことを気にしないでください – Please do not worry about me
This next expression means to have a feeling or to have a hunch. It’s used when you’re trying to express your intuition about a certain situation. It can also be used when you make a realization about something. In some ways it is similar in usage to と思う, however it implies a lower degree of certainty than と思う. As a result, it is often used alongside other grammatical forms such as ような (seems like) to create the longer expression 「〜ような気がする」. This helps to further the notion that what you are describing really is just a hunch, and that the speaker’s statement shouldn’t be taken as factual or even necessarily as what the speaker truly thinks.
マイクさんはパーティーに来ない気がします – I feel like Mike isn’t coming to the party
旅行でパリに行ったとき、そこには住みたくないような気がしました。- When I went to Paris on vacation, I realized that I didn’t want to live there.
This expression means to have an interest in something or to have the inclination to do something. It’s often used in the negative to mean you just don’t feel like doing X, where X can be any activity. Grammatically, 気がある functions similarly to 気がする, except that you don’t have to worry about including extra qualifiers like ような.
今日は頭痛があるんだから、もうコンサートに行く気がない – I have a headache today, so I don’t feel like going to the concert anymore.
勉強する気がありますか – Do you feel like studying?
This usage of 気 has also given rise to the noun やる気 which means motivation.
ダイエットのやる気が全くない – I have absolutely no motivation to stick to a diet.
These expressions are just the tip of the iceberg as there are dozens of expressions that make use of 気. I will cover more of these expressions in future articles, but in the meantime, try to find as many new phrase as you can yourself!