By now you should be familiar with some of the very basic concepts of Japanese, namely the fact that the relationships between words are marked with grammatical particles, and that verbs and copulas come at the end of the sentence. So far, the particles we’ve gone over, が、を、and の, have had relatively clear cut meanings. It’s easy to see where you should use が vs を vs の as their usages (at least at this stage of learning) do not overlap*. However, these next two particles, に and へ have usages that appear to overlap when translated into English, thus making them the source of confusion for Japanese learners whose native language is English.

So in this article we will be going over these two particles, examining their most common uses and seeing how they resemble each other and how they differ.

Useful Vocabulary

  • ボール・Ball
  • 友達(ともだち)・Friend
  • ける ・To Kick
  • なげる・To throw
  • 行く(いく)・To go
  • 会う(あう)・To meet
  • 乗る(のる)・To ride
  • 待つ(まつ)・To wait
  • 入る(はいる)・ To enter
  • 送る(おくる)・To send
  • かける・To hang
  • 帰る(かえる)・ To go home
  • うち・ home
  • 自転車(じてんしゃ)・Bicycle
  • 車(くるま)・ Car
  • 学校(がっこう)・ School
  • 東京・(とうきょう)・Tokyo
  • 道(みち)・ Road
  • 公園(こうえん)・Park
  • テーブル・Table
  • 机(つくえ)・ Desk
  • テレビ・ TV
  • 靴(くつ)・ Shoes
  • ドア・Door
  • 窓(まど)・Window
  • 壁(かべ)・ Wall
  • 絵画(かいが)・ Painting
  • 手紙・(てがみ)・Letter
  • お母さん(おかあさん)・ Mother

Showing Indirect Objects of Verbs With に

So earlier we learned that the direct object of a verb is marked with を. However, in addition to the direct object, verbs can also have an indirect object, which is something that is affected by the verb, but isn’t directly acted upon by the verb itself.

For example, in English if you were to say “I throw the ball to Tom”, “I” would be the subject, “the ball” would be the direct object, and “to Tom” would be the indirect object. This is because the act of throwing is directly done to the ball, but “Tom” is still indirectly affected by the ball being thrown, which is what makes him the indirect object.

In Japanese, the indirect object is marked by the particle に. So for example, our sentence “I throw the ball to Tom” becomes:

トムボールなげる.

If we instead wanted to say “Tom throws the ball to me”, all we have to do is change which words are marked by which particles:

トムボールなげる (“Tom throws the ball to me”).

Notice that the nouns themselves do not change form, nor does the verb change depending on the person. So while in English we have the distinction between “I” and “me” and the verb “to throw” becomes “throws” in the third person, the Japanese versions stay the same. So 私 is both “I” and “me” and なげる is both “throw” and “throws”.

Here are some other example sentences:

  • 壁に絵画をかける – (I) hang a picture on the wall
  • お母さんに手紙を送る (I) send a letter to (my) mother.

Please note, that as mentioned in an earlier lesson, the subject of the sentence can be omitted if it is obvious from context. So we don’t always have to say「Xが」to start off with.

There are also plenty of verbs in Japanese which only have indirect objects and no direct objects. Some of the most common ones include 会う (to meet)、乗る (to ride) and 入る (to enter). Although the English versions of these verbs use direct objects, the Japanese version uses indirect objects. So for example:

I meet my friend → 私が友達会う

I ride my bike → 私が自転車乗る

I enter the building → 私がビル入る

(Note that the Japanese translations for the first two sentences don’t contain the word “my” ・私の, because it is implied from context and adding it in would make the sentence way too wordy).

You can think of the reason these verbs use indirect objects instead of direct objects as relating to the fact that these verbs do not do anything to change the objects in question. Meeting your friend, riding your bike, or entering a building doesn’t actually directly do anything to alter your friend, your bike or the building. They are only indirectly affected by your actions, and thus are marked as the indirect object.

Showing direction of motion with に and へ

The particles に and へ can both be used to indicate the direction a person is heading in when used together with a verb of motion. The particle へ is pronounced here as ‘e’ the same as the hiragana え, despite being written with へ. (へ is pronounced normally as ‘he’ in all other contexts).

So take for example the following sentences:

私が学校行く・私が学校行く ・I go to school

私がうち帰る・私がうち帰る ・I go home (Literally: “I go to home”)

The difference here between に and へ is that に puts more emphasis on the specific location that you are headed to, whereas へ puts more emphasis on the general direction that you are headed to. For example, take the following two sentences:

  • 東京に行く
  • 東京へ行く

The first sentence sounds more like you are specifically going to Tokyo with a particular purpose in mind. Maybe you’re going to a specific bar, or meeting up with a friend in Tokyo. Whatever the case may be, Tokyo is the specific destination you have in mind. The second sentence on the other hand sounds more like you’re traveling in the direction of Tokyo, but Tokyo is more of a point of reference for the direction you’re headed rather than your final destination. You might have other stops along the way and your final destination just happens to be somewhere within the Tokyo area.

The particle へ can also be combined with the particle の to indicate a noun that references a direction towards some other place. For example:

日本への旅行 – A trip to Japan

友達への手紙 – A letter to a friend.

Essentially what’s happening here is we have two nouns which need to be connected via の、where there is also a sense of “directionality” that exists between the two nouns. So to cover both of these nuances, the two particles へ and の are combined into one. In this case, へ always comes before の.

Showing Static Location with に

Lastly, the where something exists can be marked by に. Typically the pattern used is 「YにXがいる・ある」to express the idea of “There is X in/at Y”.

For example:

公園に猫がいる – There is a cat in the park

家にペンがある – There is a pen in the house.

This idea can be extended further to make use of location words like “in front”, “behind”, “near”, etc by using the following pattern: 「YのZにXがある」to mean “There is an X in [front/behind/below/etc] Y”.

For example:

  • テーブルいる – A cat is under the table
  • トムいる – Tom is in front of me.
  • ペンある – A pen is on top of the desk
  • テレビある – The shoes are next to the TV
  • ドアある – A window is to the left of the door.

Since words like 上・下・左・右・前・後ろ etc are considered to be nouns, they attach do other nouns via the particle の. So this is why phrases like “Next to the TV” and “In front of me” are 「テレビの隣」and「私の前」respectively. Once these two nouns have been combined via the particle の, they act together as a single noun phrase and the particle に attaches to the end of the entire noun phrase.

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