As you progress with learning Japanese, you’ll likely encounter Japanese particles relatively early on.
You may not recognize the term “particles” just yet. But you have no doubt encountered these small but important pieces of the language any time you’ve heard someone speaking a sentence or read a line of text.
Particles are a critical element of every Japanese sentence, and you can’t put a sentence together without them.
Okay, maybe you could whip together a really tiny sentence like “I’m fine” (daijoubu), but that’s a single word and it might be cheating just a little here.
Japanese has many particles, but you don’t need to stress yourself about learning them all—especially when you’re just starting out.
Instead, focus on the most common ones that you’ll need to form most sentences, then add more once you start finding that your sentences are lacking some nuance later down the line.
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What Are Japanese Particles?
Particles are the tiny pieces of Japanese speech and writing that indicate how the words of a sentence are related to each other.
You’re probably most familiar with ha—pronounced “wa”—and possibly ka, which ends a sentence and makes that sentence a question. If you know more particles, you’ve already got a head start!
Particles themselves don’t have a meaning. You can’t look them up in a dictionary and see a single word that translates what they mean. Instead, they have more of a feeling or a general indication. Much of their meaning is instead derived from the words that they are joining or relating based on their place in a sentence.
It’ll make more sense when you see it in action, so let’s take a look.
Common Japanese Particles
The most common particles in Japanese are these:
- ha は
- ga が
- to と
- ka か
- no の
- wo を
- mo も
- ni に
If you put together Japanese sentences, using these particles will be unavoidable. The good news is that these common particles all have very different uses, so it is generally easy to determine which one you should choose for a particular sentence.
As you begin your Japanese learning, it is primarily these particles that you should focus on learning and mastering.
That said, Japanese is full of particles beyond these. As your skill in Japanese grows and you become confident enough to add more flavour to your speech and writing, consider researching more about these less used particles:
In particular, excursions into further particles after you’ve learned the basics should probably take you to de, he, ya, ne, kara, made, and dake next. These are the next most common and can add new meanings like “only” and “because” to your sentences!
How To Use The 8 Essential Japanese Particles
The easiest way to understand how particles work in Japanese is simply to look at each one and use it. Remember: particles come after the word that they modify.
Likely the most common particle of all, ha (pronounced “wa”) is the particle that indicates the topic of a sentence. It goes after the topic. Just remember that the hiragana for it is always ha (は), but when reading aloud or speaking, it is always pronounced as “wa” and never “ha.”
The reason this happens is because Japanese pronunciation has changed over time. It used to be pronounced as “fa” (since some Japanese “h” sounds are a softer “f”). But it experienced a transition around the 9th century. Despite the change in spoken form, the hiragana never changed!
It is only the particle ha that follows this “wa” pronunciation. Do continue to pronounce all your other ha-containing words as normal!
- I am a student (Watashi ha gakusei desu 私は学生です)
Ha does not necessarily come after the first word. If the topic of a sentence is an entire thought, ha will come after that instead:
- That sleeping dog is cute (Ano neteiru inu ha kawaii desu あの寝ている犬はかわいいです)
In this instance, “that sleeping dog” is the topic, even though it is multiple words, and so ha follows it.
Of the introductory Japanese particles, ga is one of the most challenging for new learners. Just as ha indicates the topic of a sentence, ga points to the subject.
This is where English speakers often get confused, because these appear to be the same thing. And the English grammatical “subject” is usually the first thing in a sentence (where Japanese speakers put ha).
Think of it this way: what is indicated by ha in Japanese is typically not as important as what is marked by ga. The ga in your sentence is what is carrying the very important things you want to convey—in other words, the subject of your conversation.
One of the most common ways you’ll see it used is to convey what you like or dislike:
- I like dogs ([Watashi ha] inu ga suki desu [私は] 犬が好きです)
If you notice the sentence above, you may realize that the part about “watashi” (I) isn’t actually necessary. You can remove it from the sentence in Japanese and it will still make perfect sense. In fact, the lack of “watashi” is likely the preferred way to say this sentence.
The difference between ha and ga can be confusing, so it may also be helpful to remember that due to Japanese sentence ordering, ha typically comes before ga if you’re trying to put a sentence together.
To is a simple particle. It joins words together like “and” might.
- Dogs and cats (Inu to neko 犬と猫)
However, you cannot join entire sentences with to, because it does not strictly mean “and.” Stick to using to as part of a list or between nouns.
Ka is perhaps the simplest Japanese particle. Want to make your sentence a question? Simply stick ka on the end. No questions asked, no conjugation—just plop it in there, like a question mark.
The benefit of this method is that unlike in English, where word order changes when you make a question, the only thing keeping you from making your sentence a question in Japanese is a little bit of bravery and whether you’ve added ka.
- Are you happy? (Ureshii desu ka 嬉しいですか)
One convenient thing to note is that you do not also need a question mark if you use ka. Feel free to use a period or question mark depending upon how strongly you want your question to come across.
The no particle signifies ownership. It connects an idea or item to someone or something. No goes in between the things it’s connecting, with the “owner” coming first.
- That’s my dog (Are wa watashi no inu desu あれは私の犬です)
Wo (pronounced simply as “o”) is used to indicate the object of a sentence. It typically comes between the object and the verb that finishes the sentence.
- I ate sushi (Sushi wo tabemashita 寿司を食べました)
Mo can be taken to mean “also” in a generalized sense.
- Takeshi will also go (Takeshi-san mo ikimasu たけしさんも行きます)
Ni is the particle that indicates direction. Use it with verbs of movement like “go” and “come.” Place it after the location that the subject is moving to or toward.
- I want to go to Tokyo (Tokyo ni ikitai desu 東京に行きたいです)
Learning And Mastering Japanese Particles
The best way to continue to learn and master particles is simply to practice, and more importantly to immerse yourself in Japanese, preferably through stories.
The more Japanese you hear (whether that's Japanese TV shows or Japanese podcasts) and read, the more your brain will be able to give you feedback like “this doesn’t sound right” when you choose a particle that doesn’t fit your sentence.
Particles do follow rules. But since sentences can be as unique and creative as the people who make them, mastering this small but important facet of Japanese takes practice and a lot of exposure to the language itself.
So, don’t give up! The good news about particles is that unlike choosing the wrong vocabulary word for your sentence, most listeners will likely be able to infer your meaning even if you choose the wrong one.
That means you’ve got a great incentive to just get out there and start speaking Japanese and writing as many sentences as possible!