Japanese literary expression: 〜のか〜 (~ no ka ~)

By | February 10, 2020

While learning Japanese has many perks, being able to read various works of literature is one of the top ones for me. Japanese is a language rich with words, expressions, and concepts that oftentimes don’t have direct parallels to English, and this makes being able to comprehend Japanese that much more interesting and rewarding.

In this post I want to go over a grammatical pattern that is simple and easy to learn. Because it tends to appear frequently in more “serious” literature I’m calling it a “literary expression”, though technically it could be used in spoken language. (Having said that, I’ve rarely, if ever, heard this used in daily conversation.)

This expression is made up of a combination of the の (no) and か (ka) particles. The の particle is probably one of the most complex particles in the Japanese language because of its many uses, but for our purposes it has the nuance of something being “explanatory”. See this article for more details about various usages of the の particle. The か particle is a bit simpler because it is usually employed in direct or embedded questions, but you can see more details here.

The particle combination のか can be used in everyday Japanese at the end of a sentence in order to give what I would call a “rough” and/or “doubting” feeling.

  • それ、本当に楽しいのか? (sore, hontou ni tanoshii no ka?)
  • Is that really fun?

The English translation doesn’t completely capture the nuance, but just think of a dirty-looking middle aged guy with a cigarette looking at you with narrowed eyes as he says this. (Ok, this may a little over the top, but you get the idea…)

By the way, if you wanted to ask this with a more neutral feel, you could use either ”〜楽しい?” or ”〜楽しいですか?”

The phrase that is our focus this time is created by using のか to make what is essentially an embedded question, which means there has to be something both before it and after it in the same sentence (hence the 〜のか〜 notation). However, despite the nuance in the previous example, when のか is used in an embedded question it doesn’t have quite the same “rough” feeling.

  • 犬は、疲れたのか、横になった (inu wa, tsukareta no ka, yoko ni natta)
  • The dog, maybe having gotten tired, lay down.

Here, the 疲れたのか part is essentially an embedded question saying “(the dog) got tired?” Or, if we interpret the explanatory feeling of the の particle a little more loosely, we can say “because (the dog) got tired?”

In the 〜のか〜 pattern, the part before the のか is typically some possibility that may or may not have actually happened, and the implication is that this possibility may have been the reason for what follows. So in the above example, the dog lay down, and the reason the dog did that might be because the dog was tired.

Next, let’s look at a slightly more complex example sentence.

  • 彼は、今日いやな事があったのか、ただ座って黙っていた。 (kare wa, kyou iya na koto ga atta no ka, tada suwatte damatte ita)
  • He simply sat quietly, perhaps because something bad happened to him today.

Again, the embedded question (今日いやな事があったのか) says that something bad might have happened today. The part before the のか literally says “today (there) was an unpleasant thing”, but in English we often use the verb “happen” to describe this. The person sat quietly (= saying nothing), and this might have been because something bad happened today.

I personally like this expression because it pauses the flow and questions the reader “was this why so-and-so happened?”, although often the question is never resolved.

I’m not going to say it’s not translatable in English, and my above translations do capture the nuance reasonably well, but I think 〜のか〜 in Japanese tends to be more compact than the English equivalent and sometimes sounds more literary. (I used the word “perhaps” in my translation above because I felt it has a “literary” nuance.) But I think a natural translation often shifts around the phrase order, as you can see in the last example above.

If you are interested to learn a similar literary phrase, check out this article on 〜かのように.

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2 thoughts on “Japanese literary expression: 〜のか〜 (~ no ka ~)

  1. Jim Miles

    Fascinating entry 🙂

    I especially liked this bit:

    “The English translation doesn’t completely capture the nuance, but just think of a dirty-looking middle aged guy with a cigarette looking at you with narrowed eyes as he says this. (Ok, this may a little over the top, but you get the idea…)”

    Very vivid imagery haha 😀

  2. UnJammerLammy

    Glad someone else found this expression as interesting. It really is something that, while translatable, will never be as expressive in English – something distinctly Japanese that can only be appreciated within the cultural context of a language that developed to fully accommodate a people in their all consuming quest to avoid directly expressing their thoughts (there is an extreme want on my part for better words to describe that concept).


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