Understanding in Japanese: 分かる(wakaru)

By | June 2, 2014

Learning Japanese can be quite tricky for those just starting out. First you learn some basics, like how objects are followed by the を particle. Then, you learn 分かる (wakaru) means ‘to understand’ in Japanese. Your first instinct would probably be to try and write a sentence like this:

  • 僕は日本語を分かる [Wrong!]

However this sentence is grammatically incorrect. The reason is that わかる it is an intransitive verb, so it usually doesn’t take an object using を.

Rather, the proper way to say this would be the following:

  • 僕は日本語が分かる。[Right]
  • I understand Japanese.

In this sentence 僕 is the topic, 日本語 is the subject, and 分かる is the verb.

To help myself understand the usage of 分かる, I sometimes think of it as ‘to be understood’. In fact you can also use には before the topic of the sentence like this:

  • 僕には日本語が分かる。
  • Japanese is understood by me => I understand Japanese.

As with many other uses of が, it’s often safe to omit it. In fact, in this example sentence I would argue it’s more natural without the が。

  • そんなの分からないよ。
  • I don’t understand that.

分かる is often used in the past tense (分かった)where it is close in meaning to the English expressions “I got it” or “OK”.

Since the 〜ている form can be used to express an ongoing state (such as 知ってる, “I know”), you might wonder if 分かる can also be used in this form. It can, but it carries an exaggerated connotation, as in this brief dialog.

  • Father: 明日、学校だよ!
  • Father: You have school tomorrow!
  • Child: 分かってるよ!
  • Child:  I know!

Though 分かってる can mean ‘I understand’, another one of it’s meanings is ‘to know’, and that fits better in this situation.

Similarly, 分かって(い)ない is only used when you really want to exaggerate that someone doesn’t know something.

If really want to use を, you can with the verb 理解する (rikai suru) which also means ‘to understand’, but is a transitive verb that takes an object as you would expect. Just keep in mind it’s a bit more stiff/formal than わかる。

  • 数学をだいたい理解しています。
  • I generally understand math.

As I mentioned above, を is usually not used with the verb 分かる. However, sometimes when 分かる is used in place of 理解する you can see を分かる used.  There is some debate as to whether this is grammatically correct, so I don’t recommend ever trying to use that yourself. If you are curious, you can see a nice thread on the topic here in Japanese.

One final interesting thing about わかる is that the kanji frequently used to write it, ”分” also means “to divide” (it’s also used as the counter for minutes). If you think about it, being able to “divide things” can be seen as an important step in understanding something, like identifying the basic components that are part of a complex thing. So “日本語が分かる” would translate to “Japanese can be divided”, and hence “understood”. I haven’t researched the origin of 分かる so it may be nothing more than conjecture, but I enjoy this sort of philosophical connection nonetheless.

わかる can also be written as 解る or 判る, though these are used less frequently than 分かる。







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3 thoughts on “Understanding in Japanese: 分かる(wakaru)

  1. mc

    As the referenced thread mentions, colloquially “kimochi wo wakaru” is a common phrase. But of course it’s good to understand “correct” grammar and know when you are deliberately not following the rule. This transitive/intransitive business is a big stumbling point for Japanese learners since there are many transitive/intransitive pairs that don’t exist in English and some verbs we consider transitive aren’t transitive in Japanese. Such as 皆集まった vs. 皆集めた。 The first would be “Everybody gathered (together)” and the second would be “Everybody gathered (them)” (or, more naturally, “Everybody picked (them) up.” If you’re trying to follow a conversation these little differences can completely throw you off track.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yeah thats a good point, the transitive/intransitive pairs are a really difficult thing when learning Japanese (I think I wrote a post on this awhile back but don’t remember)

      The sentence you gave ’皆集めた’ can also have the meaning “(I) gathered them all”, so it might be best to use が/は or を after みんな, unless of course it’s clear form context which of the two it is.

      Another one of my favorites is ぬぐ/ぬがす/ぬげる。

      1. mc

        Ah so you have a naughty mind. I like that. 😉 And for the advanced students out there, there is ぬがせられた。


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