The whys and hows of Japanese

By | October 13, 2015

In Japanese, there are several ways of saying “why” and “how”. In this post I’m going to go over a few of the more common ones and discuss a few exceptions.

Starting with “why”, we have the following expressions, each with it’s own nuance.

  • なんで (nande) – basic “why”, slightly informal nuance (Kanji: 何で)
  • どうして (doushite) – similar to “nande”, but slightly more polite
  • なぜ (naze) – sounds a bit formal, almost literary (Kanji:何故)
  • なにうえ (naniue) – similar feeling to “naze”, though I almost never hear this used in practice (Kanji:何故, same as “naze”!)
  • どういうわけで (dou iu wake de) –  also rare, formal-sounding. “wake” means “reason” so this is literally “for what reason”
  • 何のために (nan no tame ni) – means “for what purpose”

I think it’s good to have some knowledge of all of these, but for everyday use I suggest the simple “doushite”, in bold above.

Generally, you can put any of these anywhere before the verb in few


  • どうしてそんなことを言ったの? (doushite sonna koto wo itta no?)  <= [This one sounds slightly more natural to me.]
  • そんなことをどうして言ったの?    (sonna koto wo doushite itta no?)
  • Why did you say such a thing?

If you want to say “for some reason”, you can add “ka” to the end of any of the above words. For example:

  • なぜか嬉しい (nazeka ureshii)
  • For some reason I am happy.

Now onto “how”. There are three basic ways to say “how” in Japanese. I’ll give an example sentence beside each meaning “how do I eat this?”

  • どう (dou): これをどう食べればいい? (kore wo dou tabereba ii?)
  • どうやって (douyatte): これをどうやって食べればいい? (kore wo dou yatte tabereba ii?).
  • どのように (dono you ni): これをどのように食べればいい? (kore wo dono you ni tabereba ii?)

If recommend using “dou yatte” as a default in your daily speech and writing.

Now onto a few comments about these words. One thing you may notice is that やる(yaru) and する (suru) both mean “to do”, so the words “dou yatte” and “dou shite” should have the same meaning, right? Not quite – although I have seen “dou shite” also used to mean “how”, I recommend you use them as I specified above since they have developed their own independent meanings in common usage.

There are times when the usage of these words are a little different than you might expect.

For example, in the following example, “what” would actually be translated to “dou”:

  • What do you think?
  • どう思う? (dou omou?)

You can omit the “omou” here and just say “dou?”.

Here is another phrase where “dou” is used in an unexpected way.

  • What are you going to do?
  • どうするの?(dou suru no?)

You actually could use “nani suru no?” here as well for roughly similar meaning.

Here is another common phrase that is good to remember. “Nande” is used where you would have normally expected “dou yatte” or “dou”.

  • How did you know?
  • なんで分かった? (nande wakatta?)

When asking your child “what” they want to play with, at first you might think “nani” + “de”, which would be “nande”. However that would also mean “why” you want to play. So to distinguish this, the phrase “nani shite” is used.

  • What do you want to play with today?
  • 今日、何して遊ぶ? (kyou, nani shite asobu?)

Depending on the situation, “how” can also be translated as なんて (nante). For example,

  • 「peach」は日本語でなんて言う?
  • How do you say “peach” in Japanese?

As a final note, you may have noticed the common expression for “you welcome” (dou itashimashite) is very similar to “dou shite”, because “itashimashite” comes from the polite verb “itasu” which means “suru”.

However, the origin of this expression is said to be below (from here):

  • 何を、したというわけでもありませんよ(だから、気になさらないでください)
  • It’s not as if I did anything. (So, please don’t be concerned with what I did).




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3 thoughts on “The whys and hows of Japanese

  1. Leplay

    great post, helped a lot. there are some english mistakes tho, you might want to correct.
    “no onto a few comments(…)”; “in an expected way(…)”; “what are you doing to do”.
    I may be wrong, im not an English native speaker.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks very much! I just corrected these. I always try to re-read my posts to look for errors, but somehow I missed these (:

  2. martin

    Thanks for this post. I love the way you explore and analyse the linguistics behind the language to help explain the language. It helps me make sense of things that I’ve long wondered about.
    Up until now I was always puzzled as to how ‘do itashimashite’ is derived. You’ve answered my question!
    And i never realised doushite orginated as a compound of do and suru. Your explanations help the pieces fall into place.


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