Japanese phrase: 〜ことから (~koto kara)

By | April 13, 2021

In this post I’d like to go over the Japanese phrase “~ことから” (~koto kara), which can also be written with partial kanji as 〜事から.

First, let’s look at the two component words of this phrase.

“事” (koto) refers to an abstract thing or event, for example a “good” event (いい事). It can also refer to verbs in an abstract sense, like “the act of swimming”  (泳ぐ事). The most important thing here is to not confuse “koto” with “mono”, since the latter refers to a physical thing (ex: 高いもの = “expensive [physical] thing”).

The word から (kara) has various uses, but it often serves a similar role to the English word “from”, as in the sentence “I got a present from a friend”. In other words, it is often the place an action originates from, either physically or in terms of the origin on reason of some action.

Now let’s look at a simple example of 〜ことから.

  • 外国語の獲得は文字を勉強する事から始めた方がいい。 (gaikokugo no kakutoku wa moji wo benkyou suru koto kara hajimeta hou ga ii)

Here the word “koto” is used to turn the phrase “文字を勉強する” (study letters) into a form that can be treated about as a noun, a process called “normalization”. As with the swimming” example above, you can consider this as “the act of studying characters”.

But what about the “kara”? Here the main verb of the sentence is 始める, which means “to start”, so “kara” is used as the starting point of whatever is being started (in this case, “acquisition of a foreign language”).

Putting this together, we can translate this example as:

  • Acquisition of a foreign language should begin with the study of characters.

Notice I used “with” here instead of “from” since the former sounds a little more natural.

You may know that Japanese is generally very efficient in terms of omitting words that can be inferred from the context, for example subjects and objects in many cases. So is the normalizer “koto” really needed here? Let’s look at the sentence without it:

  • 外国語の獲得は文字を勉強するから始めた方がいい。 (gaikokugo no kakutoku wa moji wo benkyou suru kara hajimeta hou ga ii)

The problem with this is that “dictionary form verb” + “kara” happens to mean “because…”, so this sentence could be interpreted as meaning:

  • As for the acquisition of a foreign language, characters will be studied so it’s better to start. 

This doesn’t really make sense in English, which is my intention since I am trying to give you a feel for what it sounds like in Japanese. But the key point here is that the normalizer is needed to avoid confusion.

Now let’s look at one more example where 事から is used:

  • 夜だった事から、暗かったと推測できます (yoru datta koto kara, kurakatta to suisoku dekimasu)

Whereas our first example involved “kara” used to express where to start something, this example is a bit more abstract. Here “kara” is used more in the sense of “where something comes from” or “where something originates from”. The word “koto” is used to talk about the fact that “it was night”. Putting these things together, we get the following interpretation:

  • Given that it was night, it can be inferred that it was dark.

In this usage, the verb often involves some sort of judgement or conclusion that was drawn “from” some fact. It can also be used to describe the origin of a name (which we would generally express in English as “was named after…”). Another place you can see this usage is in dictionary definitions of expressions that talk about the origin of their meaning.

While there are no hard and fast rules on who can use “~koto kara”, I feel for the most part this is a somewhat advanced structure that you would not hear from children.  The second usage in particular sounds very stiff or formal to me, and I don’t think most people would use it in spoken conversation (unless they are a detective, doctor, or someone else making logical inferences).

As a final note, I wanted to mention that often you can use 〜という事から for the same meaning. For example, the last example sentence could be rewritten as follows:

  • 夜だったという事から、暗かったと推測できます (yoru datta to iu koto kara, kurakatta to suisoku dekimasu)

I think in the majority of cases “~koto kara” and “~to iu koto kara” can be used for the same meaning, although the latter perhaps sounds a bit wordier. But you should know that that the “to iu” (literally “to say…”) structure generally refers to something specific. For that reason, I feel it would be a bit awkward to say something like this:

  • できるという事から始めましょう (dekiru to iu koto kara hajimemashou) [???]
  • Let’s start from what we can do.

Here the simpler “~koto kara” would be more natural since “できる” (to be able to) is not a specific thing.

  • できる事から始めましょう (dekiru koto kara hajimemashou)
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