Learn How To Say “What?” In Japanese

One of the most common words in any language is “what.” It’s pretty useful to know, in quite a number of situations, so today’s lesson will help you learn how to say what in Japanese.

Check out of each of the sections below since they will be covering different situations and the right version of the word “what” for each of them.

I’ll provide some explanations and examples to help understand them.

Asking Normal Questions

The basic Japanese word for “what” is 何 (nani). You will often see it written in kanji like that, but it’s also pretty common to see it written entirely in hiragana as なに.

If you just want to ask “what?” in Japanese, then you can just say this one word with a rising intonation.

You can also hold something (or point to something) and use なに to ask a person what a certain item is.

  • これ、なに?
  • kore, nani?
  • What is this?

Something to keep in mind is that using it in this way is pretty casual. If you wanted to be polite then you would add on ですか (desu ka) to the end of the sentence.

However, when you do this it slightly changed the way that you pronounce 何 to just なん (nan).

  • それは何ですか?
  • sore wa nan desu ka?
  • What is that?

It’s pretty common to see なん used for what-type questions, so we will explore those a little more later on in this post. For right now though, I want to go over situations where you are taken aback.

Surprised, Shocked, And Alarmed

If something takes you by surprise, you can yell out the word we covered before and hold that final vowel.

  • なにぃぃ!
  • naniii!
  • Whaaat!

However, it’s actually a lot more common for Japanese people to use an alternative word. In this case it would be a short え? (eh?) when they mean something like “huh?” or a really soft “what?”

Then they will sometimes hold that vowel to express disbelief or extreme surprise.

  • ええええ!?
  • eeee!?
  • Huuh!? Whaat!?

These are pretty casual, so you’re more likely to encounter them while watching anime, reading manga, or hanging out with your Japanese friends.

It would be best to avoid it in more formal situations though.

Another word that would be good to insert here is 一体 (ittai) which means “what the heck!” and it usually added onto various questions to add strong emotion to them.

  • 一体何なんだ!
  • ittai nan nan da!
  • What the hell is going on!

Sometimes you will hear the 「なん」 part repeated like in the above sentence and it’s just a stronger way of asking “what in the world is happening?” and the like.

Also, you can use the word なんと (nan to) in Japanese similar to how we say “what … !” in English.

  • 何と美しい!
  • nan to utsukushii!
  • What beauty!

You’re taken aback at the sheer magnitude of something, and you want to express it in words.

Wondering What The Answer Is

A lot of people talk to themselves. Sure, it’s usually in the quietness of their minds, but there are still times when people try to find the answer to a question and think things like “I wonder what’s going on?” and the like.

Well, when it comes to situations like this, we can add だろう (darou) to the end in order to add that feeling of being unsure, or having some doubt.

  • ふむ、なんだろう?
  • fumu, nan darou?
  • Hmm, what’s going on (I wonder)?

Another way to do this is to use the ending particle かな (kana) which also means “I wonder” and is pretty common to use when speaking to oneself.

Let’s say that you’re walking down the street and you hear a strange sound, you might think to yourself something along the lines of “what could that sound be?” as you try to figure it out.

  • その音…なにかな?
  • sono oto… nani kana?
  • That sound… what could it be?

Something that Japanese people do sometimes is say one of the above phrases out loud during conversation in order to buy time and think about their real answer.

For example, let’s say that two people are hanging out and they are waiting for their third friend to show up. However, the last guy is late and the first two people aren’t really sure where he is.

The first person might ask, “What’s keeping him so long?” and the second person might respond with なんだろうね which would translate into something like “Yeah, I wonder what…” but what the speaker is really doing is thinking about the answer which they will provide after some thought.

In this way, the phrase is more of a placeholder than an actual answer.

What Is It For?

Another way that we can use today’s word is in a phrase such as “what are you doing that for?” or something similar. In this case, we can use the phrase 何のために (nan no tame ni) to express this question.

  • 何のために生きているのか?
  • nan no tame ni ikite iru no ka?
  • What are you living for?

Sometimes you can think of this word as “why” instead and it will still make sense, but generally speaking I find that it’s easiest to think of it as “for what purpose” for the majority of situations.

Another word that we can use is どうして (doushite) which traditionally get’s translated into English as “why” but sometimes it can also be translated as “for what reason?” and it will retain the same meaning.

  • どうして友達がいないのか?
  • doushite tomodachi ga inai no ka?
  • For what reason (why) do you have no friends?

Like I mentioned before, the words in this section are pretty close to the Japanese word for why, but there may be times when it’s better to use them instead of an alternative.

What Are Your Questions?

That’s pretty much all I’ve got for this blog post. It was a short one, but I hope that you found the information to be helpful.

If you’re got any questions on anything, or even if you would just like to make a comment of your own, then please feel free to do so in the section directly below.

I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I can. Other than that, thanks for reading and I hope you have a great day!

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