Japanese

Understanding Dou Desu Ka in Japanese

There are certain phrases that will, once you’ve learned them, appear in pretty much every Japanese book you read and every show you watch. We’re going to go over one such phrase today so that every time you run into dou desu ka in Japanese, you’ll know exactly what it means.

First of all, let’s see how to spell it in Japanese: どうですか?

There’s a couple of words contained in this phrase and we’ll break them down now.

What Does 「どうですか」 Mean?

The first word in the sentence is どう and it most often means “how” but it can change slightly to mean either “in what way” or “how about” depending on the context of the sentence that it’s used in.

The second word is です which is simply the Japanese copula word in its polite, present-tense form.

The final part is not actually a word per se, but rather it is a super common Japanese particle that serves a grammatical function. Here is it turning the entire sentence into a question. A good way to think of か is as a spoken (or written) question mark.

So the phrase 「どうですか?」 means “How is it?” in English.

That is definitely the common way to understand it, but there are actually a few slight variations that you’ll most likely need to know as well.

Other Meanings for どう in Japanese

Since the word 「どう」 means “how” in Japanese, it gets used in a lot of other phrases and expressions besides the one we went over above.

I figured it would be a good idea to go over a few of them so that you can easily understand them when you encounter them.

First of all, a lot of times it gets shorted to just どう when the context is understood. So for example, if you were eating a cake and someone said 「どう?」then it’s pretty obvious that what they are actually asking is “how is the cake?”

Or if a friend was trying on a new jacket and they looked to you and said 「どうよ?」 then you know they are asking you “how does it look on me?”

Japanese can use very little words in this way, when English would typically use much more.

A second common pattern that uses this word is by putting たら (or だら) at the end of a verb, and then adding どう to turn it into a suggestion such as “Why don’t you do…?”

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean:

  • 数学を教えたらどう?
    How about teaching math?
  • 水を飲んだらどう?
    How about drinking some water?

—Kanji Used—

  1. 数学【すうがく】= math
  2. 教える【おし・える】= to teach
  3. 水【みず】= water
  4. 飲む【の・む】= to drink

One of the interesting things about this “recommending” pattern is that you can actually drop the どう from it, and it will still mean the same thing.

  • 数学を教えたら?
    How about teaching math?

Anyway, moving on.

Another common pattern that you will encounter is どうやって followed by a verb of some kind in order to ask “how do you …”

So for example, the sentence 「どうやって入りましたか」 would mean “How did you get in?”

Or the phrase 「どうやって割れましたか?」 would mean “how did it break?”

Both of those examples were in the past tense thanks to the final verb, but you can simply change it to the present tense when you need to in order to ask questions such as 「京都駅はどうやって行きますか?」 which means “How do you get to Kyoto station?”

Finally, if you wanted to inquire to the well being of a friend, you could ask 「調子はどう?」 which basically means “How’s your health?” or more naturally in English “How have you been lately?”

It’s a super common and useful word, so learning it will serve you well in the future.

We’re not quite finished yet though, as there is a polite version of the same word.

The Polite Form of どう

The form that we’ve been using and talking about so far is the more common of the two, but there happens to also be a polite version of the same word that you will hear when people are speaking formally.

It is いかが and like I mentioned, it has the exact same meaning as どう, it just gets used in different situations.

A common phrase that beginner students typically learn from Japanese phrasebooks is 「いかがですか?」 which (of course) means “How are you?” in English.

This one doesn’t nearly get used as much as the common phrase 「お元気ですか?」 which is the same question (slightly different nuance) when you want to ask “How’s it going” in a polite way.

I think the most common way that I hear いかが used is when a service worker of some sort is servicing a customer and they recommend product or service by saying 「これをいかがでしょうか?」 which is a very polite way to ask “How about this one?”

Or another one is 「コーヒーはいかがですか?」 for “Would you like some coffee?”

You may have wondered why these two words were both written in hiragana instead of kanji. There’s actually an interesting reason for this

What Kanji Do These Two Words Use?

The kanji for the word どう is 如何.

The kanji for the word いかが is 如何.

Yep, they’re the same!

So as you can guess from that knowledge, it would be practically impossible to know which reading to use when you encounter the kanji 如何, unless you knew the level of formality that was being used in the conversation.

That’s perhaps the reason why both of these words are typically spelled out in hiragana. But it’s good to at least be familiar with the kanji, since you might run into it at some point without the aid of furigana.

So, “How” Was That for an Explanation?

If you’re at an intermediate level (or higher) with Japanese, then you probably already knew most of this information.

But if you are a beginner, then hopefully this explanation was super helpful!

What kinds of phrases have you run into that use どう or いかが? Have you ever seen the kanji 如何 used before?

Let me know with a comment below!

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