Japanese Particle に: Clear Up all Doubts You May Have

This article is part of Wasabi grammatical support service. We’re more than delighted to answer any grammatical questions you may have without any additional fee (*Wasabi user only). Today’s topic is regarding Japanese particle に. As you may know, に is the particle having the most various functions. Therefore, although this is very useful, learners are often facing difficulty in identifying the proper usage such as に vs. で and に vs. へ. In this article, we will clear up all doubts you may have.

Ultimate Explanation for Japanese Particle に

Table of Contents

  1. Location of Existence: に vs. で
  2. Direction and Destination: に vs. へ
  3. Destination: に・へ vs. まで
  4. Result of Change: に vs. と
  5. Object of Verb: に vs. を・と
  6. Source: に vs. から
  7. Specific Time
  8. Notion of Per

に (Location of Existence) vs. で (Location of Action)

ほんいる (I’m in Japan)。
ほんはたらく (I will work in Japan)。
東京とうきょうむ (I will live in Tokyo)。
東京とうきょうべんきょうする (I will study in Tokyo)。

に can express animated and non-animated existences. As you can see the examples above, the concept of に and で is completely different. に focuses on where you are and で focuses on what you do. For example, with this sentence;  公園こうえん / はなえる (I will plant a flower in the park), the difference will be like this

公園こうえん  はなえる

Photo quoted from www.city.nanto.toyama.jp

公園こうえん  はなえる

Photo quoted from www.hachimantai-kokutai.jp

When you use に, the flower has to be in the park. However, when you use で, the flower can move outside the park after you planted the flower in the pot in the park.

Direction and Destination: に vs. へ

きたかう (I will head to the north)。
みなみかう (I will head to the south)。
学校がっこうく (I will go to the school)。
書館しょかんく( I will go to the library)。

に and へ can express direction and destination with the motion verbs like く, る, く. In this context, に and へ are interchangeable. There are some exceptions: 温泉おんせん / 入る (I will take a hot spring bath) and バス / る (I will get in a bus). It seems that the particle should be に when it’s somewhat related to location of existence.

に・へ (Destination) vs. まで (Part of Destination)

えき / / まで 行く (I’ will go to the station)。
やっとなんきょく / / まで いた (I finally arrived at the South Pole)。
とうきょう / / まで て、えた (I came to Tokyo and then transferred [to something])。

に and へ indicate the final destination and まで indicates part of the destination. Thus, the South Pole can hardly be part of the destination, so に and へ are suitable. When it comes to transit, まで is suitable. One important thing here is に and へ are used only for the motion verbs. If you use action verbs like あるく, はしる, you need to use まで: えきまではしった (I ran up to the station).

Result of Change: に vs. と

きゅうせんしゅ / なった(I became a baseball player)。
実験じっけん失敗しっぱい / わった (The experiment ended in failure)。
信号しんごうあか / わった (The traffic lights turned red)。

に and と can express result of change. The difference of the nuance is still controversial among linguists. に and と are interchangeable in many cases. Let us dare to say: You may always use に to express result of change until other native speakers correct you. Unless you write an academic thesis, we think you won’t have any problem, which includes business situations.

Object of Verb: に vs. を・と

ともだち / った (I met my friend)。
かれ / キスした (I kissed my boyfriend)。
ほん / む (I will read a book)。
えい / べんきょうする (I will study English)。

に, を and と can express object of verb. The difference between に and を cannot be defined clearly. However, it is said that if the verb has a nuance of direction or motion, the particle should be に. When it comes to “to meet” and “to kiss”, imaginatively speaking, you would move toward him or her.

かれ / キスをした。

The difference between に and と is whether it’s an interactive action or not. If に is used in the example, you must be the action taker and we can describe that it’s from you to him. If と is used, both “you” and “he” can be the action taker and we can describe that it’s each other. Therefore, we can use only と with this sentence, 彼氏 / 結婚した (My boyfriend and I got married), because marriage must be interactive.

Source: に vs. から

かあさん / から ほんをもらった (I got a book from my mother)。
先生せんせい / から それをきました ( I heard about that from my teacher)。

に and から can express source, thus they are interchangeable.

Specific Time

朝7あさしちきた (I got up at 7:00AM)。
20日はつかけんける (I will take an examination on the 20th)。
6月ろくがつそつぎょうする (I will graduate [from a school] in June)。
つぎはるほんく(I will go to Japan next spring)。

に can specify time. This is a unique function of に. However, don’t confuse it with the topic maker; は. For example, with this sentence; 6月ろくがつすずしい (June is cool) , 6月ろくがつ is the subject and hence you cannot use に.

Notion of Per

一日3回、ご飯を食べる (I have a meal three times per day)。
5分一本、電車がある (There is a train every five minutes)。

に can express notion of per. This is another unique function of に and hence that’s not interchangeable.


Functions Interchangeable Particles
Location of Existence  
Destination へ、*まで (not always)
Result of Change
Object of Verb  
Source から
Specific Time  
Notion of Per  

In this article, we have gone over each function in detail. You don’t have to memorize all of them right away, but learning the functions allows you to easily identify the proper particle. Therefore, when you need clarification, just return to this article and review them.

If you have any doubts about Japanese grammar, please feel free to ask us. We will answer any questions with pleasure (*Wasabi user only)!

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Japanese Grammar: Proper Particles with the Causative Form