How to use (and not use) “koto”

You may know “koto” as an intangible object in Japanese, but there’s more to the word than that! Below, JCMU Japanese Language Program Coordinator Minoru Aizawa-sensei would like to explain other ways you can (and can’t) use koto.


Using koto - Aizawa-sensei

お兄ちゃんが、ぼくのことをぶった!
Onii-chan ga, boku no koto o butta!

As you may recall from my last article, “koto” basically means something intangible. It, however, also has a variety of usages like “mono“: some are in line with the basic meaning, others deviate from it. For starters, consider the following examples:

  1.  私はあなたが好きです。
    Watashi wa anata ga suki desu.
    I like you.
    ~
    私はあなたのことが好きです。
    Watashi wa anata no koto ga suki desu.
    I like you. (same meaning)
    ~
  2. 私はコーヒーが好きです。
    Watashi wa koohii ga suki desu.
    I like coffee.
    ~
    私はコーヒーのことが好きです。
    Watashi wa koohii no koto ga suki desu.
    ??? (Doesn’t make sense in Japanese!)
    ~
  3. 私は田中さんを知っています。
    Watashi wa Tanaka-san o shitte imasu.
    I know Mr. Tanaka.
    ~
    私は田中さんのことを知っています。
    Watashi wa Tanaka-san no koto o shitte imasu.
    I know Mr. Tanaka. (same meaning)
    ~
  4. ホームシックの時は、家族を考えます。
    Hoomushikku no toki wa, kazoku o kangaemasu.
    ??? (Doesn’t make sense in Japanese!)
    ~
    ホームシックの時は、家族のことを考えます。
    Hoomushikku no toki wa, kazoku no koto o kangaemasu.
    I think about my family when I’m homesick.
    ~
  5. 田中先生は英語を教えています。
    Tanaka-sensei wa eigo o oshiete imasu.
    Professor Tanaka teaches English.
    ~
    田中先生は英語のことを教えています。
    Tanaka-sensei wa eigo no koto o oshiete imasu.
    ??? (Doesn’t make sense in Japanese!)
    ~
  6. お兄ちゃんがぼくをぶった!
    Onii-chan ga boku o butta!
    Big brother hit me!
    ~
    お兄ちゃんがぼくのことをぶった!
    Onii-chan ga boku no koto o butta!
    Big brother hit me! (same meaning)

In all of the pairs above, the second example includes “koto” following a noun with the help of the particle “no.” This sentence structure, “(noun) no koto,” literally means “thing of (noun).” It sounds clunky in English, but it is valued as a way to make speech more indirect when speaking Japanese.

So when can and can’t koto be used?

Combined with a term referencing a person, “koto” sounds quite natural (see examples 1 and 3 above).  There isn’t much of a difference in meaning between the sentences without koto and the sentences with; it is just that the latter could be translated as “things about (noun),” rather than just the noun itself.

Sometimes, adding koto doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning at all, as in example 6. Each of the sentences mean exactly the same thing. Either way, onii-chan is being quite a bad brother! Koto therefore works simply as filler here.

There are occasionally scenarios where it makes more sense to use koto than not. In example 4, the second sentence sounds much more natural because the verb  “考える” (“to think”) does not usually go with an object directly unless the object refers to an outcome of some thinking process (i.e. an answer, a key to solution, etc.). Rather, it usually takes either “(noun) no koto” or “(noun) ni tsuite” instead.

On the flip side, when combined with a non-human term (as in examples 2 and 5), “(noun) no koto” sounds very unnatural. If you use koto in this way, I’m sure you’ll be greeted with lots of confused looks!

Why use koto?

A possible reason we tend to use “koto” more frequently than not is that the indirectness it provides often makes your speech softer or more polite in Japanese. In addition, “koto” tends to be combined with a human term because it is seen as polite to soften words directed at people. In English, you might say that Japanese people often “beat around the bush” in conversation. Understanding how to use koto can thus provide you some insight into Japanese culture, too!

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