The Japanese particle ni is one of the most frequently employed particles because it has so many different uses. There is no single English translation for the particle ni because much depends on the context in which the particle is used. Let’s begin by reviewing some of the most common uses of the particle ni.
Indirect Object Marker
Ni can be used after an indirect object and in this case is often translated as “to” or has no direct translation in English at all. An indirect object is a noun that is the receiver of the action of the sentence. (Note: You will also often find the similar particle e [written as he in hiragana] used interchangeably with ni as an indirect object marker.) Here are a few examples:
Haha ni iimeiru wo okimashita.
“I sent an e-mail to my mother.”
Nakama wa Yukari-san ni shitsumon wo kikimashita.
“My colleague asked Yukari-san a question.” (No particle in English before “Yukari- san.”)
Watashi ni sore wo agete kudasai.
“Please give me that.” or “Please give that to me.”
You may notice that the indirect object comes before the direct object (the noun that is being acted upon) in the sentence.
Direction and Location
One of the easiest-to-understand uses of ni is when ni is used in the context of a direction to a physical location because the particle is used similarly to the English particle “to” in this context. However, in Japanese, ni comes after the direction word, not before. For example:
Mainichi gakou ni ikimasu.
“I go to school every day.”
Matsumoto-san wa uchi ni kaerimashita.
“Mr. Matsumoto returned to his home” or “Mr. Matsumoto returned home.”
Ni is also similarly used in the context of static location, i.e., where something is located. The English translation may be “in,” “on,” or “at.” For example:
Ani wa Rosuanjerusu ni sunde imasu.
“My older brother lives in Los Angeles.”
Enpitsu wa tsukue no ue ni arimashita.
“There was a pencil on the desk.”
Daigaku ni atarashii toshokan ga arimasu.
“There is a new library at the university.”
Ni in the context of existence will most often be used with the verb aru or iru. Both refer to a noun existing someplace or a speaker having something. Aru is used with inanimate objects (things) and iru is used with animate objects (people, animals, etc.).
In English, when we talk about the frequency of something, we usually say “per day” or “per hour” or “per minute.” Ni can be used as the equivalent of “per” in the context of frequency. For example:
Ichinichi ni mittsu no shokuji wo tabemasu.
“I eat three meals per day.”
Hitori ni keeki no hitotsu no bubun ga arimasu.
“There is one piece of cake per person.”
Uieji wa ichijikan ni ¥1000 desu.
“The wage is ¥1000 per hour.”
Passive Verb Source
When we write a sentence in passive or causative English, we use the particles “by” or “from” to indicate who the agent (the person who has undertaken the action) is. When speaking Japanese passively, the particle ni is used to indicate the source/agent of the action. Take a look at these examples:
Sensei ni nihongo wo naraimashita.
“I learned Japanese from my teacher.”
Isha ni undou suru you ni iimashita.
“I was told to exercise by my doctor.”
Ni is used to indicate a specific time, like the hour, minute, second, day, year, month, etc. The English translation depends largely on the context and may be “at,” “on,” or “in”–or it may not be present at all. Here are a few examples:
Shichijihan ni aimashou.
“Let’s meet at 7:30.”
Rokugatsu juurokunichi ni kekkon shimashita.
“We got married on June 16th.”
Futsuka ni soko ni imasu.
“I will be there in two days.”
Ashita ni tesuto ga arimasu.
“I have a test tomorrow.” (No particle in English before “tomorrow.”)
We understand that there are a lot of usages for the particle ni, but don’t get discouraged. Ni can be a difficult Japanese particle to master, but the more you practice, the easier it will be for you to identify the correct use of the particle in a specific context.