Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond the Basics
In Japanese, there are two basic verbs that express the existence of something: いる and ある. They can both be translated as "to be" or "to exist," and they're used in similar ways to "there is" and "there are" in English.
However, いる and ある are not interchangeable. So what are the differences between them? It all comes down to whether you expect the thing you're talking about to move or not. If you expect it to move, you'll use いる. If not, then it's ある.
Since movement is typically associated with living things, いる is generally used for animate objects, while ある is used for inanimate objects.
Like all Japanese verbs, いる and ある are generally found at the end of a sentence or clause.
- There is a dog.
- There is a mountain.
It's worth mentioning that neither いる nor ある can be put into the ている form, so you'll hardly ever see いている or あっている. Some dialects, such as Kansai-ben, do use いて(い)る to describe a person's temporary stay in one place, though.
いる for Animate Objects
As already mentioned, いる is used for things that you expect to move. Therefore, いる is commonly used for animate objects, such as people, animals, bugs, fish, and even fairies and monsters.
For example, if you spot a school of fish swimming in a river, you may say:
- There are fish in the river.
In this case, since the fish are animate objects that you expect to move, your choice of verb is いる, not ある.
Now imagine you happen to see a lawyer talking to their client in their law firm. They are engaged in a serious discussion and don't look like they'll be moving from their spots any time soon, but you still use いる here:
- There is a lawyer and a client in the office.
This is because they are living creatures and movement is always regarded as possible, even if they're currently motionless.
いる is also used when talking about someone who's in a coma or in a vegetative state. Immediate movement may not be anticipated, but it's still possible. When there is even a slight possibility of movement, even if it's not likely, いる is still your verb of choice.
What about plants? Sure, you can watch them grow and change in a time-lapse video. Branches grow, new buds appear, and flowers open. However, they have no true mobility. That is, they can't freely move in a specified direction or change their position to any significant degree. Hence they're inanimate objects, and they take the verb ある. This will be explored in the next section.
ある for Inanimate Physical Objects
ある is used to talk about objects that you do not expect to move, such as mountains, plants, and paintings.
For example, imagine you're visiting a house that you're thinking of buying. You see lots of flowers and trees in the backyard, so you say:
- There are many flowers and trees in the yard.
As we learned in the previous section, plants aren't mobile and are therefore they're inanimate so you'd use ある and not いる for them.
Now you go inside the house, and a beautiful painting of a carp catches your eye. You comment:
- There is a beautiful painting of fish.
Even though the painting depicts a living creature, you're talking about the existence of the painting itself. And since paintings are inanimate objects, you'll use ある.
Similarly, if you caught one of those fish you saw swimming in the river earlier and served it up for dinner, you'd switch to ある, because there's obviously no longer any expectation that the fish will move.
- There's teriyaki fish on the table.
ある for Abstract Objects
Abstract objects such as ideas, thoughts, rules, and word definitions also use ある. After all, we don't expect any of these things to physically move around, right?
So let's say you encounter a ruthless bandit and known outlaw. You want to tell him to follow the rules, so you say:
- There are laws in this country.
In this case, you're talking about the existence of laws, which are not capable of physical movement, so ある is used.
ある can also be used for things like events or incidents. So, if you're invited out somewhere next Sunday but you're already planning on going to the town festival, you can say:
- I already have plans that day. There's a town festival happening.
Just like rules, plans and events aren't physical objects, and we don't expect physical movement from them, so we use ある.
For the same reason, ある is used for words like こと (matter), 経験 (experience), 用事 (errand), and 予定 (plan). こと is the most abstract of all — it could be used for many different things, but usually when it's paired up with ある, こと means "experience" or something that happened in the past.
So if your friend wanted to tell you that they've been to the town festival in the past, they may say:
- I've been to that festival before.
(Literally: I have the experience of going to that festival before.)
Beyond the Basics
いる for Inanimate but Mobile Objects
You've already learned that いる is used for things you'd expect to move and ある for things that stay put. This can be extended to machines and vehicles that can move from one place to another. For example, vehicles, robots, and elevators are paired with ある when you're simply talking about their existence, but they are paired with いる when they're moving, or expected to start moving.
So, if you're talking about buses parked in the bus depot with no drivers and their engines off, you'd use ある and say:
- There are buses in the bus depot.
However, a parked vehicle with a person in it could still use the verb いる, because you'd expect it to start moving. So if you're talking about a bus that you're hoping to catch, which is sitting at the bus stop with a driver inside, you'd use いる:
- The bus is still at the bus station!
See how it all comes down to whether you expect something to move or not?
You can also use either ある or いる for elevators, depending on whether you expect movement or not. If you're explaining that there is an elevator in a particular building, it's simple. You are talking about the existence of the elevator, without focusing on its mobility, so you use ある:
- There is an elevator in this building.
Similarly, if you are simply looking for an elevator entrance in the building and find it, you're also not considering its mobility, so again you use ある and say:
- Ah, there's an elevator over there.
However, if you're on the 1st floor and looking at the number display, which tells you that the elevator has stopped on the 3rd floor, you have two options:
- The elevator is now on the 3rd floor.
In this scenario, the choice between ある and いる comes down to personal perception. If you use ある, you're probably thinking of the elevator as a place, and places are not typically in motion. So even though an elevator can go up and down, your focus is not on that aspect but simply on where the elevator is located. On the other hand, when using いる, you're focusing more on the motion of the elevator. It implies that it's on the 3rd floor at the moment but will likely move soon.
In the same vein, you may use either いる or ある to talk about your Roomba, depending on how you perceive the robot vacuum cleaner. If you're looking for it and you find it while it's moving around vacuuming your floor, いる is probably more suitable:
- Oh, the Roomba is here!
However, if it's on but currently stopped, then いる and ある are equally possible. If you use ある, it suggests you're not expecting, or not even considering, the fact that it can move about. If you use いる, it suggests you're thinking about the fact that it's mobile. Using いる can also sometimes add personified characteristics to the robot.
Now, how about a factory machine that injects ketchup into a bottle? The iteration of mechanical motion is indeed movement, but in this case ある is used:
- There's the ketchup filling machine over there.
This is because いる is used when the whole object can move from one place to another. So, if the factory machine is actually automated to the point that it can move around the warehouse, then you might hear いる as well. Otherwise, ある is normally used.
The same applies to natural objects. For example, planets move in relation to one another. Say you are at a planetarium and observing how all the planets move around the sun. You want to find mercury, and when you spot it, you might say:
- Oh, mercury's over there!
When talking about planets, you don't normally consider their movement, so it's common to use ある. On the other hand, if you focus on the current motion you're observing, and if you spot mercury on the move, you may use いる.
ある for Animate but Conceptual Objects
In old-fashioned and literary Japanese, ある can be used to describe an animate object if it's being viewed more as concept than a physical entity.
There are a few situations when ある is used this way. One prominent example is when a person shares a close or strong relationship with someone or something else. This could be a family member, a lover, a pet, or a rival.
For example, to say that Kyoko has a child, you can use either いる or ある:
- Kyoko has a child. (Lit: As for Kyoko, there is a child. )
In this case, it's still more common to use いる in modern Japanese, but ある is possible. If you use ある, you're thinking of the child in a more conceptual way, like you might in a discussion about Kyoko's life. The focus isn't on the child itself. Instead, the child is presented more as an attribute of Kyoko than as an individual. Since attributes are abstract and don't move about, ある can be used.
However, if you replace キョーコ (Kyoko) with a location such as 学校 (school), it tends to switch the focus onto the physical existence of the child, so ある is no longer possible.
- ⭕ 学校には子供がいる。
- There are students at school.
What's more, we can only use ある for animate objects if they're considered to be an inseparable quality or feature of the person in question. So ある isn't used when the relationship is fairly weak and easily breakable. For example, you wouldn't use ある when talking about a housekeeper:
- Kyoko has a housekeeper. (Lit: As for Kyoko, there is a housekeeper.)
You can also use ある with humans when there is no notion of movement. For example, when talking about non-specific applicants for a job, there isn't necessarily any notion of movement involved. So ある is possible, though いる is still more common.
- There aren't any applicants for this job yet.
In this case, if you use いる, you're talking about the applicants as animate objects, as seems logical, given that they're people. On the other hand, the ある version suggests that you're considering the applicants as a type of person, rather than a group of people, and it sounds more like an abstract concept. The ある version usually sounds more formal, due to its old-fashioned feel.
In the same way, if you are explaining that you have guests staying with you, you could either use いる or ある.
- There are guests at our place right now.
Wait a minute…it's talking about a specific location! Didn't we say earlier that ある is not used in that case? Good question! うち is actually a unique word that literally means "inside." It can be used for your own house, but it can also refer to one's in-group. So, in the above sentence, うち is used as in both "our place" and "we (as a family)."
So when using いる, you are simply talking about your guests as physical people who are visiting your house. On the other hand, ある suggests that you perceive the guests as the concept of a "guest" that your family is currently hosting. The focus is not on their physical presence but rather on the guests as an abstract concept.
If you replace うち with 家, which only indicates the physical house, ある begins to sound strange.
- ⭕ 家には今お客さんがいるんです。
- There are guests at our place right now.
By using a specific location, the focus shifts to the physical existence of the guests. You perceive them as individual people, from whom movement is expected, so いる works but ある doesn't.
I know this section is getting long but let me throw in another interesting example to illustrate the difference between physical people and the concepts they represent. Imagine a situation where you are looking back at the past, perhaps during an award acceptance speech, and have a lump in your throat remembering all the support you've received from others. You think to yourself:
- I'm here now thanks to so many different people.
- I'm who I am now thanks to so many different people.
In this example, you're talking about yourself, an animate object. However, the nuance is slightly different depending on whether you use いる or ある. By using いる, the focus is on your presence at the moment. You are where you are now thanks to so many different people. On the other hand, ある suggests that you are talking about yourself conceptually, so the focus here is on who you have become as a person, rather than your physical presence.
ある for Animate Objects in Classical Japanese
In classical Japanese, ある was used for everything, regardless of whether it moved or not. So, a long time ago, you didn't have to choose between いる and ある, because it was all ある. I know, everything was so much easier a thousand years ago!
The first known use of いる was later, in around 1070AD, and it originally meant "to set off on a journey". Later on, it's thought that いる began to be used for inanimate objects in motion, like a boat moving across the river. From there, it spread to all things that move. Interesting, huh?
You'll still see the classical use of ある in traditional creative writing, and it's one facet that adds to the archaic feel of fairy tales and traditional folklore. Within these styles, even creative works being written today use ある like this sometimes. For example, to introduce a character named Kyoko, you may see either いる or ある being used.
- In a village, there was a woman whose name was Kyoko.
In this case, both いる and ある are talking about the existence of animate objects. However, while いる sounds very neutral, ある can add a classical touch to the sentence. It is similar to old or middle English being used in contemporary works that are set to a long time ago.
Sometimes, using ある to introduce something adds more than just a classical flare. The following sentence is from an NHK special TV program called ヤノマミ、一万年の歴史 (Yanomami, Ten Thousand Years of History).
- Yanomami means "human". They are born in the forest, they eat from the forest, they are eaten by the forest, and they existed within the forest.
In this example, ある is used to show the existence of the Yanomami people. It does add a classical touch to the narrator's words, but it goes beyond that. Here ある indicates that we aren't just talking about the tribe's physical presence in the forest, as いる would suggest, but rather their existence throughout time. The Yanomami people have been in the forest for over 10,000 years. They are an integral part of the forest.
ある for Unspecified Nouns
In the previous section, you learned that ある was originally used to talk about all sorts of things, regardless of whether they could move or not. This historical use can still be seen today when ある appears before a noun. In this case, the noun can be either animate or inanimate, and ある shows that you're talking about a particular but unspecified person, thing, place, occasion, or degree. This is the equivalent of, "a certain" or "one" in English.
In other words, ある before a noun indicates that the noun exists, without giving further details about it. It's "a person who exists" or "a place that exists."
For example, to say "a certain person," you can say ある人. To say "a certain building," you can say ある建物, "a certain village" is ある村, and "one day" is ある日. In a similar style to English, it's generally used the first time the noun is mentioned:
- One day, in a certain building, I was talked to by a (certain) woman.
You can also use ある to be vague about the degree or extent of something. For example, if you are learning a difficult Japanese grammar point, and you're not sure about it yet, but you get the gist, you can say:
- I understand to a certain extent.
Here, ある doesn't describe the exact degree of understanding but implies that it is not fully understood.
Similarly, if you worked on a project and it didn't go the way you wanted, but it sort of worked out, you could say:
- In a way, it was a success.
In this example, ある indicates that it wasn't a total success but it was still a success in a certain sense.