Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond The Basics
At its most basic, 中 is a word that refers to the inside of certain boundaries in space. So, "inside the box" is 箱の 中, and "inside the house" is 家の 中.
- inside the box
- inside the house
In the same way, 中 can also refer to a middle position, as it is essentially the inside position in regard to both sides, edges, or ends of something. Hence, "middle finger" in Japanese is called 中指 as it's the middle of five fingers.
- middle finger
Similarly, as a "central" or main location for business activity, the downtown area of a city/town is frequently referred to as 街中/町中（まちなか） in Japanese, because that is essentially the core — even though it may not actually be at the geographic center — of a city/town. 1
- the central area of a city/town
Getting the gist of 中? Let's move on to the Patterns of Use!
Patterns of Use
As seen in the first set of examples, the particle の is used to mark the object whose "inside" you're talking about. For example, if something is inside the car, you can say:
- inside the car
The location marked by の can be a figurative place, too. For instance, to say that something is in your memory, you can use it like this:
- in my memory
(〜の)中 + に/で
So, if you simply want to indicate the current location of your keys, you would use に: 2
- I left my keys in the car.
When talking about a location where an action or an event takes place rather than where something is or is going, you would use で, like:
- I slept in the car yesterday.
Here, で expresses the location (your car) as a backdrop to your action (sleeping).
If you aren't familiar with the difference between に and で, check out our article に vs で: Which Particle To Choose and Why.
Oh, and again, in both of the examples above 〜の 中 can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence because the context and chosen particles imply that you're talking about the inside of the car.
中 For "Within Boundaries"
中 can be used to talk about things demarcated within certain boundaries. Okay, what does that mean, exactly? It's easier to understand with examples, so let's go through a few!
〜の中から For "From Among The Choices…"
Used with the particle から, 中 can set a boundary between three or more choices.3 For instance, consider a scenario where you take your child to the toy store. They pick up three toys they really want, but they're only allowed to have one. You can use 〜の 中から and say:
- You can pick one of these.
(Literally: Pick one from among these three.)
If you want to be a little more specific, you can use the particle と to list the items instead of just saying "these three." So if the choices are a toy airplane, a bouncy ball, and a doll, you might say:
- You can pick the airplane, the bouncy ball, or the doll.
(Literally: Pick the one you like from among the airplane, the bouncy ball, and the doll.)
In this case, 〜の 中 can be omitted, because the boundary is already designated by your specifying the items.
〜の中で For "(Out) of…"
This pattern is frequently used to indicate who or what takes the highest or lowest position among the subjects up for comparison. 5
- Takashi is the tallest of the three.
You can also use 中 to distinguish "the one" from the rest of the compared subjects. Like this:
- Of the three, the only amusing one is Kenta.
Keep in mind that in some cases, 三人の 中で might also mean "among the three people" or "among the three of us." This usage is often literary and particularly alludes to something having been resolved or kept a secret "among the three people" because it still highlights the boundaries and the "within," like:
- That's already been resolved among the three of us/them, hasn't it?
Hmm, now I really want to know what went down between the three of them…
(〜の)中には For "Some of…"
For example, if you're a professor complaining that some of the students in the online class don't ever turn on their cameras, you may use this expression and say:
- Some of the students don't turn on their cameras.
If the context is clear, you can omit the 〜の part of 〜の 中には. For example, if it's obvious you're talking about students, you can simply say:
- Some of (the students) don't turn on their cameras.
I guess it's pretty common nowadays as online classes become more mainstream!
Beyond The Basics
中 For "Under Certain Circumstances"
中 can also be used to describe the circumstances under which an action takes place; i.e. "under certain circumstances."
When referring to physical actions, the circumstances 中 describes are often related to bad weather, and the action itself is typically a motion verb, such as 歩く (walk), 走る (run), さまよう (wander/roam), or 来る (come).
- I [walked・ran・wandered・came] in the middle of a storm.
You may have noticed that the particle を often comes after 中, though it can be omitted. This is because the circumstance can be likened to a path you can go through, and "the path" is marked by the particle を in Japanese.
Sometimes, bad weather is figuratively described, as in:
- Thank you for coming in spite of the bad weather.
(Literally: Thank you for coming in spite of the wet and muddy ground around your feet.)
This is a common way to start a speech at an event that just so happened to be held on a day with lousy weather.
Other than bad weather, you can also use 中 to refer to negative circumstances, like:
- Despite the bashing, I gritted my teeth and worked through it.
- Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to be here.
街中 and 町中 can also be read まちじゅう. In these cases, the meaning changes to "[all over・throughout] the city/town." ↩
In a situation similar to asking yourself where you left your keys while trying to remember, you can use either に or で to mark the location, as in 車の中[に・で]忘れたんだ！(I left my keys in the car!) With に, the focus is on where the keys are, whereas with で it's on where you perform the action (though it's probably an involuntary action). In this case, having left your keys somewhere. ↩
When the are only two things to choose from, you would directly combine 二つ and から, as in この二つから (out of the two choices), or use どちらか or どっちか (either one) with から, as in どちらかから or どっちかから (from either one of the choices). ↩
When are only two things to compare, you would use 〜のうちで instead of 〜の中で, as in この二つのうちで、どっちがいい? (Which one do you prefer between the two?), or the conditional form なら or だったら, as in この二つ[なら・だったら]、どっちがいい? (If it's between these two, which one do you prefer?). You can also use どちらか or どっちか (either one), but in this case, なら or だったら are more common collocations than 〜のうちで. ↩
Among all the grammatical uses on this page, only this 中 (〜の中で) can be replaced with うち, which is another word for "inside" in Japanese. For example, the same things as the examples listed here can be said using うち, as in タカシは三人のうちで一番背が高い。(Takashi is the tallest of the three.) or 三人のうちで面白いのはケンタだけだ。(Of the three, the only amusing one is Kenta.). If you aren't familiar with うち and how it differs from 中, check out our article: 中 vs 内: The Difference Between These Two Japanese Words for "Inside". ↩