あける, あく, ひらける, and ひらく: Differences Between Four Different "OPEN"s in Japanese Open the door to the most detailed explanation of how あける, あく, ひらける, and ひらく are used

    How do you say "open" in Japanese? While you might expect a simple little verb like this would have a simple little translation, that's not quite the case. Japanese has four different "opens" — ける (akeru), く (aku), ひらける (hirakeru) and ひらく(hiraku). To make matters worse, they all use the same kanji.

    Japanese has four different "opens" — あける / あく / ひらける / ひらく

    If this seems absolutely bonkers to you, take a minute to think about all the different meanings and uses of "open" in English. For example, you can open a door or window, or you can open a bottle or container. Beyond that, a shop could be open, and the bud of a plant can open up to reveal a beautiful blooming flower. I guess "open" isn't so simple after all.

    In a similar fashion, in Japanese, these four verbs for saying "open" describe different kinds of openings. In this article, we'll cover each verb in detail, so that you understand which one is used in different contexts and why. Ready to open your mind? Here we go!

    Prerequisites: This article assumes you already know hiragana and katakana. If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Hiragana Guide and Ultimate Katakana Guide. Although we begin with the most basic concepts, you'll get the most out of it if you have already encountered ける, く, ひらける and ひらく before and you're ready to dive into the the differences between them.

    あ〜 VS ひら〜

    a wall with a hole for あける/あく and an opened box for ひらける/ひらく

    Let's start by looking at the readings of this kanji. You'll notice ける (akeru), く (aku), ひらける (hirakeru) and ひらく (hiraku) can be broken up into two different categories. That is, two of them begin with the reading あ (a) and the other two begin with ひら (hira).

    Simply speaking, the ones with あ ( ける, く) are used to describe versions of "open" that result in a vacant physical space, such as making a hole in an object.

    So, to talk about making a hole in an ordinary wall, you'd use く and say:

    • かべに穴が く。
    • A hole is made in the wall.
      (Literally: A hole is opened in the wall.)

    Or, you'd use the other half of the pair ける and say:

    • かべに穴を ける。
    • I made a hole in the wall.
      (Literally: I open a hole in the wall.)

    On the other hand, the ones with ひら ( ひらける and ひらく) describe "open" in a more three-dimensional way, like when spreading out or unfolding something.

    So, to talk about a flower bud unfolding, you'd use ひらく and say:

    • つぼみが ひらく。
    • A bud opens.

    This is because when a flower blooms, it involves the petals spreading outward from the center. The focus is on the idea of three-dimensional movements, so ひらく is more suitable.

    a city in the progress of modernized

    ひらける is less common than the other three "opens," and it's generally used figuratively, carrying a much more formal tone. 1 However, the same logic still applies.

    For example, one of the figurative meanings of ひらける is "becoming civilized/modernized," as in:

    • 町が近代化された都市に ひらける。
    • The town develops into a modernized city.

    Since the word begins with ひら, it describes the physical movement of opening up or unfolding, rather than the action of creating an empty space. For this reason, it can be used for metaphorical "openings" like an old-fashioned town expanding and rolling out new, modernized infrastructure.

    So those are the differences between the opens that begin with あ and the ones that begin with ひら! It's pretty straightforward, right?

    That being said, when you see this kanji in a sentence, it may be difficult to understand which meaning or reading is being referred to. For example, to talk about the opening of a hinged door, you can use either く or ひらく and say:

    • ドアが く。
      ドアが ひらく。
    • The door opens.
    a sliding window for あく and an opening door for ひらく

    Although the difference is subtle here, the same concepts still apply. That is, く simply indicates space is being created by removing an obstacle (the door). On the other hand, ひらく's focus is more on the trajectory of the door movement, which results in the creation of an opening.

    Hence, when talking about sliding doors, く is more suitable because it doesn't involve any physical "unfolding" movement. If you use ひらく instead, it could sound as though the space on the other side of the door has been revealed to you. It could show your excitement to see the path or space beyond the doorway once it's been revealed. 2

    To see how this difference applies to various uses, we'll go through a number of examples. But before that, there is one more thing we need to explain — the difference between the two versions of each pair, namely, ける vs く, and ひらける vs ひらく.

    The Kanji 開 and Transitivity

    So, why are there two versions of "open" in each pair, and what's the difference between them? To understand this, let's first take a look at the kanji for "open" — 開.

    The kanji 開 consists of 門 and 开. Both components come from pictographs, and while 門 represents "a gate," 开 has two possible origins. The first theory suggests 开 consists of "一," or a bar for a gate, and two 十s (as in 十 十), which represent two hands. Putting the pictographs together, 開 shows two hands pushing open a barred gate. The second theory suggests 开 can be broken up into two 干s (as in 干 干), which represent two people of equal height, to show the gate is opened equally and together.

    two possible origins for kanji 開

    We don't know which theory is closer to the origin, but it seems that both are important, particularly because they are perfect for describing this pair — ける and く.

    ける and く are a so-called transitivity pairs. That is, ける is a transitive verb, or 他動詞たどうし ("other" verb), and く is an intransitive verb, or 自動詞じどうし ("self" verb).

    What are transitive verbs and intransitive verbs? To put it simply, transitive verbs describe an action that involves the transfer of force from a subject to an object.

    So, to describe someone (the subject) opening something (the object), you would use the transitive verb ける, as in:

    • 王子が門を けた。
    • The prince opened the gate.

    Transitive verbs describe an action that involves the transfer of force from a subject to an object.

    In this example, 王子 (the prince) transfers his force to the gate, causing it to open. It can be by either physically pushing the gate open, or by ordering his servant to do so, but either way, the focus is on how he causes the gate to open with his own power.

    On the other hand, the action described by intransitive verbs doesn't focus on the transfer of energy from a subject to an object. Instead, it pays more attention to the change in the subject itself, like:

    • 門が いた。
    • The gate opened.

    In this sentence, the focus is simply on the fact that the gate opened and not who or what opened the gate. You can still add things like 風で (by the wind) or 王子の命令で (by order of the prince) to show how or why the gate was opened, but still, the focus is on what happened rather than on who made it happen.

    The focus is on what happened rather than on who made it happen.

    So going back to the two pictograph theories, the one with two hands pushing the gate is like the transitive open, or ける. Someone is transferring their force on the gate to open it. And the other one is like the intransitive open, or く. Two people are passing through the gate that is open for them. The gate may have been opened by themselves or someone/something else, but with く, the focus is simply on what change occurred to the gate — it opened.

    So far, so good? Now, let's take a look at another pair — ひらける and ひらく. As you might have guessed, they are also a transitivity pair. ひらける ends in 〜ける just like the transitive verb ける, while ひらく ends in 〜く just like the intransitive verb く. You might then guess that ひらける is transitive and ひらく is intransitive. But you'd be wrong! Despite the resemblance, ひらける is intransitive and ひらく can be either transitive or intransitive. Why language gotta be that way though? 🙄

    Since ひらく can be either transitive or intransitive, you can say:

    • 王子が門を ひらいた。
    • The prince opened the gate.
    • 門が ひらいた。
    • The gate opened.

    In the first example, ひらく is used as a transitive verb, focusing on the transfer of the prince's force to the gate, causing it to open. The second example uses ひらく as an intransitive verb, meaning the focus is only on the change of the subject, or what happened to the gate.

    And as we learned in the previous section, the difference between " ける and く" and " ひらく" is that the former is more about space being made, while the latter is more about the motion of the gate opening up.

    Lastly, ひらける is an intransitive verb, so whenever it’s used, the focus is on the change that occurs in something rather than who makes the change. For example, ひらける can be used when a new road, railroad, or airway has been created, as in:

    • シアトル—ポートランド間に、鉄道の新ルートが ひらけた。
    • A new railway route has been opened between Seattle and Portland.

    In this sentence, you can see the focus is not on someone making the new railway but on the change itself. That route didn’t exist before, but now it has opened.

    Comparison of Uses

    So far, you’ve learned the basic differences of each Japanese "open." Now it's time to explore more examples for a better understanding. We'll start with the comparison of two transitive verbs, ける and ひらく, and then move on to the two intransitive verbs, く and ひらく. Finally, we'll take a look at a couple more examples of ひらける.

    ける VS ひら

    First, we’ll compare ける with ひらく when used as a transitive verb. As a refresher, ける begins with あ, so it focuses on the making of an opening. On the other hand, ひらく begins with ひら, and so it focuses on the movement of spreading out. Now, let’s see why one word is chosen over another or how they are different when used in the same context.

    Imagine you order a new desk, which you have to assemble by yourself. When it arrives, you notice the tabletop doesn't have holes for screws, and so you'll need to create them by yourself. To describe this situation, only ける works:

    • 自分で穴を ける必要がある。
    • I need to drill the holes myself.

    This is because what you are describing is making openings on a surface. It doesn't involve any physical movements related to opening, so ひらく is not suitable. 3

    Next, imagine you were very thirsty and ordered a bottle of beer. To open the bottle, ける is your best option:

    • ビール瓶を けた。
    • I opened the beer bottle.

    あける begins with あ, so it focuses on the making of an opening. On the other hand, ひらく begins with ひら, and so it focuses on the movement of spreading out.

    In this example, what you are describing is creating an opening to drink the beer. If you use ひらく, it would sound as though the bottle had a hinged lid that could open and close, but that's not the case with typical beer bottles. If you are talking about the lid of a water bottle with a pop-up straw though, ひらく can also come into play as they often involve an unfolding movement.

    Let's move on to the next situation. You are on a train, sitting tightly squeezed among the other passengers. At one stop, a man hops on and sits right next to you, and annoyingly manspreads his legs wide apart. For the "opening" of his legs, you'd use ひらく, as in:

    • 男は足を ひらいて座った。
    • The man sat with his legs open.

    Here, ひらく fits because it's about the movement of spreading out his legs.

    Now, let's say this man takes a newspaper out of his bag, opens it up, and brings it obnoxiously close to your face. In this case, ひらく is used again because the focus is on the "unfolding" of the newspaper. 4

    • そして、男は新聞を ひらいた。
    • Then, the man opened up his newspaper.

    Are you getting the hang of how ける and ひらく are used? The next example is for when you can use both words, but the meanings will change slightly depending on which word is used.

    The example that illustrates the different nuances well is opening an envelope. When you say "opening an envelope," there are three different parts of the process: breaking the seal, unfolding the flap, and widening the opening of the envelope.

    an envelope that is being opened

    Whether you are cutting the envelope open with a paper-knife or scissors, or just ripping it open, if you are simply describing the unsealing of the envelope, ける is normally used.

    • 封筒を けた。
    • I unsealed the envelope.

    Here your focus is on creating an opening so that the content inside becomes accessible. You're not depicting a physical movement like that of unfolding or spreading out. On the other hand, if you are talking about lifting the flap you just opened with your paper-knife, then ひらく can be used.

    • 封筒を ひらいた。
    • I opened the flap of the envelope.

    In this example, the "open" you are describing is more about the unfolding of the flap. So unless you are still metaphorically talking about creating an accessible opening, ひらく is your choice.

    Lastly, you can also use "open" when you widen the mouth of the envelope to better reveal what's inside. Perhaps it's a paycheck you are waiting for, or a mysterious letter from a secret admirer. Whatever it is, this "widening of the opening" can take either ける or ひらく, as in:

    • 封筒を けた。
      封筒を ひらいた。
    • I widened the opening of the envelope.

    When using ける, it focuses on creating a space to peer into or to grab the content inside. On the other hand, ひらく emphasizes the movement of widening the opening.

    When not referring to the physical movement of opening something, the differences may be less obvious, but the same concepts still apply. For example, you can use ける and ひらく for opening a store. However, while ける means to open a shop at the start of a business day, ひらく means to start a new business.

    a store being opened
    • 店を ける
    • open the shop (as in opening for the day)
    • 店を ひら
    • open a shop (as in starting a business)

    In the first example, ける is used because it's referring to unlocking the door and allowing customers to come into the space inside. The second example, on the other hand, uses ひらく because it's like describing how your budding business idea is unfolding into an actualized entity. The story of your business is finally starting to unfold.

    く VS ひら

    Next, let’s compare く with ひらく when used as an intransitive verb. As you learned earlier, intransitive verbs describe a change in the subject (here, from being closed to open) without necessarily specifying the cause. For example, to describe the opening of a window, you can use these phrases and say:

    • 窓が く。
      窓が ひらく。
    • The window opens.

    In this intransitive expression, somebody or something opened the window, but we don't necessarily know who or what. Maybe a ghost did it, or maybe it was just the wind. Whatever the case, all that matters is what happened with the window — it opened.

    a sliding window and an opening window with an unfolding movement

    So the difference between our two intransitive verbs comes down to the difference between あ and ひら. The sentence with く, which begins with あ, places focus on how the window was moved to create an opening. On the other hand, ひらく begins with ひら, and its focus is on the physical movement of the window. Thus, while く can be used for the opening of any type of window, ひらく is more suitable for hinged windows that can be swung open.

    For the same reason, you would use ひらく to describe a flower opening, as in 花が ひらく, or for a book opening, as in 本が ひらく, because it depicts physical movement.

    What about when you are talking about opening your mouth? Just like the envelope-opening example in the last section, the opening of a mouth can also take either く or ひらく, depending on what you'd like to focus on. That is, if your focus is simply on a space being created, く fits the description. Thus, to talk about someone whose jaw has dropped open from being dumbfounded, く is used. This is because your focus is not on the movement of the mouth, but on the fact that it is wide open in suprise.

    • あきれて口がポカンと いた。
    • I was dumbfounded.
      (Literally: My mouth dropped open in disgust.)

    On the other hand, if your focus is on the actual movement of a mouth opening up, such as on the lips spreading apart, then ひらく works. For this reason, if you are talking about someone who had kept a secret for a long time and finally opens up to tell you the truth, ひらく is more suitable, as in:

    • 男の重い口がついに ひらいた。
    • At last, the tight-lipped man began to talk.
      (Literally: The man's heavy mouth finally opened.)

    Here, ひらく can express the movement of the tightly-shut lips opening up. If く is used, it feels like a more abrupt opening. It feels too direct and frank to depict the intense moment of the heavy lips of the mouth lifting to finally reveal the secret.

    Lastly, let's take a look at one figurative usage, that of someone opening their heart. In this case, you may think く is suitable because the focus is on the person's heart becoming accessible to others. However, ひらく is usually used for it, as in:

    • やっと彼女の心が ひらいた。
    • Finally, her heart opened up.

    This is because you are describing it as if a tightly closed shell has finally opened up. If you use く, it would sound like an actual physical space opened up inside the heart, which doesn't make much sense in this context.

    However, if something sad happens and you feel empty and emotionally numb, you can use く to describe this state using 穴 (hole), like:

    • 心に大きな穴が いた。
    • There's a big hole in my heart.
      (Literally: A big hole has opened in my heart.)

    In this case, your focus is not on the movement of what's opening up but on the open space being made in your heart. This hole represents your feeling of emptiness. 5

    ひらける

    Another use of 開ひらける is to describe a view unfolding before your eyes.

    This final section is about the advanced word ひらける. Earlier, you learned it's commonly used figuratively and carries a more formal tone. We touched on one example of how it's used, which was ひらける as in "becoming civilized/modernized." Here, we'll check out a couple of other examples to get a better grip on it!

    Another use of ひらける is to describe a view unfolding before your eyes. Imagine you are on a hike, walking up a trail surrounded by the woods. Halfway up, there is an opening where you can look over the foot of the mountain. When you get to the opening, a beautiful view becomes visible before you.

    • 眼前に美しい景色が ひらけた。
    • A beautiful view opened up before me.

    In this sentence, ひらける is perfect because it can describe the beautiful view suddenly unfolding and spreading out in front of you. It carries a formal tone, so it matches the literary feeling of the sentence as well. If you use ひらく, it sounds odd as it's more closely linked to the literal movement of something opening up.

    ひらける is also used to describe finding a way to move forward in a situation. For example, let's say you start a new business, but for a while it struggles to take off. Yet, you keep working hard, and gradually your business plan begins to find its way. To describe your situation, you can use ひらける and say:

    • ようやく道が ひらけてきた。
    • Finally, things are looking up for us.
      (Literally: Finally, the road ahead has opened up for us.)
    a view that is opening up

    In this example, it's like you were lost in the wild, but then the right track suddenly began to present itself to you.

    A New Door Opened?

    Yay, you made it to the end! There are plenty of other examples in the wild, but now you should be able to figure out why one is chosen over another!

    To sum it up, the "opens" beginning with あ ( ける and く) focus more on creating space or an opening, while the ones beginning with ひら ( ひらける and ひらく) focus more on the movement of something opening up. And they can be broken up further into transitive and intransitive functions.

    Knowing all that and having plenty of examples in your back pocket, you should be ready to open a new door and step on through to your next Japanese language adventure.

    1. Some dialects may use ひらける differently. For example, Awa-ben (Awa dialect) in Tokushima prefecture uses ひらける as a transitive verb. And just like ける, it can be used to describe the physical opening movement, as in 窓を ひらける. 

    2. When used to mean opening a door, the differences between く and ひらく are so subtle that native speakers are not necessarily aware of them. Some may use these two interchangeably without any intention of adding effect. 

    3. This あける can also be written with the kanji 空, as in 空ける. While both 開ける and 空ける are used to describe removing an obstacle to create an opening, ける's focus is on "making it accessible," and 空ける's focus is more on simply "making a vacant space." Thus, ける can also be used for other situations where the focus is on making something empty/vacant, such as グラスを ける (emptying a glass), 家を ける (to be away from home), or 予定を ける (freeing up one's schedule). 

    4. There is another expression for opening an newspaper, which is 新聞を広げる. 

    5. Just like footnote [3], if it's to emphasize the feeling of emptiness, the kanji 空 might be more suitable, as in 心に大きな穴が いた.