Saturday, March 11, 2017

Existence Verbs

In Japanese, some verbs describe the existence, or possession, of things. They are aru ある, 在る, 有る, nai ない, 無い, and iru いる, 居る. In this article, I'll explain the relationship between these words, and how they're used in Japanese.


Existence verbs are extremely complicated grammatically for dozens of reasons

Animate and Inanimate Subjects

There are only two existence verbs: aru ある and iru いる. Generally, the verb aru ある is used when its subject is an inanimate thing, while iru いる is used when the subject is animate.

This means that if the thing "existing" is a person or animal, hence animate, then you use iru いる, otherwise you use aru ある.
  • konki mo takusan no isekai anime ga aru
    This season, too, a lot isekai anime exist.
    This season, too, there are a lot isekai anime.
  • kirai na hito wa takusan iru
    A lot of people that hate it exist.
    There are a lot of people that hate it.

Above, when the subject was anime, the verb aru was used. Obviously, an anime isn't a person, or an animal, despite the words animal and anime resembling a lot, so you don't use iru with anime. On the other hand, people are, indeed, people, so iru is used with hito.

Note that, while the literal meaning of the word is "to exist," it's normally translated to English as "there is" or "there are."


Existence verbs can be used to say "where" something exists, "where" something is. In this case, the ni に particle marks the location. For example:
  • sore wa koko ni aru
    That thing exists here.
    That thing is here. (it's somewhere around here.)
  • kare wa koko ni iru
    He exists here.
    He is here.

Note that the verb "to exist" easily becomes "to be" in English. However, they're only used when you want to say "something is somewhere."

If you were to say "something is something else," you'd use a copula instead:

Confusingly, de-aru である is a copula, too, but don't worry, I'll explain about this later.

Negative Form

The negative form of iru いる is inai いない, as one would expect. However, the negative form of aru ある isn't aranai あらない, it's the i-adjective nai 無い. So aru ある has an irregular negative form.
  • sore wa koko ni nai
    That thing doesn't exist here.
    That thing isn't here.
  • kare wa koko ni inai
    He doesn't exist here.
    He isn't here.


Existence verbs are often used in possessive double subject constructions.

In this usage, the large subject, the possessor, is normally marked as the topic, often by the wa は particle, but sometimes by niwa には, too, while the small subject, the possession, is marked by the ga が particle.
  • kare wa {yuuki ga aru}
    {Courage exists} is true about him.
    He has courage.
  • kare wa {yuuki ga nai}
    {Courage doesn't exist} is true about him.
    He doesn't have courage.

Note that the verb predicates the small subject, not the large subject. Consequently, whether you use aru ある or iru いる depends on whether the possession is a person or animal, or not, not on whether the possessor is such thing. Observe:
  • ore niwa {yume ga aru}
    {A dream exists} is true for me.
    For me, there is a dream.
    I have a dream.
  • ore niwa {imouto ga iru}
    {A younger sister exists} is true for me.
    For me, there is an younger sister.
    I have an younger sister.
  • ano soshiki niwa {imouto ga iru}
    {[My] younger sister exists} is true for that organization,
    [My] younger sister is in that organization.
  • ano ie wa {tenjou ga aru}
    {A roof exists} is true about that house.
    That house has a roof.

Above, the possessions "dream" and "roof" are inanimate, so they take aru ある, while the possession "younger sister" is a person, so it takes iru いる.

In general, phrases that express relationships use niwa には.
  • ore niwa kankei-aru
    To me, there's a relationship.
    I have something to do with it.
  • ore niwa kankei-nai
    To me, there isn't a relationship.
    I have nothing to do with it.
  • ore niwa kanojo ga iru
    To me, a girlfriend exists.
    I have a girlfriend.
  • ore niwa kanojo ga inai
    I don't have a girlfriend.

There are many sentences can take either wa は or niwa には.

The wa は particle is often used together with the formal noun koto こと, in the collocations koto aru ことある and koto nai ことない, which express whether someone has an experience or not, in other words, whether they have ever done something or not.
  • watashi wa {{sushi wo tabeta} koto ga aru}
    {The experience [that is] {to eat sushi} exists} is true about me.
    I have eaten sushi before.
  • watashi wa {{sushi wo tabeta} koto ga nai}
    {The experience [that is] {to eat sushi} doesn't exist} is true about me.
    I have not eaten sushi before.
    I have never eaten sushi in my life.

Moving Subjects

It's worth noting that aru ある and iru いる isn't always decided on whether the subject is an animal or not. Sometimes, it has to do with whether it has the ability of moving away on its own, or whether it's an possession available somewhere.

For example, a fish is an animal. In the pond, the fish iru いる, because they can swim away where they currently are. However, in a fish store, the fish aru ある. Because they're products now, and you'll be asking the clerk whether they "have" a certain kind of fish around available for sale or not.

Similarly, if you're talking about inanimate things that actually move. For example, bicycles, cars, robots, and so on. If you use the verb aru ある, you imply that they don't move. If you use the verb iru いる, you imply that they do move.

Auxiliary Verbs

The verb aru ある, and consequently nai ない, and, also, separately, iru いる, are also auxiliary verbs, specifically, hojo-doushi 補助動詞, which mean they come after the ren'youkei 連用形 form of certain words, like the te-form of verbs.

First things first: the whole deal about inanimate and animate subjects doesn't apply here. The usage as auxiliary verbs is a completely different usage, with completely different rules, for some reason.

Let's start with iru いる. When iru いる is used as an auxiliary, it always comes after the te-form of verbs, so in the pattern ~te-iru ~ている. This pattern can mean two things:
  • The subject is doing something, continuously.
    He's in a state of doing the thing.
  • The subject is done something, already.
    Also called "perfect" because the action is done already, it's been perfected.
    He's done the thing, and is in a state where the thing is done.

In ergative verb pairs, the meaning usually depends on the transitivity of the verb. The intransitive verb becomes "done," while the transitive verb becomes "doing." For example:
  • iru
    To insert. To put in. (transitive.)
  • kare ga hako ni nanika wo irete-iru
    He's inserting something into the box.
    He's putting something in the box.
  • hairu
    To enter. (intransitive.)
  • hako ni nakika ga haitte-iru
    Something is entered the box.
    Something is inside the box.
  • yaku
    To burn. To cook. To bake. (transitive.)
  • kare ga keeki wo yaite-iru
    He's baking a cake.
  • yakeru
    To be burned. To be cooked. (intransitive.)
  • keeki ga yakete-iru
    The cake is baked.

In negative sentences, however, the meaning is usually perfect:
  • kare ga hako ni nanimo irete-inai
    He hasn't put anything into the box.

The pattern ~te aru ~てある also exists, but it's used with far less frequency than ~te iru ~ている. When it's used, it works like a direct passive: the object of the active voice becomes its subject. For example:
  • kare ga kami ni nanika wo kaite-iru
    He's writing something on the paper.
  • kami ni nanika ga kaite-aru
    Something is written on the paper.

Above, "something," nanika, is marked as the object, with the wo を particle, in the sentence with ~te-iru ~ている, but as the subject, with the ga が particle, in the sentence with ~te-aru ~てある.


One important warning: in Japanese, it's extremely common to skip over the i い of ~te-iru ~ている, turning it in ~te-ru ~てる, a practice called i-nuki-kotoba い抜き言葉.
  • nanika wo kaiteru
    [He's] writing something [somewhere].

The i い is skipped in all of the auxiliary verbs conjugations. For example, ~te-imasu ~ています would become ~temasu ~てます, ~te-ite ~ていて becomes ~tete ~てて, ~te-ita ~ていた becomes ~teta ~てた.

But most importantly: ~te-inai ~ていない becomes ~tenai ~てない.

Consequently, ~tenai can be either the negative form of ~te-iru or the negative form of ~te-aru.
  • kare ga nanimo kaitenai
    He hasn't written anything.


The auxiliary verb aru ある is also used part of a copula. This usage is extremely complicated, despite being so common.

This happens when aru ある comes after the de で particle, forming de aru である. In modern Japanese, de aru である is used mostly in writing, it's not used when talking to people. In anime, it's used in narrations.
  • uso de aru
    [It] is a lie.
    • It - subject.
    • Is - a copula connecting subject to complement.
    • A lie - complement.

Historically, the da だ copula was created as a contraction of de aru である. This one is used more commonly.
  • uso da
    (literally same meaning.)

Afterwards, some usages of the de で particle were analyzed as the te-form of da だ. See: de で copula for details.

The point is that, in modern Japanese, de aru である is really just the auxiliary verb aru ある after the te-form of da だ. Except that it doesn't work like the ~te-aru ~てある we saw previously, but it's still, technically, a hojo-doushi, at least as far as dictionaries are concerned.

As one would expect, nai ない is used in the negative form.
  • uso de nai
    [It] is not a lie.

Normally, dewa nai ではない is used instead, and how it works will be explained later.

Besides the te-form of verbs, hojo-doushi can also attach to the ren'youkei form of other words, including, for example, the adverbial form of i-adjectives. Observe:
  • kawaii
    To be cute.
  • kawaiku-aru
    To exist cutely. (literally.)
    To be cute.
  • kawaiku-nai
    To not exist cutely.
    To not be cute.

As you can see above, kawaiku-aru is redundant, it just means basically the same thing as kawaii, so there's no need for it. On the other hand, kawaiku-nai makes the adjective negative, and is indeed the negative form of i-adjectives.

Every time you inflect an i-adjective to its negative form, you're actually adding the negative form of the auxiliary verb aru ある to the adverbial form of the adjective. It's just that you rarely have to use verb aru ある itself in this manner, so it's hard to notice what's actually going on.

は Insertion

Like all other hojo-doushi, ~aru ~ある, ~nai ~ない, and ~iru ~いる, can have the wa は particle come before them, but after the ren'youkei on which they're suffixed. This often creates the effect of the contrastive wa. For example:
  • benkyou shite wa iru kedo
    seiseki ga agaranai

    Studying, [he] is, however,
    [his] grades aren't improving.

This is the usage where kawaiku-aru makes sense.
  • kawaiku wa aru kedo
    yasuku wa nai

    Cute, [it] is, however,
    cheap, [it] is not.

This also applies to de-aru and de-nai.
  • hen na hito de wa aru ga,
    warui hito de wa nai

    [He] is a weird person, but
    [he] isn't a bad person.

Note that sometimes the copula won't translate to English as "to be." For example, with suki 好き, "liked," you end up with "to like" instead of "is liked," most of the time.
  • watashi wa {kore ga suki de aru}
    {Liked is true about this} is true about me.
    I like this.
  • suki de wa aru kedo
    dai-suki de wa nai

    Like [it], [I] do, however,
    Love [it], [I] don't.

In Japanese, dewanai ではない is normally used instead of denai でない. This happens only when dewanai ではない is used predicatively. When something "is not something" attributively, denai でない is used instead. Observe:
  • ano hito ga kirei de aru
    That person is pretty.
  • ano hito ga kirei dewanai
    That person isn't pretty.
  • {kirei denai} hito
    A person [who] {is not pretty}.
    A non-pretty person.

Since you usually qualify things by what they are, not by what they are NOT, the phrase denai isn't used very frequently, but it's perfectly grammatical.

Null-Marked Argument

Phrases like koto aru ことある and kankei aru 関係ある, where the existence verb comes right after a noun, are analyzed as an invisible particle, called the null particle, coming after the noun.


Sometimes, aru ある and nai ない refer to the occurrence of something, rather than its existence.
  • nani ga atta?!
    What happened!?
  • kare ni nani ga atta?!
    What happened to him?!
  • gakkou de nani ga atta?!
    What happened at school?!
  • toku ni nanimo nakatta yo
    Nothing happened in particular.
  • nanika attara itte ne
    If something happens, tell [me], okay?

Together with the formal noun koto こと, ~nai ~ない can be used to foretell that something "will never happen."
  • {soto ni deru} koto wa nai
    Will never {exit to outside}.
    Will never {leave [that place]}.


Sometimes, aru ある, and nai ない, can refer to whether something "happens" in the sense of whether it should be allowed to happen, whether it's permissible under the rules. Often in the game or sports sense.
  • sore wa ari ka yo?!
    That's existing?!
    That's allowed?!
    That's permitted?!
  • sore wa nai wa!
    That's nonexistent!
    That's not allowed!
    That's against the rules!
    That's illegal!
  • zettai nai wa
    Absolutely nonexistent.
    No way that's allowed.


The verb aru ある combined with eru 得る, "to attain," can be used to say that something is plausible, or implausible. Whether it's possible or not. Whether it can happen or not.
  • sonna koto ga arieru?
    Can something like that happen?
  • arienai!
    [It] can't happen!
    [It] is impossible!
    No way!

Usage Alone

Sometimes, the words aru ある, nai ない, and iru いる, are used alone in a sentence. There are a few reasons why this happens.

First, if you're searching for something, and you can't find it, then nai, nai, nai! and so on just means "it's not here." In other words, you can't find it.

Similarly, inai! いない! is used when somebody isn't here.

Furthermore, in some cases iru いる is used when someone "is here" or "is there," and you weren't expecting them to be there, or you were hoping they weren't there. Just the same, aru ある is also used this way.

Lastly, nai ない can be used as sore wa nai それはない, to say something shouldn't be allowed, or is against the rules.


In this section, I'll note some ways you can misuse the information about the existence verbs you just acquried, because Japanese hates you.


There's a few words that look exactly like the existence verbs, but are something else entirely.


Although the nai ない in kawaikunai 可愛くない, dewanai ではない, and yuuki ga nai 勇気がない, are all the negative form of aru ある, not every nai ない is the negative form of aru ある.

In the negative form of verbs, the nai ない is classified as a jodoushi 助動詞, can't be replaced by aru ある, and can't have wa は come before it.
  • wakaru
    {[That] is understood} is true about me.
    [I] understand [it].
    I get it.
  • wakaranai
    I don't get it.
  • *wakaraaru
  • *wakara wa nai
    (also wrong.)


The verb iru 居る, "to exist," has various homonyms, including: iru 要る, "to need." Unlike "to exist," the verb "to need" can be used with inanimate objects. This creates a very confusing situation. Observe:
  • okane ga aru
    Money exists.
    [I] have money.
  • okane ga iru
    Money is necessary.
    [I] need money.
  • kanojo ga iru
    A girlfriend exists.
    [I] have a girlfriend.

Above, we use aru ある with an inanimate small subject (money), and iru いる with an animate small subject (girlfriend). If we use iru いる with money, we get the sentence "to need money," rather than "to have money."

There are other less common homonyms, too. See iru いる for reference.

Unfinished State

As mentioned previously, te-iru ~ている has a continuous and a perfect usage. This leads to the completely unintuitive and sometimes hilarious situation where you think a verb would translate to "verb-ing" in English, but does not. For example:
  • korosu
    To kill.
  • koroshite-iru
    To be killing.

  • shinu
    To die.
  • shinde-iru
    To be dying. (no.)
    To be dead. (yes.)

The reason why shinde-iru means "to be dead," rather than "to be dying," as any sane person would have expected, is because shinde-iru literally means:
  • To die, and to be in that state.

Similarly, koroshite-iru means "to kill, and to be in that state." The difference here is that if you kill someone, you become a killer, so you're killing people, while if you die, you're dead.

In order to say "to be dying" in Japanese, you'd need to use the auxiliary verb kakeru かける instead, which means you're doing something, but haven't finished doing it.
  • shini-kakeru
    To almost finish dying, but to not have died yet.
    To come close to dying. To almost die.
  • shini-kakete-iru
    To almost die, and to be in that state.
    To be almost dead. To be dying.

English Synonyms

Although the existence verbs aru ある and iru いる literally translate to "to exist" in English, and sometimes to "to have," they're extremely grammatical, and not really used to say something actually "exists" anyhow, or someone "has" something every time.

To Exist

To say that something "exists," or "doesn't exist," in Japanese, you use the verb sonzai suru 存在する. If it's something that exists in fiction, or theory, and you want to talk about whether it exists in the real world, the verb is jitsuzai suru 実在する instead.
  • {shin'ya anime ga sonzai shinai} jidai
    An era [when] {late-night anime doesn't exist}.
    An era [in which] {there's no late-night anime}.
    • All anime are for children! Oh no!
  • {mahou ga jitsuzai suru} sekai
    A world [where] {magic actually exists}.
    • An isekai.

To Have

To say someone "has" something, the verb motsu 持つ, "to hold (something in hand)," can be used.

The difference between aru ある and motsu 持つ is that motsu 持つ is used with alienable possessions, something you can buy, take, give, and sell, while aru ある is used with inalienable possessions, something that you "have," mostly because it's part of you.
  • ano ie niwa terebi ga aru
    A TV exists in that house.
    There's a TV in that house.
    • Here, aru is used because the sentence is about the location of the television.
  • ano hito wa terebi wo motanai
    That person doesn't physically hold a TV in hands.
    That person doesn't possess a TV.
    That person doesn't have a TV.
    • Here, motsu is used because the TV is possession of that person.
  • neko wa shippo ga aru
    Cats have tails.
    • Here, aru is used because a tail is a body part.

The verb aru ある is also used when "have" refers to availability. For example:
  • okane ga aru
    To have money. In the sense being available to spend.
  • mizu ga aru
    To have water. In the sense of being available to drink.

Both things above are technically possessions, but it's never a question of whether someone possesses money or water, but rather of whether they have it available.

The verb motsu 持つ can be used with things you can hold in hand.
  • kasa wo motsu
    To be hold an umbrella in hand.
    To possess an umbrella.
    To have an umbrella.

But possessions aren't limited to that.
  • kuruma wo motsu
    To hold a car in hand. (no way.)
    To possess a car.
    To have a car.

Such sentences are more common in relative clauses. For example:
  • {kuruma wo motsu} hito
    A person [that] {has a car}.

The term mochi-nushi 持ち主 refers to the "owner" of something. For animals, goshujinsama ご主人さま, "master," is sometimes used instead to refer to the owner of a pet.

There is

As mentioned previously, when saying "something is something," you need a copula. Unfortunately, existence verbs end up translating to the phrase "there is" a lot of times, which sounds like we're saying "there" is something, which we are not.

In order to talk about the location "there," we use the demonstrative pronouns soko そこ and asoko あそこ. For example:
  • soko wa joshi toire desu
    There is the girls' toilet.
    That place [you're heading toward] is the girls' toilet. (you're a guy right? What are you doing going in there?!)
  • asoko wa watashi no ie desu
    There is my home.
    That place is my home.


Regarding the kanji of existence verbs, there's a few things worth noting.


Existence verbs can be spelled in multiple ways, however, in general, they're normally spelled with hiragana. In fact, there are even rules about when you can spell them in a way, and when you can not.

The spelling aru 在る is only used when something exists, or exists somewhere.
  • asoko ni nanika ga aru
    There is something there.

The spelling aru 有る is only used when something is possessed by someone.
  • kare wa sainou ga aru
    He has talent.

The spelling nai 無い can be used in both cases. Similarly, the spelling iru 居る can be used in both, too.

However, when the verb is used as an auxiliary, it's never spelled with kanji.

This means ~te-iru ~ている, ~te-aru てある and ~te-nai ~てない are always spelled with hiragana.

Likewise, ~de aru ~である, de wa nai ~ではない, etc. are always spelled with hiragana.

Furthermore, ~ku nai ~くない, the negative form of i-adjectives, is always spelled with hiragana. And when ~nai ~ない is used as a jodoushi to create the negative form of verbs, it's always spelled with hiragana, too.

In other words: they can only be spelled with kanji when they have the meaning of "to exist," "to be somewhere," "to be possessed by someone," or even of "to happen." Otherwise, they're always spelled with hiragana.
There are some words which are spelled with the same kanji as that of existence verbs. Since aru ある is the antonym of nai ない, words that have the yuumorpheme end up being antonyms to those that have a mu 無 morpheme.
  • muri
    Without reason.
  • yuuri
  • muyou
    Without use.
  • yuuyou
    With use.
  • muryou
    Without charge.
    Free, in the sense it doesn't cost anything.
  • yuuryou
    With charge.
    Things that aren't free, like mostly everything in life.
  • mugen
    Without limit.
  • yuugen
    With limit.
  • mukou
    Without effect.
  • yuukou
    With effect.

And these terms you're probably only going to see in Gyakuten Saiban:
  • muzai
    Without guilt.
    Innocent of a crime.
  • yuuzai
    With guilt.
    Guilty of a crime.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

All comments are moderated and won't show up until approved. Spam, links to illegal websites, and inappropriate content won't be published.