Sunday, March 24, 2019

koto こと, 事

WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, koto こと, also spelled koto 事, means literally "thing," and less literally a "something," and even less literally a "what." It's an extremely vague word that bears almost no meaning of its own. It's a light noun and nominalizer.

Basically, although koto こと means "thing," it doesn't mean "thing" the same way "thing" means "thing" in English. For example, in English we can say "we found a thing," but we can't say that in Japanese with koto, we can only say it with nanika.
  • *koto wo mistuketa
  • nanika wo mitsuketa
    Found something.
    • Found a thing.

On the other hand, if we know what sort of "thing" we got, if we have an adjective for the "thing," then we can use koto, because then it becomes tangible. We could also nanika, but a nanika is something we don't know what, while koto is something that we can determine.
  • ii koto
    A good thing.
    A good something.
    Something good.
    • Did "something good" happen?
    • This phrase is normally used.
    • It's also used as an interjection before telling someone something, like "let me tell you something good."
  • ii nanika
    A good something.
    • I don't know what, but we need to find a good... something!!!
    • This phrase is rarely used.

The word koto can be used with relative clauses in various ways.

In the most basic way, koto refers to the thing acted upon by the verb of the relative clause. For example:
  • ore ga yatta
    I did.
  • ore ga yatta koto
    The thing [that] I did.
    • What I have done.
    • kare no yatta koto
      (same meaning.)
  • ore ga mita koto
    The thing [that] I saw.
    • What I saw.
  • ore ga itta koto
    The thing [that] I said.
    • What I said.

The verb doesn't need to be in the past, of course. Some other conjugations and forms:
  • yaru beki koto
    The thing [that] [I] should do.
    • What should be done.
  • yaritai koto
    The thing [that] [I] want to do.
    • What I want to do.
  • yaranai koto
    The thing [that] [I] don't do.
    • What I don't do.

The main purpose of koto used this way, as a light noun, is to refer to what would be the object of a clause in an unspecified way. It's only used when it's an abstract "thing." If the object of the action is a physical object, then mono もの, another light noun, is used instead.

To understand how this all works, we'll need a couple of examples.
  • hon wo yomu 本を読む
    To read a book.

In the phrase above, yomu, "to read," is the verb, and hon, "book," is the object being acted upon by the verb. Let's put this verb in the potential form:
  • hon wo yomeru 本を読める
    To be able to read a book.

And now we put that behind the noun, so we have a relative clause:
  • yomeru hon 読める本
    A book [that] [I'm] able to read.
    A book [that] [I] can read.

And now let's put the first verb back in, just because:
  • yomeru hon wo yomu
    To read a book [that] [I] can read.
    • I'll read a book I can read.
    • I'll read books I can read.

That makes sense. But what if I'm not talking about books? What if I'll just read whatever I want, book or not? Then we'd use koto... except we wouldn't use koto. Because if you can read it, it must be written somewhere. It's physical. It's tangible. It's a real thing, not conceptual. It's a mono.
  • yomeru mono wo yomu
    To read a thing [that] [I] can read.
    • I'll read what I can read.
    • I'll read stuff I can read.
    • I'll read whatever I can read.
    • I'll read everything I can read.

Finally, when you have a verb that acts upon something without physical form, then, yes, you use koto.
  • yareru koto wo yaru
    To do a thing [that] [I] can do.
    • I'll do what I can do.
    • I'll do whatever I can do.
    • I'll do everything in my power.

Something you do is... well, it doesn't have a physical form: it's too abstract. For example, if all you can do is think, then you're thinking thoughts, thus koto refers to the thoughts you have thought. And that isn't physical, so it isn't a mono.

Likewise, the words you say aren't a physical thing, they're a conceptual thing, even though you could pedantically argue that words you say propagate through real, physical sound waves. The point is you'd use koto, not mono.
  • itta koto oboeteru ka?
    Remember the thing [that] [someone] said?
    • Do you remember what I said?
    • itta koto wo oboeteiru ka?
      (unshortened phrase.)

Another example:
  • hoshii mono
    A wanted thing.
    • Something I want.
    • What I want.
    • Money, fame, an Ansatsu Kyoushitsu sequel, glory, etc.
  • shite hoshii koto
    Something [I] want [you] to do.
    • Again: stuff you vaguely just "do" are too abstract to be called mono.
  • katte hoshii mono
    Something [I] want [you] to buy.
    • Something you buy is not abstract, it's real, unless it's bitcoin.

Another case is when koto refers to the action itself rather than an thing of the action. 
  • benkyou suru koto
    The act [that] is to study.
    The act of studying.

This is particularly important because, if the action is in the past, then koto can be used to say that you have never done something, or that you have done something before, at least once, in your life. For example:
  • benkyou shita koto nai
    The act [that] is "to have studied" is non-existent.
    "To have studied" never happened.
    I have never studied in my life.
  • benkyou shita koto aru
    The act [that] is "to have studied" exists.
    "To have studied" has happened.
    I have studied at least once before in my life.
  • mita koto nai
    I've never seen it.
  • mita koto aru
    I've seen it before.

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