The Meaning of 'Nani' in Japanese

You can also use 'nan' to mean 'what'

Chef enjoys conversation with customers at Japanese restaurant

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The word nani 何 (なに) in Japanese means "what." And depending on the situation, you might, instead, use nan (なん). Which term you use depends on the context, in particular, whether you are speaking or writing formally or informally. The sentences below are listed first in a transliteration of the Japanese phrase or sentence, followed by the spelling in Japanese characters—using kanjihiragana, or katakana as appropriate—followed by the translation in English. Where indicated, click on the link to bring up a sound file and hear how to correctly pronounce the word or sentence in Japanese.

Using 'Nani' or 'Nan' in a Sentence

Nani is the more formal and polite term to use when asking a question, as in:

  • Nani wo suru tsumori desu ka? (なに を する つもり です か?) > What do you intend to do? or What are you planning to do?

In more casual situations it would be fine to use nan. As a general rule, if the word following "what" begins with a syllable from the t, n, and d groups, use nan, as in:

  • Nandeshou? (なんでしょう?) > What do you want?

More on Using 'Nan' vs. 'Nani'

Nan is used before particles. A particle is a word that shows the relationship of a word, phrase, or clause to the rest of the sentence. Particles are added to the end of sentences to express the speaker or writer's emotions, such as doubt, emphasis, caution, hesitation, wonder, or admiration. You might use nan  with a phrase such as /の, /で (which means "of the" and is pronounced no de) and verb da/desu (打/です ), meaning "it is hitting" or "it is striking."

Nani is used before: /か (meaning "or" and pronounced as ka) and /に (meaning "into a" and pronounced as ni).

Be careful when you use nan because, for example, if you use nan before ka (/か), which means "or," it would sound like the word nanka (なんか), which means "things like." Another example would be if you were to use nan with ni (/に), it would be nanni (なんに), meaning "why," but this sounds very much like nannimo (なんにも), which translates as "nothing at all."

Using 'Nani' or 'Nan' in Context

You might use nani or nan in a restaurant. Depending on whether you are at a formal business luncheon or a casual eatery, you might use either of these terms. For example, at fast food eatery you might say:

  • Osusume wa nan desu ka. (お勧めは何ですか) > What do you recommend?
  • Are wa nan desu ka. (あれは何ですか。) > What is that? 

If you are at a more formal eatery, but you don't know what to order, you might ask a fellow diner:

  • Nani ga oishii desu ka. (何がおいしいですか。) > What is good?

If you are traveling on a train and need to ask for help from a stranger or train conductor, that would be considered a more formal situation in Japan. Thus, you would use nani and might say:

However, if you are traveling with a friend, you might use  the informal nan, as in:

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Abe, Namiko. "The Meaning of 'Nani' in Japanese." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Abe, Namiko. (2023, April 5). The Meaning of 'Nani' in Japanese. Retrieved from Abe, Namiko. "The Meaning of 'Nani' in Japanese." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).