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A Way to Say "To Be" in Japanese

written by: Tommy Carlton • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 6/6/2012

In Japanese, there are three different verbs that all mean "to be." Learn the conjugations of desu in present, past, and negative present and past tenses, and see several examples of its use. Also covers basic sentence structure.

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    The Verb "To Be"

    In English, the verb "to be" is by far the most commonly used verb. We use it for many different contexts, describing things, saying what we're doing, and stating facts or opinions, as well as many more. Some languages, however, have more than one verb for "to be," depending on the context and use of it. Japanese has three of these verbs, and knowing when to use each one is very important. The first, and most important of these verbs is "desu," which is the one we are going to study today.

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    Conjugating Desu

    Before we learn when to use a verb, we need to cover the conjugations. In Japanese, you will typically learn four forms of every verb when you first learn it: the present tense affirmative and negative, and the past tense affirmative and negative. Here is the verb "desu" conjugated out:

    Present Tense Aff. | Present Tense Neg. | Past Tense Aff. | Past Tense Neg.

    desu | dewa arimasen | deshita | dewa arimasen deshita

    As you can see, there are similarities between the different forms, but they are still different. You will see "desu" used in many different ways in Japanese, so it is important to be able to recognize each conjugation and know which tense it is.

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    Desu - Descriptions and Facts

    "I am a student. You are American. That is a blue car." These are all descriptions and facts, and they use the verb desu in Japanese. The basic sentence structure in English is:

    [subject] + [verb] + [complement]

    Those who have studied English grammar may note that I separated the predicate in verb and complement. What is a complement? It is everything "else" after the verb. In our examples above, "a student," "American," and "blue car" are all complements. In a longer sentence, such as "We are not happy about the price of the movie," everything after "We are not" is the complement. The reason I separate these is because Japanese uses a different sentence structure. This may seem complicated, but it is not too difficult to master, with practice. The basic sentence structure in Japanese is:

    [subject] + [complement] + [verb]

    So to use those same examples, the Japanese word order would be "I a student am" or "That a blue car is." While it may seem difficult, just remember that the verb comes at the end of the sentence, and you will be ok. Here are some example sentences in Japanese:

    Are wa nihon no eiga desu. (That is a Japanese movie.)

    The grammar breaks down to [are ha] as the subject, [nihon no eiga] as the complement, and [desu] as the verb. Keeping the Japanese word order, we have "That a Japanese movie is." Here is another example:

    Watashi wa amerikajin desu. (I am an American.)

    Breaking down the grammar, [watashi wa] is our subject, [amerikajin] is our complement, and [desu] is the verb.

    You may notice that each subject has the word "wa" with it. This is called a particle, and it plays a very important role in Japanese grammar, but is outside the scope of this article. For now, just know that the word "wa" by itself marks the topic of the sentence, which is often the subject as well.

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    Here are several more examples of the verb desu, along with English translations:

    • Sensei wa nihonjin desu. (The teacher is Japanese.)
    • Kore wa anata no pen desu. (This is your pen.)
    • Sono hon wa takai desu. (That book is expensive.)
    • Takadasan wa bengoshi desu. (Mrs. Takada is a lawyer.)
    • Anata no otousan wa itariajin desu. (Your father is Italian.)
    • Watashi wa nihongo no gakusei desu. (I am a student of Japanese.)