“No”, the Modifying Particle

The particle の "no" is extremely versatile. It's used as the Japanese possessive particle, showing ownership, and more generally, as way to turn any noun into a modifier.

Recommended background:

The Copula “Desu”

Nouns, Pronouns, and Plurals

"No" as a Possessive

As a possessive, no comes between two nouns, after the "possessor" and before the "possessee".

やまぐち かばん
Yamaguchi no kaban
Yamaguchi 's bag

In this case it works essentially like possesive [‘s] in English, and this is a good way to think of it. Basically, the no is attached to the preceding noun and turns it into a modifier. Here are a few more examples.

きむらさんの くるま Kimura-san no kuruma Kimura's car
おとこの せいかく otoko no seikaku the man's personality
こどもの おかあさん kodomo no okaasan the kid's mother
ねこの みみ neko no mimi cats' ears

So, "Kimura-san no kuruma" is a kuruma, "otoko no seikaku" is seikaku, and "neko no mimi" are mimi. This is extremely important – unlike in English, the last noun is always what the entire noun phrase "is". When we get to more difficult cases below, always thinking of no as [‘s] will help you interpret them correctly.

Possessive pronouns are created in exactly the same way as other possessives.

わたしの watashi no my
あなたの anata no your
わたしたちの watashi-tachi no our

Again, you generally should not use anata no for "your". Instead, use [the person’s name] + [name suffix] + no. So if you're talking to Tanaka about her book, it's "Tanaka-san no hon".

Next, question words can also be used with no.

だれのくるまですか。 Dare no kuruma desu ka? Whose car is it?

And as in English, you can omit the actual item that is possessed.

だれのですか。 Dare no desu ka? Whose is it?
わたしのです。 Watashi no desu. It's mine.
いしかわのです。 Ishikawa no desu. It's Ishikawa's.

This [noun]+no pair can also be used as a subject or topic.

きむらさんの くるまは あかです。 Kimura-san no kuruma wa aka desu. Kimura's car is red.
わたしのは あおです。 Watashi no wa ao desu. Mine is blue.

It's worth noting that there are also verbs that are possesive in nature, just like "to have" or "to own" in English. There are several ways to say "I have" in Japanese, which you'll learn about when we get to verbs.

"No" as a General Modifier

In general, the particle no can turn any noun into a modifier, whether or not the thing in question actually "owns" anything. So its possessive quality is really only one of several related uses.

In many cases, no substitutes for English prepositions like "of", for adjectival forms of nouns, and where you would simply stick two nouns together in English. Let's look at some examples.

きんの ゆびわ kin no yubiwa a gold ring (ring of gold)
にほんごの せんせい Nihongo no sensei a Japanese teacher (teacher of Japanese)

In this first usage, no is often translated as "of", but while "of" does indeed translate to no in Japanese, this is a confusing way to think of the particle because the order is exactly the opposite of English. When you have multiple no modifiers in a row (which we'll look at below), it's best not to assume that each no is a reverse "of", because all to often, the English equivalent doesn't use the preposition. Here's another example:

Japanese English
[A] no [B] [A] [B]
yakyuu no shiai a baseball game

So Japanese uses no where English uses unchanged nouns as modifiers. You would generally only say "game of baseball" in English in the sense of "the game of baseball" (as opposed to "the game of basketball"), which has a very different meaning. And often, the English equivalent of [A] isn't even a noun.

まほうの とびら  mahou no tobira  a magical door

Mahou (magic) is a noun, but it's being used like the adjective magical, which doesn't exist in Japanese. And while "mahou no hon" could be "a book of magic" (filled with spells) or "a magic book" (itself enchanted), the "of" interpretation for no does not exist in every case. So while "of" is a possible translation of no, it's not always the best translation.

In other cases, no takes the place of different English prepositions.

にほんの くるま Nihon no kuruma a Japanese car (car from Japan)
アメリカ(あめりか)の だいがく Amerika no daigaku American universities (universities in the U.S.)
バス(ばす)の きっぷ basu no kippu a bus ticket (ticket for the bus)

Although again, the most general English translation does not include a preposition. But if you were to translate such prepositions into Japanese, they would often, but not always become no. For example, "in" overlaps with no when we use "in the U.S." as a modifier, but not when we say "the university is in the U.S."(Daigaku wa Amerika ni arimasu).

This is why we focus on understanding Japanese to English translation: Japanese and English each distinguish different parts of a spectrum of meaning, but while you intuitively know the nuances in English, you need to learn what the Japanese nuances are before you can correctly translate English to Japanese.

One last use of no that we'll look at here is where it is used to show one's relationship to a particular person.

ともだちの トム(とむ)さん tomodachi no Tomu-san my friend Tom (Tom, who is my friend)
あねの リサ(りさ) ane no Lisa my older sister Lisa (Lisa, who is my older sister)

This is equivalent to the English appositive, where one noun is immediately redefined or modified by the following noun.

Multiple "No" Modifiers

There's no limit to the number of no's you can have in a single noun phrase.

わたしの ともだちの だいがくの にほんごの せんせいの  にほんの くるま
watashi no tomodachi no daigaku no Nihongo no sensei no Nihon no kuruma
my friend's college Japanese professor's Japanese car

And if you wanted to use any adjectives in there, you certainly could.

Translating "No"

That particular string of no's was easy because there were no "of"s in the English translation, but what if there were? Translating such phrases can be tricky, but here's a reliable way to go about it.

For the first step, keep the word order intact. Modifier always comes before modified in Japanese, and this order makes sense in English too, so translate each individual item into English to interpret the phrase as is. Each no could be an [‘s], or might just be erased. So at this point, "blade of grass" will be "grass's blade" or "grass blade", but the meaning is still obvious.

Then, once know the meaning of the phrase, add any adjective-forming suffixes and if necessary, add prepositions and correct the word order to get the proper English version.

Other Uses of "No"

You'll soon see no used in other places: after verbs and adjectives, before desu, and even as a sentence ending particle. These are really not the same no at all, but rather separate particles, homonyms with this one. These other no's will be covered separately.

What Next?

Questions and Negation

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