The Proper Usage of “Desu” - A Japanese Copula

Whether it be in anime or real life, the word “desu” often pops up more than once throughout any conversation. A common misconception about the word is that merely added to sentences as a discourse marker similar to the English language’s “oh”, “you know”, “you see”, or “well”, which do not really give any significant meaning to the overall idea.

But in fact, “desu” actually serves as the Japanese equivalent of “to be”. Using it can get quite complex, given the Japanese language’s abuse of numerous verb conjugations and grammar rules, on top of its different levels of politeness.

An Overview of Japanese Copulas

“Desu” is referred to as a Japanese copula. Copulas basically serve as the equivalent of “be” and come in different forms, depending on formality and purpose. They can be used to indicate identity (This is a cat), a characteristic (This cat is furry), a state of being (This cat is happy), and association with a certain set (This cat is one of my pets).

The Japanese Copula, “Desu” – Its Meaning, Proper Pronunciation, and How to Write it Using Kanji and Hiragana Characters

The etymology of “desu” remains uncertain up to this day. Different theories exist, one of which states that the Japanese copula comes from the polite term “de arimasu” (is) and serves as its shortened form. Another etymology theory discusses that “desu” was developed from the even politer tem “de gozaimasu” (it is), which is a conjugation of the “de gozaru” (to be) and “masu” (I will).

Regardless of its true origin, “desu” is, at present, frequently by the Japanese community to predicate sentences. Including the incredibly formal “de gozaru”, a person can use “desu” in four different ways to properly reflect the formality and politeness level of a certain situation: 

  • Da (read as dah)

“Da” is considered to be the most informal form of “desu”. Its brevity makes it an easy copula to include in sentences. It is often used for casual settings, particularly among fairly close friends or family.

  • Desu (read as des)

“Desu” is the most commonly used copula because of its adequate amount of casualness and politeness. It can be used in almost any situation, be it informal, formal, or neutral. Between strangers or acquaintances, “desu” serves as a safe option when communicating.

  • De gozaimasu (read as deh goh – zai – mas – u)

“De gozaimasu” serves as the most formal form of “desu”. It is rarely used by the Japanese community when conversing with their friends or colleagues. In fact, some people find it weird when another person starts talking to them with “de gozaimasu”.

The copula is often used for incredibly formal situations such as in an interview, news report, business (between service providers and clients), and at public transportation facilities (e.g. by train operators).

  • De gozaru (read as deh goh – zah – ru)

“De gozaru” is rarely used in modern Japan. It is considered to be a feudal. In ancient times, it was often used by samurai warriors as a predicate to their sentences. At present, it may be heard in historical dramas or films but hardly ever in the streets of Japan.

As shown above, “desu” is read as “des” but it should be noted that the “u” at the end is often silent or at least whispered. In terms of writing, the alphabets of the Japanese language must first be understood.

The three writing systems used in Japan are known as kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Hiragana and katakana are known as kanamoji (syllabic alphabets) and each consist of forty-seven different characters, which represent essential sounds to the Japanese language.

Some hiragana and katakana characters feature the same appearance or sound. The main difference between the two alphabets is that hiragana is primarily used to represent Japanese words, while katakana is used to represent foreign words. Katakana is often used in dictionary notes and textbooks for foreign students.

On the other hand, kanji serves as the main alphabet of the Japanese language and makes use of more than eight thousand different characters borrowed from the Chinese language. Each character represents a particular concept, phenomenon, or object and may have multiple definitions and pronunciations.

In that sense, interpreting kanji requires a certain degree of formality with the Japanese language and requires a reader to rely on context to be able to properly understand what is being said. For convenience, hiragana characters are sometimes used on top of kanji characters to indicate the correct way to read them. Hiragana characters that are used for this purpose are regarded as furigana.

For the Japanese copula, “desu”, only hiragana can be used to write it down. It is written as です, while “da” as だ, de gozaimasu as でございます, and “de gozaru” as でござる.

There is no kanji equivalent for “desu” but since kanji makes use of Chinese ideograms, the Chinese character 是 (read as “shi” in Chinese and as “ze” in Japanese), which means “is” in English, may be used in to represent the Japanese copula. Generally, though, “desu” is written using hiragana characters.

Using the Japanese Copula, “Desu” – Proper Sentence Structure and Grammar

Before discussing the proper usage of “desu”, it is recommended that a person initially familiarize himself with basic Japanese nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Some of the most common ones a tourist may find useful include:

Nouns (English Translation – Japanese Translation)

  • Cat – neko

  • Dog – inu

  • Fish – sakana

  • Pet – petto

  • Puppy – koinu

  • Restroom – keshoshitsu

  • Drinking fountain – mizunomiki

  • Store – mise

  • Cashier – rejigakari

  • Grocery store – suupaa

  • Lake – mizuumi

  • Ocean – taiyo

  • Waterfalls – taki

  • Plate – sara

  • Chair – isu

  • Autumn – aki

  • Spring – haru

  • Summer – natsu

  • Winter – fuyu

  • Airport – kuko

  • Bus station – basutei

  • Flight – bin

  • Hotel – hoteru

  • Room – heya

  • Terminal – taaminaru

  • Suitcase – suutsukesu

  • Baggage – tenimotsu

  • Car – kuruma

  • Taxi – takushi

  • Subway - chikatetsu

Pronouns (English Translation – Japanese Translation | Formality and Usage

  • I or me – watashi | formal and gender neutral

  • I or me – watakushi | humble and gender neutral

  • I or me – boku | informal and used by males

  • I or me – atashi | informal and used by females

  • You – anata |formal and gender neutral

  • You – kimi | informal/intimate and gender neutral

  • He – kare | polite and used for males

  • She – kanojo | polite and used for females

  • Him or her – ano hito | polite and gender neutral

  • We or us – watashitachi | polite and gender neutral

  • You (plural) – anatatachi | polite and gender neutral

Adjectives (English Translation – Japanese Translation)

  • A lot – ooi

  • Few – sukunai

  • Wide – hiroi

  • Narrow – semai

  • Long – nagai

  • Short – mijikai

  • Big – ookii

  • Small – chiisai

  • Beautiful – utsukushii

  • Cute – kawaii

  • New – atarashii

  • Amazing - sugoi

As previously mentioned, “desu” is often used to predicate sentences. The Japanese copula is often considered to be a positive verb and makes use of present tense. The basic conjugations for “desu” include, of course, “desu” for present tense, and “deshita” for past tense.

The usual sentence structure when using “desu” makes use of the topic marker “wa” (は) to indicate the concept, place, object, animal, or person being referred to. The conjugation pattern for using “wa” and “desu” in a sentence is “(A) wa (B) desu”, in which (A) serves as the subject and (B) as a description of the subject.

Some basic examples that show correct grammar when using “wa” and “desu” are: 

  • Watashi wa (name of person) desu – I am (name of person)

  • (Name of person) wa nihonjin desu – (Name of person) is Japanese

  • Watashi wa shiawase desu – I am happy

  • Kono inu wa kawaii desu – This dog is cute

  • Kore wa hon desu – This is a book

  • Kara wa sensei desu – He is the teacher

  • Karera wa watashi no tomadachi desu – They are my friends

“Desu” may also be used in incomplete sentences that remain acceptable when used as a response to a question. In this case, the topic is considered to be obvious and, thus, no longer needs to be referred to. Some examples include: 

  • (Name of person) desu – I am (name of person)

  • Borupen desu – It is a ballpen

  • Uchi no inu desu – It is our dog

  • Watashitachi no sensei desu – He is our teacher

  • Daijoubu desu / Genki desu – I am fine

The Basic Verb Conjugations (Affirmative and Negative Forms) of the Japanese Copula, “Desu”

“Desu” may also be used negatively to state that something “is not”. The complete conjugations of the Japanese copula, including its affirmative forms, are as follows: (Tense/Form – Casual Form | Polite Form | Formal Form) 

  • Present affirmative – da | desu | de gozaimasu

  • Past affirmative – datta | deshita | de gozaimashita

  • Present negative – de wa nai / ja nai | dewa arimasen / dewa nai desu / ja arimasen / ja nai desu | dewa gozaimasen

  • Past negative – dewa / ja nakatta | dewa arimasen deshita / dewa nakatta desu / ja arimasen deshita / ja nakatta desu | dewa gozaimasen deshita

  • Volitional (Japanese verbs used to suggest, urge, or initiate an act/idea) – darou | deshou | de gozaimashou

  • Te-form (Japanese verbs ending in te or de) – de | de arimashite | de gozaimashite

  • Conditional – nara / naraba | de areba | de areba

For the negative forms of “desu”, “ja” serves as the informal, shortened form of “dewa”. Furthermore, a stronger sense of negation can be achieved by replacing “arimasen” with “nai desu”.

The negative forms of “desu” can be used by following the same sentence pattern for the affirmative form, that is “(A) wa (B) dewa arimasen”. Transforming each example used for the positive type/variation to mean the opposite would result in the following statements:

  • Watashi wa (name of person) dewa arimasen – I am not (name of person)

  • (Name of person) wa nihonjin dewa arimasen – (Name of person) is not Japanese

  • Watashi wa shiawase dewa arimasen – I am not happy

  • Kore wa hon dewa arimasen – This is not a book

  • Kare wa sensei dewa arimasen – He is not the teacher

  • Karera wa watashi no tomadachi dewa arimasen – They are not my friends

Similarly, “dewa arimasen” and other negative forms of “desu” may also be used in incomplete sentences that are used to answer questions.

  • (Name of person) de ja nai – I am not (name of person)

  • Borupen dewa arimasen – It is not a ballpen

  • Uchi no inu dewa arimasen – It is not our dog

  • Daijoubu dewa arimasen / Genki dewa arimasen – I am not fine

Using the Japanese Copula, “Desu”, to Form Questions

Unlike the English language, the Japanese languages does not require any change in sentence structure to form a question. Instead, a question marker known as “ka” can simply be added to the end of a statement to turn it into an inquiry.

As such, the use of question marks (?) is not a common practice in Japanese writing systems and is considered to be redundant. However, Romanized Japanese statements often feature the question mark (?) for the sake of those unfamiliar with the Japanese language’s proper speech and writing systems.

Some common questions that make use of “desu” include:

  • Anata wa nihonjin desu ka? – Are you Japanese?

  • Oishii desu ka? – Is it delicious?

  • Omoshiroi desu ka? – Is it interesting?

  • Kore wa neko desu ka? – Is this a cat?

  • Onamae wa nan desu ka? – What is your name?

  • Nanji desu ka? – What time is it?

  • Nansai desu ka? – How old are you?

  • Shusshin wa doko desu ka? – Where are you from?

  • Nihon shoku ga suki desu ka? – Do you like Japanese food?

  • Anata wa soba ni ikutsu ka no kechappu o shitai desu ka? – Do you want some ketchup on the side?

The Japanese language also offers interrogative words similar to that of the English language (who, what, when, etc.). When using these words, “desu” may be added at the end but is not really necessary.

  • Dare (read as dah – reh) – Who

  • Nani (read as nah – nee) – What

  • Itsu (read as ee – tsoo) – When

  • Doko (read as doh – koh) – Where

  • Doushite (read as doh – shee – tay) – Why

  • Do (read as doh) – How

  • Dore (read as doh – reh) – Which one

  • Ikaga (read as ee – kah – gah) – How

  • Ikura (read as ee – koo – rah) – How much