The three main uses of the target particle に are as follows:
- To show the target (objective) of an action, e.g. I will go to school.
- To show the location of an object, e.g. the book is on the desk, the pen is in the box.
- To mark the time of an action, e.g. I met my friend at 8pm.
Because its translation in English differs depending on the usage then I would avoid thinking of it as “to”, “on”, “in” or “at” in English and remember the particle through example sentences.
1. The Target of an Action
|I rode the train.|
|He went to school.|
|I put the wallet in my bag.|
In the last sentence the English translation includes the possessive (my wallet, my bag) but neither of the Japanese sentences contain the possessive particle. The Japanese language redacts pronouns, objects, topics, and just about anything else when they are obvious from the context. In this case, it’s clear it was my wallet that I put in my bag. Consequently it is very unnaturally (but not grammatically incorrect) to write:
|I put my wallet in my bag.|
Perhaps the one trait that unites all beginners is the desire to add such details when speaking Japanese—one born out of directly translating from the English.
|I plan to go to London.|
In the last sentence the verb “to do” is modifying the noun “plan”. This is a very common phrase.
The meaning of target is not restricted to a physical movement from A to B; it also refers to the direction of an action, e.g. I phoned my friend (the direction of action is from you towards your friend).
|She didn’t phone her mother.|
Usage of the target particle with the verbs “to meet” and “to speak” is perhaps a little less obvious.
|I will meet my friend.|
|I spoke to the teacher.|
2. The Location Marker
As a location marker に is very often used with the verbs ある and いる (the verb “to exist” for inanimate and animate objects, respectively).
|The cat is in the garden.|
|The book was on the table.|
|The university is in the center of Tokyo.|
3. The Time Marker
に can also mark the time an event took place, e.g. I went to sleep at 10pm, I phoned my father on 4 July.
|I ate breakfast at 10 o’clock.|
|Naoko spoke to her father at six o’clock.|
Note how in the last example sentence に is used twice but for different purposes. This is perfectly acceptable and shouldn’t create any confusion given the context. In other words, you can’t “speak to 6 o’clock at your father”.
|I will go to Kyoto on 4 July.|