The three main uses of the target particle に are as follows:

  1. To show the target (objective) of an action, e.g. I will go to school.
  2. To show the location of an object, e.g. the book is on the desk, the pen is in the box.
  3. 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

わたしは 電車でんしゃ りました。
I rode the train.
かれは 学校がっこう きました。
He went to school.
わたしは 財布さいふを かばん れました。
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 reasonable to infer it was my wallet that I put in my bag. Consequently it is very unnatural—but not grammatically incorrect—to write:

わたしは 私の 財布さいふを 私の かばんに れました。()
I put my wallet in my bag.

This is one trait that tends to unite all beginners: the desire to add such details when speaking Japanese—one born out of directly translating from the English.

わたしは ロンドン く 予定よていです。
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).

彼女かのじょは おかあさん 電話でんわしませんでした。
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.

わたしは 友達ともだち います。
I will meet my friend.
わたしは 先生せんせい はなします。
I will speak 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).

ねこは にわ います。
The cat is in the garden.
ほんは つくえの うえ ありました。
The book was on the table.
大学だいがくは 東京とうきょうの 中心ちゅうしん あります。
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.

わたしは 十時じゅうじ あさはんを べました。
I ate breakfast at 10 o’clock.
直子なおこは 六時ろくじに おとうさん はなしました。
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”.

7月4日 京都きょうと きます。
I will go to Kyoto on 4 July.
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