It's generally established that Japanese does not have the grammatical category of articles (akin to English "a/an" and "the").

But as mentioned in this answer, the concept of articles seems to be something fairly whimsical that came out of classical language grammar, with a much more coherent and broader category of determiners being a more modern approach.

Given this additional breadth of the determiner category can it be said that Japanese has determiners? In the analyses of Japanese I am familiar with I have never seen this. But perhaps this is a difference between traditional grammars used for teaching and modern grammar/syntax theories used by linguistics.


Fukui (1986) argues that the Japanese language is void of the functional determiner category and that the Japanese demonstratives “kono” (proximal “this”), “ano” (distal “that”) and “sono” (medial “that”) are actually prenominal modifiers in form. The Japanese demonstratives are lexical words, much like adjectives, as they do not close-off category projections as how the English functional determiner system does. Fukui (1986) demonstrates whether the Japanese demonstratives are functionally similar to English demonstratives or not by providing the following examples:

(1) a.This book

b.*John’s this book

(2) a.That lecture

b.*Yesterday’s that lecture

The above examples convey that the English demonstratives close-off the noun phrase by disallowing pre-modifiers to precede the demonstratives, as seen in the ungrammaticality of (1b) and (2b). Fukui (1986) states that English determiners are a functional category as they project up to the XP level, a structurally closed level. On the other hand, Japanese demonstratives are dissimilar in the fact that they do not close-off the category projection. This denotes that they do not constitute a functional category, but a lexical one instead and are, therefore, not determiners but adjectives. The following examples are also from Fukui (1986):

(3) a. Kono hon ----------------- This book

b. John no kono hon ----------- Lit. John’s this book

c. Akai John no kono hon ----- Lit. Red John’s this book

Japanese demonstratives allow pre-modification, which denotes that they do not comprise a functional category, but a lexical one. This concludes that Japanese does not have a functional category ‘determiners’ as in English.


Fukui, N. (1986). A Theory of Category Projections and its Applications. Doctoral Dissertation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

Mustaffa, A. R. (2014). Contrastive and Error Analyses: The Usage of the English Determiners by Japanese Learners of English. Unpublished Bachelor's Thesis. Universiti Teknologi MARA. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/w1jwmwj3qd1mw5j/Contrastive%20%26%20Error%20Analyses_The%20Usage%20of%20the%20English%20Determiners%20by%20Japanese%20Learners%20of%20English.pdf

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  • I will add to this excellent answer that Japanese has a possessive anaphor, a property that robustly correlates cross-linguistically with the lack of the functional layer D (the one which hosts determiners). – Olivier May 27 '14 at 9:06
  • This is the most thorough answer and shows the fullest reasoning so it's getting the bounty and also the accept for now, but that could change if something even better comes along later of course. – hippietrail May 27 '14 at 11:30
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    "John no kono hon ---Lit. "John’s this book" - perhaps a less awkward translation would be "This book of John('s)" – Nicolas Miari Nov 9 '17 at 5:57

The definite article "the" is taken to be the paradigmatic example of a determiner, with demonstratives like "that" only disputedly so. The absence of the definite article in various languages has been correlated with a variety of otherwise disparate-seeming syntactic phenomena (see Zeljko Boskovic at UConn, "What will you have, DP or NP?", for a fairly consistent set of such languages and phenomena). According to Boskovic, Japanese lacks such articles, argues that it is among a number of languages to lack the category D altogether.

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tl;ndr No, Japanese doesn’t have determiners.

Since it is requested that “credible and/or official” sources be named in the answer, I would recommend taking a look at Bernard Bloch:
1970. Bernard Bloch on Japanese. 1970. R.A. Miller (ed.). New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

Bloch had many lucid things to say about Japanese, and I doubt he assumed determiners in Japanese. Unfortunately, I cannot verify that with page numbers because I’m on a sabbatical with no access to his work. For those who read German, I suggest taking a look at Jens Rickmeyer:
1995. Japanische Morphosyntax. Heidelberg: Julius Groos Verlag.

Rickmeyer bases his account of Japanese morphosyntax in large part on Bloch. Rickmeyer rejects determiners, and calls the words in question adnominals.
Finally, I don’t believe that a discussion of functional categories in GB/MP can meaningfully contribute to an answer - even though I share their conclusion, but for other reasons.
In this answer I want to base my answer on common ground, on assumptions that most of us can share without compromising any personal or professional tenets. I think there is enough common ground enabling a conclusion if we ponder the next three observations. I will also work from the premise that demonstratives are not by default determiners. Else, Japanese would have determiners because it has demonstratives.
The first and second observations are concerned with the tasks we usually attribute to determiners, namely specification and the expression of genus. The third observation concerns the syntactic behavior of kono et.al., some of which have already been mentioned in other posts.

1. Specification
The first observation concerns one function of determiners, namely specification. Specification is gradient, ranging from unspecified (Engl. a) to specified (Engl. _the). But kono et.al. only specify objects with respect to proximity and distance referring to speaker and/or addressee. This is clearly different from the kind of specification that accompany determiners in Germanic and Romance languages. In fact the latter kind of specification is expressed in Japanese by the absence or presence of the topic marker -wa. Image you are about to read a short-story. The first sentence may be either (a) or (b):

 a. Otoko-GA matikado-ni tat-te i-ta.  
    A man was standing at the corner.  
 b. Otoko-WA matikado-ni tat-te i-ta.  
    THE man was standing at the corner.  

(a) is more appropriate because at the beginning of the story no context is available. Everything is new information, hence unspecified. (b), on the other hand, creates the impression that a context already exists, even though you may not have been aware of it.
But this distinction is not expressed by words like the English determiners, but rather by the (non-)appearance of -wa. The use of kono et.al. in (a-b) would be totally meaningless. Since specification in Japan uses an entirely different mechanism than determiners, one may ask why Japanese should have two mechanisms of specification.
A partial conclusion is the words kono et.al. lack the expression of specification usually ascribed to determiners.

2. Genus
A second observation concerns an additional function of determiners in, e.g. Germanic and Romance languages, namely the expression of grammatical genus. English, which has expression of genus on in its pronouns, is a stand-alone; its other Germanic family members clearly distinguish genus, and their determiners are their forms of expressions.
Determiners, as we know them, have two tasks: they mark a degree of specification, and they mark genus. (They also mark number, but this function does not apply to Japanese at all, so I dispense with it.)
Our (eurocentric) perspective on genus may be biased if we tend to associate “genus” with natural sexes. That is not how many other languages express their genera. “Genus” is simply a way of carving up a world full of objects, and assigning these objects a meaningful place in a system of subclasses. Grammatical genus is such a cognitively transparent matter that we can immediately understand the Kiswahili genus system of persons, natural objects, groups, artifacts, etc.
In Japanese, genus is expressed by classifiers, such as

-nin/mei [person]
-hon [elongated object]
-mai [flat object]
-hiki [small animal]
-too [big animal]

to name but a few. These suffixes express genus, which in Germanic and Romance languages is the task of determiners. Again one may ask why Japanese should have a class of determiners, if they neither contribute in specification, nor in the expression of genus.
A partial conclusion is the words kono et.al. lack the expression of genus usually ascribed to determiners.

3. Occurrence
The final observation has partially been made in previous answers:
a. kono et.al. appear in word-order positions within the NP that are not associated with determiners.

 haha-ga kat-te kure-ta KONO zubon  
 THESE trousers mother bought me  

b. kono et.al. can precede and depend on a pronoun/pronominal noun.

 KONO ore  

c. kono et.al. can occur together with a pronoun/pronominal noun.

 kare-no KONO kuruma  
 his THIS car  

d. kono et.al. also behave differently in noun ellipsis than determiners.

 KONO mono 
 THIS stuff  

e. kono et.al. never appear with the same regularity as the Germanic and Romance determiners. The former are optional, the latter are obligatory (I gloss over the count/mass noun distinction).
That makes it unlikely that kono et.al. are determiners as we usually understand them.

If we compile the partial conclusions from these observations, namely:

  1. kono et.al. lack the expression of specification usually ascribed to determiners.
  2. kono et.al. lack the expression of genus usually ascribed to determiners.
  3. kono et.al. lack the regularity, the obligatory occurrence, and the word order specifics usually ascribed to determiners. They also behave differently in noun ellipsis.

As a conclusion, I believe, we would have to at least accept that no compelling evidence is available for the assumption that Japanese kono et.al. are determiners, as we usually understand them. Rather, the lack of the expression of specification and genus, and the lack of parallels in syntactic behavior with determiners in other languages, suggest that kono et.al. are best described as adnominals.

The answer to the question then is: No, Japanese does not have determiners.

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  • This would beg the question of whether Japanese pronouns are "real" pronouns of course. They're often mentioned as being more like nouns compared to the pronouns of other languages. – hippietrail May 21 '14 at 14:43
  • I think I just don't fully grok what is and isn't a determiner. I don't want to be artificially biased by just what my native language does. Time to read up on determiners again ... – hippietrail May 21 '14 at 23:58

The demonstratives like この "kono"、その "sono"、あの "ano" are used similarly to determiners in English. In terms of meaning these three accomplish the same as the prenominal English demonstratives: this, that, and that ~ [over there] respectively.

There are however other parts of this set beyond the prenominals listed above which can serve a similar function to demonstrative pronouns in English, これ "kore", それ "sore", あれ "are" definitely do not act like determiners, instead taking the place of nouns grammatically.

Other parts of the same series serve a function close to adverbs, こう "kou", そう "sou"、ああ* "aa". The last of these is, in my experienced highly restricted.

You would be hard pressed to classify the latter two as determiners of nouns, as they do not serve that grammatical function. The three, while different in purpose definitely exist in a similar semantic area in Japanese with regards to referencing space relative to the speakers of a conversation.

I would be reluctant to name the first set as determiners just because they look similar to those used in English.

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To be honest, generative notions of word classes don't seem any less whimsical to me than the classical ones, as they are no less biased. Of course, this will be a matter of hot debate, but I side with Haspelmath (and a lot of other typologists as well, see e.g. Bickel (2007)) who claims that there is no such thing as true cross-linguistic categories. To ask whether Japanese does have the same linguistic category that a completely unrelated language, English, has (maybe, if 'determiner' even is a valid category for English) seems absurd.

The question would be easier to answer if we had a clear, operationalised definition of "determiner" that can be readily applied to all sorts of languages (but I doubt anybody could come up with that).

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  • So you don't even believe that verbs or nouns are nonwhimsical cross-linguistic categories? – hippietrail May 27 '14 at 11:26

If I understand correctly what a determiner is, then Japanese certainly has them.

For example, the demonstratives この (this), その (that), あの (yonder), and possibly also the great number of counters such as 一人, 一本, etc.

Also check out what An introduction to Japanese linguistics has to say on the topic...

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  • An introduction to Japanese linguistics seemed to say that at least one Japanese linguist strongly argues the answer is "no" ... – hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 11:19
  • Hmm maybe a question about whether counters/classifiers are determiners in at least some languages would be a good question. – hippietrail Oct 9 '11 at 9:30
  • But do you have any evidence that these constitute a distinct category like in English, as the question asks? – Mechanical snail Oct 3 '12 at 3:28

Yes, Japanese has determiners, such as the demonstrative kono (this). It has been argued that the ability of some other nominal modifiers to precede the demonstrative shows that Japanese demonstratives are not determiners. However, possessives (like John's or Bill's) are typically analysed as a type of determiner. Many languages have multiple determiners on a single noun, such as Swedish (in definite noun phrases with adjectives) and Icelandic (with possessive constructions, much like the Japanese examples in An introduction to Japanese linguistics).

Additionally, An introduction to Japanese linguistics does not adopt the DP Hypothesis, which means that NP is a maximal projection and not contained within a DP (as is commonly assumed nowadays). This affects the analysis greatly. Of course, even without the DP Hypothesis, a phrase can have multiple specifiers under many analyses, so I don't agree with the argument presented there.

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Željko Bošković states in his "More on the No-DP Analysis of Article-less Language" (https://boskovic.linguistics.uconn.edu/papers/) that languages that don't have articles don't project a DP head above the NP. He mistakenly thinks his native language Serbo-Croatian, a language I speak fluently, doesn't have articles and that languages without articles don't have DP, but NP. He apparently admits that English does have DPs but it is a parameter, not a universal.

Firstly, 'jedan', (one) is used massively in SC as an article in all levels of the spoken language. Prescriptivists don't like that and they are taught in school that it's not correct. There is also 'neki' (some, as in 'some guy') and 'čovjek' (lit. person, meaning 'one' as in "one would think..."), which are also used as articles. They also decline adjectives to reflect specificity, which is close to English Definiteness, and use the genitive as the partitive to express indefiniteness. And there is the question of using intonation to express this.

In fact, it is hard to imagine that normal communication is possible without the listener and speaker having an unexpressed agreement about specifically/definiteness of what or who they are talking about. Covert elements absolutely exist in human syntax, "I heard he's coming" not pronouncing 'that' in "I heard that he's coming", and SC has examples of null, or covert, categories. Slavic linguists are split down the middle on this question and some Slavic opponents of the DP Hypothesis are, like Bošković, brilliant intellects who I, an amateur linguist, happen to disagree with. Of course, Japanese is a very different language, but many think that it too expresses the DP head paraphrastically or covertly.

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