Learning Japanese – Asking “what something is” usingこれ/それ/あれ は なん です か。


In this lesson you are going to learn how to ask “What’s this?” questions in Japanese, and how to answer them.

If this is your first time in the Learning Japanese series, you might also be interested in having a look at our previous lessons before starting this one:


To get started, let’s have a look at some short dialogues:

A: これ は なん です か

B: それ は ほん です。

A: [kore wa nan desu ka.] – What’s this?

B: [sore wa hon desu.] – That is a book.


A: それ は なん です か

B: これ は ねこ です。

A: [sore wa nan desu ka.] – What’s that?

B: [kore wa neko desu.] – This is a cat.


A: あれ は なん です か

B: あれ は くるま です。 

A: [are wa nan desu ka.] – What’s that over there?

B: [are wa kuruma desu.] – That over there is a car.


Let’s analyse these sentences:

  • “なん です か。” basically translate to “What is it?”, with the word “なん” roughly meaning “what”. When it is obvious what you or you interlocutor is speaking of, this sentence can be used alone.
  • But when the thing you or your interlocutor are speaking of is not obvious, this is where これ/それ/あれ come into play. Let’s look at how they work in the example above:

    When a question is asked with これ, the answer contains それ, and when a question is asked with それ, the answer contains これ…

    This is basically because これ, それ and あれ are relative to the speaker and his/her interlocutor:
    – これ indicates something close to the speaker, and away from his/her interlocutor,
    – それ something away from the speaker and close to his/her interlocutor,
    – and あれ something away from both the speaker and his/her interlocutor.

    Here is a schema to illustrate the principle:

Note that there is also どれ, which can be translated as “which”, but we will see it in a later lesson as it requires some extra grammatical knowledge to be used.

Finally, be aware that これ, それ and あれ are not used to ask about a person.

Seems a bit complicated? No worries, it will become easy with some practice.

Exercise 1:

Answer to the question with the word between brackets.

これ は なん です か。 (いぬ – dog)

あれ は なん です か。 (いえ – house)

それ は なん です か。 (くつした – soxes)


これ は なん です か。

それ は いぬ です。


あれ は なん です か。

あれ は いえ です。


それ は なん です か。

これ は くつした です。

Exercise 2:

Ask what is the object in the different configurations proposed.

  1. An object close to my interlocutor.
  2. An object away from me and my interlocutor.
  3. An object close to me.











  1. それ は なん です か。
  2. あれ は なん です か。
  3. これ は なん です か。

This is all for this lesson. Do not hesitate to review it again if you still have some difficulties regarding the use of this こそあど concept. And notice you will have many occasions to use it in the future.

See you soon,


Next: Learning Japanese – Asking about location using どこ and answering using ここ/そこ/あそこ

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