A Visual Guide to Japanese Word Order

In Japanese, word order is less important than it is in languages like English thanks to the existence of particles. As I talked about in my guide to Japanese sentence structure, particles, not word order, are what determines how each part of a sentence relates to the verb:

How different roles are defined in Japanese sentences

Particles define the role of each element in relation to the verb

(If you haven’t read my article on Japanese sentence structure, I recommend doing so.)

As a starting point, most basic sentences can be formed using the following pattern:

Basic Japanese sentence order

The pieces of ‘other information’ can generally be expressed in any order without affecting the fundamental meaning of the sentence, as long as they are accompanied by the appropriate particles.

However, for any given sentence, there is usually a particular word order that sounds more natural than others. This is because word order affects where the emphasis in a sentence lies.

In this article, I will show you the thinking behind natural Japanese word order, and give you some basic rules that you can easily apply. I’ll also give you some exercises you can do to help you think like a Japanese speaker so that forming natural-sounding sentences becomes automatic.

Let’s get started.

The Big Picture

Before we get into specifics, let’s start by looking at the big picture so we can understand the fundamental approach to word order in Japanese, and how it differs from English.

The fundamental rule that applies to all Japanese sentences is this:

New or important information should appear later in the sentence

While this is true, it isn’t particularly easy to apply in practice, as we don’t usually think too much about which information is new or more important. It also doesn’t help us with neutral sentences where all the information is new.

We need a more practical starting point.

If English is your native language, you are used to describing the core part of an action first, and then adding detail later.


Japanese, on the other hand, is essentially the opposite of this. In neutral sentences, most of the detail is described before the core action, which usually comes at the very end.


Obviously the topic of the sentence – in this case “Eri” – comes first, even though it’s fairly central to the main action, but we should treat that as an exception. For everything else, the relatively minor details come before the more critical elements describing the action.

One way to look at this difference is to say that English is “Inside-out” and Japanese is “Outside-in”.

Let me explain…

In English, after starting by saying who did the action, we then include all of the detail about that action starting from the action itself and moving outwards.

Take this example:

I ate lunch in the park on Tuesday.

After “I”, we express the action itself – eating – followed by the thing directly affected by that action – lunch.

Only after describing the core action do we move outwards from the action to add less important information, such as the location and the timing:



We can change the order and, for example, move “On Tuesday” to the beginning of the sentence, but that would place a bit more emphasis on the timing. For now, we are focused on neutral sentences that don’t have that kind of emphasis.

The most neutral way to express the above sentence in Japanese would be:

I ate lunch in the park on Tuesday.

I → on Tuesday → in the park → lunch ate.

watashi wa kayōbi ni kōen de hirugohan wo tabemashita.

わたし は かようび に こうえん で ひるごはん を たべました。


As with English, the person performing the action is mentioned first, but after that, everything else is described starting with the environment surrounding the activity then moving inwards until we finally state the action itself:


If you’ve ever thought that Japanese grammar is completely backwards, this is probably why.

A more general diagram for the above idea would look like this:


As you can see, there are three main zones:

  • timing
  • physical background
  • the action itself

These don’t cover absolutely every kind of information that we would ever want to include in a sentence, but they do cover most things.

As a general rule, in Japanese, if you express all the information you want to convey zone-by-zone moving inwards, you’re sentences will mostly sound natural.

Applying this to simple sentences

Now that we can see the big picture, let’s see how we can put the “Outside-in” approach into practice.

First, we must remember that the topic (marked by “wa”「は」) is an exception in that it usually comes first, even though it often describes the person who is at the center of the activity. That’s a whole separate issue for another time, but it means that we should use our basic sentence structure framework from earlier…

Basic Japanese sentence order

…and apply the “outside-in” approach to the ‘other information’, plus the verb itself.

What we include as other information will obviously vary depending on the situation, but we’ll start by focusing on three types of actions:

  1. Actions that take place in one location
  2. Actions that involve movement from one place to another
  3. Actions that involve the movement of a separate object

Actions that take place in one location

Most actions fit in this category, and the most common pieces of information that we would include when describing them would be:

  • The object – ie. the thing that the action is done to
  • The place/location where the activity takes place
  • The timing of the activity

There are obviously other things we can add, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

First, let’s look at our sentence from earlier:

I ate lunch in the park on Tuesday.

Here, the object is “lunch”, the place is “the park”, and the timing is “on Tuesday”.

As we saw, applying the outside-in approach gives us the following in Japanese:

I → on Tuesday → in the park → lunch ate.

watashi wa kayōbi ni kōen de hirugohan wo tabemashita.

わたし は かようび に こうえん で ひるごはん を たべました。


This demonstrates a simple word order pattern that can be applied to all sentences like this – TTPOV:


If you stick to this pattern for sentences that include these pieces of information, you will almost always sound natural. Just make sure you include the appropriate particle after each word or phrase (except for some time expressions).

Here are some examples:

I read a book at the library on Sunday.

I → on Sunday → at the library → a book read.

watashi wa nichiyōbi ni toshokan de hon wo yomimashita.

わたし は にちようび に としょかん で ほん を よみました。


Mari made sushi at home today.

Mari → today → at home → sushi made.

mari wa kyō ie de sushi wo tsukurimashita.

まり は きょう いえ で すし を つくりました。


My older brother is watching TV in his room now.

My older brother → now → in his room → TV is watching.

ani wa ima heya de terebi wo mite imasu.

あに は いま へや で テレビ を みて います。


For these sentences, it’s also fine to switch the “T”s (Topic and Time) around so that the time expression is first, followed by the topic. This changes the emphasis a little, but it doesn’t make a big difference, and it means that you don’t have to worry too much about which “T” in TTPOV comes first.

Want an easy way to practice this?

Click here to download a FREE Google Sheet that will help you practice building simple Japanese sentences using TTPOV.

Actions that involve movement from one place to another

In cases where we are talking about an action that involves movement from one place to another, such as ‘going’, ‘coming’ or ‘returning’, the information we would most commonly include is:

  • The destination
  • The means of transportation
  • The timing

Again, there is more we can add, but we won’t worry about that just yet.

Here’s an example sentence involving movement:

Kenta went to the beach by bus yesterday.

The vocabulary we need for this sentence includes:

yesterday kinō昨日きのう
went ikimashitaきました
beach umiうみ
bus basuバス

If we put this into our outside-in diagram, it looks likes this:


Now, you might be thinking that in the physical world, the bus is closer to the act of ‘going’ than the destination. After all, Kenta is physically inside the bus for the entire duration of the action, whereas he is only physically close to the beach at the end.

The important thing to remember when applying the “outside-in” approach is that it doesn’t necessarily refer to what objects or places are physically inside or outside the others. Instead, it refers to how important each element is to the main action that is taking place.

Essentially, the central part – “the action itself” – refers to the main goal that the person involved is trying to achieve. In our example, Kenta’s goal is not to ride the bus – it is to get to the beach. That act of motion is the core activity, and the destination is therefore more than just part of the physical background.

With that in mind, the most neutral and natural way to express this in Japanese would be:

Kenta went to the beach by bus yesterday.

Kenta → yesterday → by bus → to the beach went.

kenta wa kinō basu de umi ni ikimashita.

けんた は きのう バス で うみ に いきました。


A simple way to remember the word order for sentences like these would be to alter TTPOV to TTMDV:


As always, word order is secondary to particles, so make sure you combine the right particles with each element according to its role in the sentence.

Here are some more examples:

He came here by car on Thursday.

He → on Thursday → by car → here came.

kare wa mokuyōbi ni kuruma de koko ni kimashita.

かれ は もくようび に くるま で ここ に きました。


My older sister will return to the family home tomorrow by train.

My older sister → tomorrow → by train → to the family home will return.

ane wa ashita densha de jikka ni kaerimasu.

あね は あした でんしゃ で じっか に かえります。


I go to work every day by bicycle.

I → every day → by bicycle → to work go.

watashi wa mainichi jitensha de shigoto ni ikimasu.

わたし は まいにち じてんしゃ で しごと に いきます。


Want an easy way to practice this?

Click here to download a FREE Google Sheet that will help you practice building simple Japanese sentences using TTMDV.

Actions that involve the movement of a separate object

Some actions, such as “sending”, “giving”, “taking” or “putting”, involve movement, but the thing that moves is not the same as the person causing it to move.

For example, if I go somewhere, then I am the person that causes the movement while also being the thing that moves.  If, however, I send something to someone, I am performing the act of sending, but the thing that actually moves from one place to another is the ‘something’.

For sentences like these, we basically need to combine the two types of activities described above, since there is both a destination and an object. To figure out how we do that, let’s look at an example:

I will send the photo to my friend by email in the afternoon.

We can put this into our diagram like this:


As shown here, both the photo (object) and the friend (destination) are part of the core action. So which order should these be expressed in?

Before worrying about this too much, it’s important to remember that as long as the particles are correct, the order doesn’t make a big difference. With this in mind, we can then find the more natural word order using our original rule – that new or important information should appear later in the sentence.

When building a sentence like our example, there is usually a main point that we are trying to communicate; that is, we either want to say that the photo will be sent to the friend, or that it is a photo that will be sent to them. One of them is usually more important, and that is what should go last.

This is where context matters a lot. We’ll look at that a bit more in the Excluding Some Information and Adding Other Information sections below.

Before that, though, we need a neutral word order for when there is no context. We could probably argue that the photo is a more central part of the action, since it is the thing that actually moves, so our Japanese version of the above diagram would look something like this:


The natural word ordering for a neutral version of this sentence would therefore be:

I will send the photo to my friend by email in the afternoon.

I → in the afternoon → by email → to my friend the photo will send.

watashi wa gogo ni mēru de tomodachi ni shashin wo okurimasu.

わたし は ごご に メール で ともだち に しゃしん を おくります。


In certain contexts, this might be less natural than putting “tomodachi ni”友達ともだちに」 (to my friend) immediately before the verb, but for now, this will do just fine.

Regardless, as a starting point for actions like these, we can combine TTPOV and TTMDV to become TTMDOV:



Now we can just apply TTMDOV to every action that involves movement, with the Object only being included when it actually exists. The Means will also often be excluded from these sentences, since this information isn’t usually relevant or important with verbs of this nature.

Here are some more examples:

Tomoko will return the book to the library by post next week.

Tomoko → next week → by post → to the library the book will return.

Tomoko wa raishū yūbin de toshokan ni hon wo kaeshimasu.

ともこ は らいしゅう ゆうびん で としょかん に ほん を かえします。


Yoshitaka didn’t give his mother a birthday present last year.

Yoshitaka → last year → to his mother a birthday present didn’t give.

Yoshitaka wa kyonen okāsan ni tanjōbi purezento wo agemasen deshita.

よしたか は きょねん おかあさん に たんじょうび プレゼント を あげません でした。


I put your new shirt in the closet yesterday.

I → yesterday → in the closet your new shirt put.

watashi wa kinō kurōzetto ni anata no atarashī shatsu wo iremashita.

わたし は きのう クローゼット に あなた の あたらしい シャツ を いれました。


Want an easy way to practice this?

Click here to download a FREE Google Sheet that will help you practice building simple Japanese sentences using TTMDOV.

Excluding some information

We don’t, of course, always need to include all of the TTPOV or TTMDOV elements.

If a certain piece of information is obvious from context, or, conversely, if it is unknown, not particularly important, or doesn’t even exist, then we can simply drop it from the sentence. When we do this, the order of the remaining elements generally stays the same.

For example, if it is obvious who or what the topic of the sentence is, we can leave it out and keep everything else the same. One of our sentences from earlier could therefore be shortened to:

(I) ate lunch in the park on Tuesday.

On Tuesday → in the park → lunch ate.

kayōbi ni kōen de hirugohan wo tabemashita.

かようび に こうえん で ひるごはん を たべました。


This is very common in Japanese because, by definition, the topic is the person or thing that is being talked about, so it is usually obvious from context.

Similarly, we can leave out the timing:

I ate lunch in the park.

I → in the park → lunch ate.

watashi wa kōen de hirugohan wo tabemashita.

わたし は こうえん で ひるごはん を たべました。


Or the place:

I ate lunch on Tuesday.

I → on Tuesday → lunch ate.

watashi wa kayōbi ni hirugohan wo tabemashita.

わたし は かようび に ひるごはん を たべました。


Or the means of transportation for actions of movement:

Kenta went to the beach yesterday.

Kenta → yesterday → to the beach went.

kenta wa kinō umi ni ikimashita.

けんた は きのう うみ に いきました。


We can omit the object, too:

I ate in the park on Tuesday.

I → on Tuesday → in the park → ate.

watashi wa kayōbi ni kōen de tabemashita.

わたし は かようび に こうえん で たべました。


Or the destination:

Kenta went by bus yesterday.

Kenta → yesterday → by bus → went.

kenta wa kinō basu de ikimashita.

けんた は きのう バス で いきました。


Or both:

I will send (it) by email in the afternoon.

I → in the afternoon → by email → will send.

watashi wa gogo ni mēru de okurimasu.

わたし は ごご に メール で おくります。


And we can do any or all of these even if the direct English translation wouldn’t make sense:

(In a conversation about some sushi.)

Made at home today.

Today → at home → made.

kyō ie de tsukurimashita.

きょう いえ で つくりました。


In fact, the only thing that really must be included in a sentence is the verb. Everything else, if it’s obvious, unknown, unimportant or nonexistent, can be excluded.

For example, if someone was asked the question:

What did you do at school today?

Today → at school → what did?

kyō gakkō de nani wo shimashita ka?

きょう がっこう で なに を しましたか?


They could respond by simply saying:





This makes perfect sense because the topic, timing and location are already known, and the verb “nemasu”ます」 doesn’t take an object.

Similarly, if someone was asked the following question:

Did you send the photo to your friend?

To your friend → the photo sent?

tomodachi ni shashin wo okurimashita ka?

ともだち に しゃしん を おくりましたか?


They could just say:

Yes, sent.

hai, okurimashita.



Again, this is fine because the topic, object and destination are all obvious, while the means and specific timing are not important.

Bottom line – for most neutral sentences, you can apply either TTPOV or TTMDOV, and if one or more of the parts (T, T, P, M or O) are obvious, unknown, irrelevant or nonexistent, you can just leave them out.

Adding other information

There are many more things that we can include in a sentence other than the topic, time, place, means, object and destination.

The main ones* we might use are:

  • Co-participant (to)
  • Origin (karaから)
  • Start time (karaから)
  • End time (madeまで)

*There is also the subject (ga), but in all of the sentences we are looking at here, the subject is effectively replaced by the topic (wa), so we won’t look specifically at the subject right now.

For anything we might add, we just need to stick to our outside-in approach, ordering each piece of information according to its zone.

Realistically, however, even though it’s possible to include lots of different pieces of information in a sentence, it’s not particularly common or necessary. For example, you’re not normally going to need to tell someone what, where, when, how and with whom you did something all in a single sentence.

You can do this though, and you will sometimes need to include more than one piece of information from the same zone, so it is helpful to know how to order that information.

For the timing zone, there aren’t many different combinations, and the most neutral ordering is almost always chronological, as in this example:

We watched the sumo tournament in Ryogoku from 3 o’clock until 5 o’clock.

We → from 3 o’clock until 5 o’clock → in Ryogoku → the sumo tournament watched.

watashi tachi wa 3sanji kara 5goji made ryōgoku de sumō taikai wo mimashita.

わたし たちは さんじ から ごじ まで りょうごく で すもう たいかい を みました。


The start is before the finish, so that’s the order we say them in. Easy.

The physical background zone is much more likely to have more than one element that needs expressing.  A common example might be when you want to include a co-participant (ie. with whom the activity was done) as well as the location, as in a sentence like:

I went shopping at the mall with my younger sister today.

This fits into our diagram like so:


How do we know what the most natural order to put these in is?

This is where it may help to remember that the zones aren’t actually a real thing. The zones just make it a little easier to apply the “outside-in” approach, which in turn is just a more visual way to think about our central rule – that new or important information comes last.

To figure out what’s new or important, ask yourself this question:

If you could only keep one of the pieces of background information, which would it be?

That one goes last.

But really, it doesn’t make a lot of difference. If something isn’t right at the business end of the sentence (ie. just before the verb), then it’s importance is relatively small to begin with.

As such, the following two sentences are essentially the same:

I went (did) shopping at the mall with my younger sister today.

I → today → at the mall with my younger sister → shopping did.

watashi wa kyō mōru de imōto to kaimono wo shimashita.

わたし は きょう モール で いもうと と かいもの を しました。


I went (did) shopping at the mall with my younger sister today.

I → today → with my younger sister at the mall → shopping did.

watashi wa kyō imōto to mōru de kaimono wo shimashita.

わたし は きょう いもうと と モール で かいもの を しました。


The only time it matters is when you want to actively emphasize one element over the other. If that’s the case, though, you will obviously know what it is you’re emphasizing, so you’ll know what should be closer to the verb.

The same applies to an action involving movement. For example, if we wanted to expand on one of our sentences from earlier to include both an origin and a destination, then the origin would normally fall into the physical background zone, leaving us with this:


Again, unless we want to emphasize one thing in particular, the order of “gakkō kara”学校がっこうから」 and “basu de”「バスで」 doesn’t really matter, so both of the following are fine:

Kenta went from school to the beach by bus yesterday.

Kenta → yesterday → from school by bus → to the beach went.

kenta wa kinō gakkō kara basu de umi ni ikimashita.

けんた は きのう がっこう から バス で うみ に いきました。


Kenta went from school to the beach by bus yesterday.

Kenta → yesterday → by bus from school → to the beach went.

kenta wa kinō basu de gakkō kara umi ni ikimashita.

けんた は きのう バス で がっこう から うみ に いきました。


How to get used to Japanese word order

Understanding the theory of using natural word order in Japanese is one thing, but actually getting your brain to organise information in the right order is something else entirely.

Fortunately, this is a skill just like any other, so the solution is simple: practice.

Here’s an exercise you can do to practice building Japanese sentences with natural word order:

  1. Compile a list of simple actions that you are going to describe in Japanese.
  2. For each activity, close your eyes and picture it in your mind, focusing initially only on the core action. Practice saying just this “zone”, making sure to use the right particle(s).
  3. Add the topic and do the same again.
  4. Add the location or means of transportation, and repeat.
  5. Add the timing, and repeat.
  6. Repeat the above as often as you can. When you’ve repeated the same activities several times, change them up and do it all again.

Do this so much that the word order becomes automatic. It might feel needlessly easy and seem like a waste of time, but you want it to be so easy that you never have to think about it again.

Also, it is important that for each action you picture the actual activity, rather than thinking about the English words and translating them. This will help you associate things and events in the real world with Japanese words, rather than relying on English as a go-between.

Want help with this?

Sure thing 🙂

I’ve created a nifty Google Sheet that will make doing the above exercise a breeze.  It’s interactive, and makes it easy for you to start small and work your way up to full sentences, adding one zone at a time. It comes pre-loaded with some of the example sentences from this article, and you can change them up or easily add your own.

Oh, and it automatically builds simple Japanese sentences for you when you add new vocabulary.

Click here to get your free copy of the Google Sheet.

Key takeaways

Here are the key points to take away from this lesson:

  • New or more important information should be near the end of the sentence
  • A way to visualise this is to think of Japanese word order as “Outside-In”, and English as “Inside-out”
  • “Outside-in” refers to how important different elements are to the core action, not necessarily where they are physically
  • Basic, neutral word order for describing actions that take place in one location is: TTPOV = Topic – Time – Place – Object – Verb
  • Basic, neutral word order for describing actions that involve movement is: TTMD(O)V = Topic – Time – Means – Destination – (Object) – Verb
  • Information can be added or removed freely – just use the zones as a guide to help you express things “Outside-in”
  • Expressing words in the right word order is a skill that takes practice, so practice as much as possible

I hope that helps!

Make sure you grab your copy of the Google Sheet and try out the exercise, then leave a comment to let me know how it goes.

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