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人間に[上下]{じょうげ}はない。
People are equal.

Why the use of に after 人間? Are we treating 人間 as a "location" where 上下 is absent?

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I don't think of it as a completely unrelated usage, に indicates some sort of actual or metaphorical direction/location/act towards: 東京に行く to Tokio (I) go; 人間に上下は無い to humans there is neither up nor down –  blutorange Sep 8 '13 at 13:32
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I think there are several ways to analyze this construction, so this answer isn't supposed to be in contrast to the other answers.

One way that ある and ない (and いる and いない respectively) can sometimes be translated is "have" and "not have" with the subject of "have" being marked with に

彼には家がある
he has a house

あの人に子供はいない
That person doesn't have kids

Similarly for the example sentence:

人間に上下はない
Humans do not have hierarchy

EDIT:

This seems to be called a dative construction and is featured in several languages. Thanks to snailboat for the info.

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This is the so-called dative subject construction, right? –  snailboat Sep 12 '13 at 3:02
    
@snailboat, interesting!. I only knew of this term in the context of German (mir ist kalt), but it's obviously a parallel phenomenon. Have you encountered it in a Japanese context before? –  dainichi Sep 12 '13 at 3:21
    
I think that Kuno talks about it in The Structure of the Japanese Language (1973), and Shibatani talks about it in Grammatical relations and surface case (1977) and again in Dative subject constructions twenty-two years later (1999). The Shibatani 1999 paper is available online. –  snailboat Sep 12 '13 at 4:03
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I actually think "among(st)" sounds better than "for". It could be replaced by の間に or の中で. But pick your poison.

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It most likely means "for" in this context. One might think of it as において. And 上下 is probably 上下関係.

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