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In English we have a generic and two directional ways of saying related things:

  • return - doesn't imply a direction, has other uses including transitive ones (I returned the book I borrowed)
  • come back - direction is toward speaker but sometimes toward listener, always intransitive
  • go back - direction is away from speaker, toward listener, always intransitive

In Japanese I know of two verbs but I'm not sure how to use them correctly:

  • 返{かえ}る
  • 戻{もど}る

I'm only interested in intransitive for this question. Here's some examples, possibly not the best ones:

  • I came back to Japan last week.
  • I have to go back to Australia next month.
  • I will return to Japan next year.
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You're missing at least one [帰]{かえ}る –  virmaior Mar 1 at 8:46
    
@virmaior: I'm a beginner so I'm surely missing a lot from all of my posts (-: ... Actually I did come across that one but it seemed to me "to go home", which is what my local friend thought I said when I said "kaeru" meaning "go/come back / return". –  hippietrail Mar 1 at 8:47
    
Related question, but not the same: Am I coming or going? 戻ってくる vs 戻っていく –  hippietrail Mar 1 at 8:50
    

1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

帰る, sometimes translated as "to go home" is the preferred way to say "to go back", when you speak about your home country, your home town, your parents' home, etc.

For example,

I have to go back to Australia next month.
来月オーストラリアに帰らないといけない。 (or any other version of "have to")

If you've lived in another country, then saying

来月イギリスに帰る。

sounds like you are thinking of Britain as your home country.

A more conceptual way to think about it is the following:

  • かえる refers to something or someone returning to the place where he/she/it belongs, in some sense. For people, it's 帰る; for objects, it's 返る.

  • もどる refers to something or someone returning to a place he/she/it has been before. For both people and objects, it's 戻る.

The difference between かえる and もどる is like the difference between a closed loop with a basepoint and a basepoint-free closed loop.

You can use 帰る for returning to your apartment, even if it's not in your home country:

もう、今日は帰る。
I'll head back [to my apartment in Tokyo].

戻る is fine, too:

東京に戻る。
I'll go back to Tokyo.

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帰る, 返る and 戻る are intransitive. –  Earthliŋ Mar 1 at 18:29

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