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The verbs ひらく and あける both mean to open, and とじる and しめる both mean to close. I understand that ひらく and とじる are antonym pairs, as are あける and しめる, but have never been clear on the difference between them. I have heard it explained in several different ways, but have come across several cases which seem to refute them. Some of the explanations I have seen are:

  1. ひらく/とじる refer to an abstract or figurative opening or closing, such as opening a store, account, or ceremony. あける/しめる are literally opening or closing something (physically).
  2. ひらく/とじる are opening or closing something in 3 dimensions (such as a laptop or a car door), where あける/しめる are only used when the opening/closing action only spans one dimension (such as a sliding window or a Japanese style closet).

On the other hand, I have seen buttons on an elevator say ひらく and とじる (which refutes #2). I have never heard ひらく or とじる applied to a door--it's always あける/しめる, whether it's a hinged or a sliding door. I have always heard あける / しめる used when referring to the opening of a store or business (e.g. レストランはあけていますか。). What is the difference between these terms?

And as a secondary question, is ひらく both transitive and intransitive?

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Additional information for anyone who didn't know these words, あける, しめる, and とざす are transitive. The intransitive versions are あく, しまる, and とじる, respectively. And as @Jesse Good said, ひらく doubles as both. – Ataraxia Aug 10 '12 at 3:37
up vote 17 down vote accepted

I think the key to understanding the differences is to understand the concept of [空間]{くうかん} in Japanese. Basically, if by performing the "open" action, you connect two 空間 together, create a new 空間 or make a 空間 visible, then both ひらく and あける can be used. This can be seen in the following phrases:

窓をあける/ひらく (by opening a window, you connect two 空間 together)

箱をあける/ひらく (by opening a box, you are able to make the inner 空間 of the box visible)

ドアをあける/ひらく (same as window)

目をあける/ひらく (by opening your eyes you make a new 空間 visible)

However, I should stress that generally あける is preferred in the above situations.

Now, lets see some examples that do not fit the above explanation.




In the above situations, あける cannot be used. Do you see why? Basically, the concept of 空間 that I mentioned above is missing. What is common about the above examples is that they are more focused on the "movement" of an object. In other words, the cover of the book, the umbrella and wings all move to expand or widen.

From this, we should be able to understand why あける is preferred in my first examples. Since, ひらく focuses on "movement" like I explained above, あける should be preferred when focusing on the 空間 aspect.

Also, while the above explains some of the differences, I should note that あける can be written in three ways: 開ける/明ける/空ける, and 開く has four ways: 開く/拓く/啓く/披く. So, the usage is much more complicated then what I explained above.

For your last question, yes ひらく can be both transitive and intransitive. ひらく and あく are used differently, for example you can say 毛穴がひらく but not 毛穴があく, while 穴があく is better than 穴がひらく.

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Interesting! I never thought about it like that. So then why is あける used when referring to opening a store or a business? – Ataraxia Aug 9 '12 at 15:55
@phoenixheart6: 店をひらく and 店をあける can be both used. I generally here 店をひらく to mean "to start a business" and 店をあける to mean "open a store for business for the day". Please see the second definition for 3 (開ける)here, the 店をあける use is the one exception which is the second meaning of 開ける not explained in my answer. – Jesse Good Aug 9 '12 at 20:35
Ah ok. That link is really helpful--I'm just now being introduced to the concept of homophonic kanji. Thanks! – Ataraxia Aug 9 '12 at 20:47
How about opening a website? – Flaw Nov 18 '12 at 9:35
@Flaw: That would be 開く. Just like when you open a book, you do not open up a new 空間, the focus is more on the action. – Jesse Good Nov 18 '12 at 23:02

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