In many beginning Japanese classes, 来る【くる】 and 行く【いく】 are presented as "to come" and "to go," respectively. Dictionaries generally also define them this way. However, every once in a while in more advanced classes, teachers will mention that this is not actually the case; these words are used differently in Japanese than their English (pseudo-)counterparts.

I cannot for the life of me remember the proper way to understand the differentiation between these verbs, past "come" and "go," a fact which is most embarassing.

Can someone please explain how these words are different than the English "come" and "go" in their usage?

Related question: Difference between -ていく and -てくる

  • I'm curious to see how this is going to be answered... You can combine these verbs with a lot of things and they will not mean "to come" and "to go". But in their original form there's not much to say about 来る and 行く other than what you would say about their English equivalents... – repecmps Jul 1 '11 at 5:37
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    I can only see 1 instance of 行く meaning "to come" but I will not explain it here. – repecmps Jul 1 '11 at 5:39
  • @repecmps I'm actually only talking the verbs 来る and 行く used as such, not in other grammatical forms. – rintaun Jul 1 '11 at 5:56
  • "What do you mean @repecmps??? What do you meaaaaan?"</secret-hilarious-knowledge> – istrasci Jul 1 '11 at 14:40

As usual, I'll go for examples which should come in handy. Check the emphasized words. (The translations are not natural, but it's not the point here.)

Sample 1

Won't you come visit me in France?

Yes, I will go to France. We will go see the Arc de Triomphe.

Great. Mark came last summer already.

Sample 2

Will you come/go to John's party tonight?

No, I won't go to John's.

Paul is not coming/going either.

Sample 3

Come here!

Yes sir! I'm coming right away.


Tarou is at place A, Jun is at place B. Tarou calls motions towards A as "来る". Tarou calls motions away from A as "行く". Tarou calls motions towards Jun as "行く".

行く/来る is from-here/to-here relatively to the person who uses the verb now. (I suddenly have a doubt for a situation like "will you visit me at my new home when I moved to France". I think "来る" would still be good, because it's still about the narrator being reached.)

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    ok but how is it different from other languages? – repecmps Jul 1 '11 at 8:31
  • Well, suppose you're talking about a great party that everyone knows about. You'll tell your British friend "are you coming tonight?", but (I think) that you would never tell your Japanese friend "来ますか?". You'll have to say "行きますか", as you're not the host. – Axioplase Jul 1 '11 at 10:44
  • In English you're asking "are you coming tonight" because you anticipate your presence there or because it implies "come with us". I think that would work in Japanese as well? – repecmps Jul 1 '11 at 11:37
  • @repecmps: I don't know... I feel like it would be 一緒に行く? in that case -- but I did think of an example in English: "Can I come over to your house?" – rintaun Jul 1 '11 at 12:17
  • @rep: both I think. – Axioplase Jul 1 '11 at 12:24

As Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams says, the key is the difference in point of reference. So when the first and the second person's perspective are the same, Japanese and English have the same distinction for these words. Difference between Japanese and English appears when the first and the second person's perspective are different. That is typical when someone is calling another. A different famous example is the words said at sexual climax. In English, people say I'm coming. This is in second person's perspective. In Japanese, people say 行く. This is in first person's perspective.

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「来る」 implies motion or action towards or ending at the speaker or the speaker's current situation, whereas 「行く」 implies motion or action away from or beginning at the speaker or the speaker's situation.

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    This seems to be the same as the English usage of the words "come" and "go," unless I'm misunderstanding something... – rintaun Jul 1 '11 at 5:57
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    In English, "come" and "go" can also be used with the listener as a point of reference. – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jul 1 '11 at 5:59
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    To elaborate: in English you can say "I'll come over there", but in Japanese this is grammatically impossible because "come" implies you're there already, so the correct verb is 行く. – Kef Schecter Jul 2 '11 at 3:42

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