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When asking about what particular thing is made of, this may be asked like this:

[材質]{ざいしつ}は何ですか。

What's the material? — Tatoeba

What's the material? — Tanaka Corpus (Source: from weblio page 1)

Then, the answer may be given like this:

[材質]{ざいしつ}は、紙・木・布等である/です。

They are made of materials such as paper, wood or cloth. - Wikipedia日英京都関連文書対訳コーパス (Source: from weblio page 2)

Different word choice

When asking similar question about a dish or food, ざいりょう is used instead:

すき焼きはどんな[材料]{ざいりょう}を使うのですか。

What is sukiyaki made of? — Tatoeba

Then, the answer has word choice that is certain:

[材料]{ざいりょう}は、肉・野菜・[出汁]{だし}です。 ○

[材質]{ざいしつ}は、肉・野菜・[出汁]{だし}です。 ✕

I am aware that the word ざいりょう is used to mean materials or ingredients in cooking. But earlier examples are hinting that ざいしつ is used to mean materials... other than cooking?

Based on the kanji used in each words, [質]{しつ} means quality and [料]{りょう} means quantity. Could it be that 材質 is used for uncountable things, and 材料 is used for countable things?

Then again, first example has mentioned "paper, wood or cloth"; Those are countable things but seems to be not counted on purpose, or for some reason that I may not aware.

Question 質問

Hence my question: When asking "what is the material", which word to use ([材質]{ざいしつ} or [材料]{ざいりょう}) and when should either be used?

ここで質問です:「この物は、何でできていますか」と尋ねるとき、どの言葉(材質・材料)をどんなときに使いますか?

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Actually there are more words qualified.

  • 材料
    The stuff used to make something as a part of it. The word tends to be used from makers' standpoint. In other word, 材料は何ですか? is effectively "What can I make it of?". Also it has a figurative meaning to mean information or data for mental activity.

    もっと判断材料が欲しい。 I need more food for thought.

  • 材質
    Mainly suggests the look, touch, feel, or other properties of the material, or what the material is like. Indeed it's often synonymous with what the material is, but for example, asking 材質は何ですか? right in front of a product can be a nonsense, because you already know when you see it.
  • 素材
    The original stuff before processing into something. Unlike 材料 meant to serve the product by their general nature, this word expects the material has some specific characteristics (a certain type of paper, meat bred in a certain region...) responsible for the product's certain feature. We have many 写真素材 "stock photos" on the internet, but we don't call them × 写真材料, because there are no two identical photos usable in the same way.
  • 原料
    The stuff used to transform into something. Unlike 材料, the word suggests that the material no longer retains its form when they make product from it, like petroleum for plastics, or soybeans for tofu etc. When the distinction of 原料 and 材料 doesn't matter, we call them 原材料 (as the term ingredients on food labeling).
  • マテリアル
    In some cases you want to directly translate English material, or for virtual material in the computer graphics field.

Also, if you just want to say "what is the material", you don't always have to use any of words above.

何(で/から)できていますか? — suitable for 原料-type materials
何を使っていますか? — suitable for 材料-type materials

| improve this answer | |
  • +1 So far only this answer covers most of words usage and nuances, compared to my own reading and looking into dictionaries. – clearkimura Feb 21 '17 at 8:04
  • I have reviewed and clarified the definition for each words and the usage in various references, and decided that this answer was most helpful. – clearkimura May 16 '17 at 15:04
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I think you might be looking for 素材 "(raw) materials".

どんな素材でできていますか?
What material(s) is it made of?


材質 is about the properties (or quality) (質) of a material (材), cf. 気質、音質、…. For example, when specifying on what type of material you can use a glue or paint. It can be used when asking about the type of material

材質は何ですか?
What type of material(s) is (are) used?


材料 is "ingredients" and is used for things that come with a recipe, especially food, but could also be used for fertilizer, etc.

| improve this answer | |
  • 素材 may be feasible, but how/when it is used? Existing answer doesn't seem to explain why 素材 is more preferred than 材質 or 材料. – clearkimura Feb 19 '17 at 13:57
  • I think "raw material" is more like 原料. – broccoli facemask - cloth Feb 19 '17 at 23:19
  • @brokenheadphones Hehe, I don't know enough words in English to pinpoint the differences between 素材 and 原料. – Earthliŋ Feb 19 '17 at 23:32
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<材{ざい}質{しつ}>

この刺{さし}身{み}包{ほう}丁{ちょう}はどんな材質で出{で}来{き}ていますか?=材質は何ですか?
What is this fish slicer made of?
鉄で出来ています。(=材質は鉄です。)
This fish slicer is made of steel.

あちらの(あの)刺身包丁は何で出来ていますか?(=材質は何ですか?)
What is that fish slicer made of?
ステンレスです。
That fish slicer is made of stainless steel.
刺身包丁の材質は何が良{よ}いのですか?
What is the best material for the fish slicer?
鉄です。
Steel is the best.

<原{げん}材{ざい}料{りょう}、原{げん}料{りょう}> used in industrial field.

製{せい}鉄{てつ}では、多量の鉄{てっ}鉱{こう}石{せき}が、原{げん}材{ざい}料{りょう}として用いられますし、精{せい}錬{れん}プロセスでは、石{せき}炭{たん}が欠{か}かせない原{げん}料{りょう}となります。
The iron manufacturing requires large amount of iron ore, and coal is vital ingredient in the steel making process.

<材{ざい}料{りょう}、食{しょく}材{ざい}>料{りょう}理{り}のための材{ざい}料{りょう}は"食{しょく}材{ざい}"と言うことが多い

HelloFreshは、レシピと新{しん}鮮{せん}な食{しょく}材{ざい}を、毎{まい}週{しゅう}、直{ちょく}接{せつ}玄{げん}関{かん}まで配{はい}達{たつ}いたしますので、おいしく健{けん}康{こう}的{てき}な食{しょく}事{じ}が手{て}軽{がる}にご自{じ}宅{たく}で楽{たの}しめます。
HelloFresh delivers weekly recipes and fresh ingredients straight to your doorstep, so you can cook delicious, quick, and healthy meals at home.

| improve this answer | |
  • +1 For including examples and brief mentions for several words that are not found in other answers. – clearkimura Feb 21 '17 at 8:18

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