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I found this explanation but I don't really understand it.

【1】「問い」は、単に尋ね聞くこと。

【2】「質問」は、広く一般的に疑問点を問う場合に用いる。教室や会議など公の場での問いに用いることが多いが、私的、個人的な場でも用いる。(source)

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2 Answers 2

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My opinion is different from what the dictionary says...

As a noun, 問い is perhaps closer to problem, but is a fairly literary and "big" word. Basically it's only used in the following cases:

  1. In serious examinations, where ~せよ is still used.

    以下の問いに日本語で答えよ。

  2. Important and fundamental questions/problems that may not have an answer (philosophical question, political question, ...).
    • そのニュースは、平和とは何なのかという問いを国民に投げかけた。
    • 「時間とは何か」という問いに物理学者は挑んでいる。
  3. As a stiff synonym for (good) 疑問 in a context related to education.

    英語学習における初心者の問いに答える記事

  4. In old novels, stiff literary works, etc.

    よく五音をいい分け、人と問答会話するをもって、なんぴとにてもこの怪声に対し問いを発せば、いちいちその答えを得という (source)

質問 is a common word, and it refers to a question thrown to somebody else, expecting a concrete answer, either casually or formally. "Where is the station?" is a typical 質問 but usually not called a 問い. If you ask something to yourself ("What should I do next?"), that's never a 質問, either.

Maybe we can add this to "wago is more stiff than kango equivalent" list.

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問い{とい}, which is sometimes shortened to 問{とい} is mostly used only in examinations, as in 問い1 (Question 1). 質問{しつもん} is the general term you call a sentence that asks for information, as in 先生、質問があります。(Teacher, I have a question.) You can call a question on an examination as a 質問, but you cannot refer to a question you ask someone as a 問い.

While we're at it, there are at least two other Japanese words that are also translated into English as "question" and that is 問題{もんだい} and 疑問{ぎもん}. 問題 is just the same as 問い when referring to questions (or problems) on an examination. 疑問 means doubt, or a matter that needs to be dealt with or considered as in その必要性{ひつようせい}について疑問が生{しょう}じる (A question arises as to whether it is necessary.)

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