Superficially, I get the sense that あの is for something far away from both speaker and listener, and その is for something closer to the listener than speaker. However, I seem to get in trouble when dealing with time and past events, so I'm wondering if someone can provide a more thorough explanation of the difference?

3 Answers 3


In conversation, you switch between あの and その depending on whether or not the subject is known by both of the speakers, or only one.

話し手も相手も共通に知っている場合 ー>「あ」

When both the speaker and listener know the subject -> "あ"

どちらか一方が知っている場合 ー> 「そ」

When only the speaker or listener knows the subject -> "そ"

For example:

A: 昨日久しぶりに山田さんに会ったよ。kinou hisashiburi ni yamada san ni atta yo.

B: えっ、山田さん?その人、だれ? ee, yamada san? sono hito, dare?

A: ほら、大きくて派手な眼鏡をかけている人。hora, ookikute hadena megane wo kaketeiru hito.

B: ああ、あの人ね、知っている。aa, ano hito ne, shitteiru.

This can simply be used for time and events as well.

When the time is only known by one speaker.

A: 2年前、日本に行きましたよ。その時、日本語がぜんぜん話せませんでした。2 nen mae, nihonn ni ikimashita yo. sono toki, nihongo ga zenzen hanasemasen deshita.

B: そうなんですか。sou nan desu ka

Or when the time/event is known by both.

A: 子供の頃、一緒に野球をやっていた時を覚えてる? kodomo no koro, issho ni yakyuu wo yatteita toki wo oboeteru?

B: うん、あの時楽しかったな〜 un, ano toki tanoshikatta na~

The majority of this comes from the text book 「中級を学ぼう」.

There is also the use of 「この」and「その」in writing, which refer to previously mentioned things, but I think they are outside the scope of this question.

  • Why am I so bad at formatting... My bold never works.
    – phirru
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 10:55
  • ...at least not for Japanese characters.
    – phirru
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 11:15
  • Excellent answer, thank you! That's exactly what I wanted clarified.
    – zakvdm
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 13:15
  • see this
    – Troyen
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 15:53
  • Basically, the standard bold ** delimiters don't work on Japanese characters so you have to use html until that's addressed.
    – Troyen
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 19:32

For time related events you'd usually あの if you are introducing the topic:

覚えてますか?あのとき… Oboetemasu ka? Ano toki…

If the topic was already broached, you'd use その to refer to the already introduced time:

はい、その話覚えてます。 Hai, sono hanashi oboetemasu.

If you keep using あの over and over in the same conversation for the same topic, it can seem weird. If you start talking about an unconnected topic using その, people may get confused as to what you're referring to.

Overall it can be very fluid and change throughout the conversation.
あれ・あの〜 can be understood as "that time/thing/story/...", while
それ・その〜 can be understood as "that which you speak of".

It matters little whether the experience was shared or not, the main thing is how the topic was introduced or who currently "holds" the topic in the conversation. A shared experience may rather prompt an あれ by all, since not one speaker "holds" a shared experience; but this depends on the flow of the conversation. In reverse, you may more use それ for an experience somebody else talks about, because that person is closer to the topic; but if the conversation swerves to another topic and you want to return to the previously talked about experience, you may reintroduce it using あれ, even if it wasn't "yours".

See my contrived example:

A: あのときは良かったね。
B: 本当にね、あの話は…
A: あなたは誰と行ったんだっけ?
B: 山田さんと一緒に行ったよ、そのとき。
A: あぁ、そうでしたね。そう言えば、山田さんって…

B: また先の話だけど、あのときにあれもやったっけ?
A: やったよ、そこで。

  • Thanks for your explanation! Does it matter whether or not you are dealing with a shared experience? That is, can I use その時 when referring to an event that happened while the listener was not present?
    – zakvdm
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 9:56
  • 1
    I don't think it matters. As both are contructs used frequently during story-telling Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 10:15
  • 2
    @Mark, not sure. I agree with the OP - I learned (although could be wrong!) that ano was more for a shared experience. "Ano" when it's not a shared experience when storytelling would make it sound more like you're recalling it to yourself (as part of the story) -- which could work, but I'd usually say sono.
    – makdad
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 12:02
  • @zakvdm @makdad Updated with a clarification.
    – deceze
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 13:12
  • 1
    Hmm, @deceze, your answer seems to contradict @phirru's answer somewhat. And I'm hardly in a position to judge which is correct :|
    – zakvdm
    Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 13:24

Your explanation of sono and ano in terms of places is correct.

as far as when dealing with time this is how it seems to me.

あの時 - This one time

その時 - At that time

so その時 gets used when it is a continuation of previous topic, whereas あの時 would be more of a introducing a topic.

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