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Phrases like 5[時]{じ}に[帰]{かえ}ります or 3[時]{じ}に[行]{い}きます or 8[時]{じ}に[来]{き}ます are the very basics one can find in a beginner's book. And despite that, I have yet to see an explanation what exactly they mean. Let's say, that going home takes 1 hour and someone says: 5[時]{じ}に[帰]{かえ}ります。 Does that mean he arrives home at 5 (and departs at 4)? Or maybe he departs at 5 (and arrives at 6)? Or maybe you can say both just by swapping particle に for something else?

Does it work the same way with other movement verbs?

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For 行く and 来る, they operate pretty much like their English counterparts.

'John is coming here at 5:00 (5時に来る).' 5:00 indicates his arrival time.
'John is going at 5:00(5時に行く).' 5:00 indicates his departure time.

With 帰る, however, it could indicate the time at which John left or the time he arrived home.
Situation A (said by a work colleague): 「ジョンさん、昨日は何時に帰ったんですか?」 'Hey John, what time did you leave (to go home) yesterday?'.
Situation B (said by a roommate/parent,etc.): 「あっ、ジョン君だ。いつ帰ったの?」'Ah, it's you John. When'd you get home?'.

So, there is a bit of a necessity to read the context behind the question or statement when it comes to 帰る. If you want to be more specific you can always use clarifying words like 出発 and 到着 (or 出る and 着く) to specify the departure/arrival time(s).

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  • So I'm guessing that if I say 私は5時に帰る about myself to someone who is neither in the place where I return from nor where I return to, it's ambiguous which time I mean (departure or arrival) and it requires something more to make it clear? Like 事務所から to indicate departure or 家に to indicate arrival? I also suppose that inserting both would make it ambiguous again? – Erundil Dec 25 '19 at 0:15
  • Yes, it would likely be ambiguous. While the default usage is often the time which one leaves to go home, 帰る is more the process of returning home, so it is not necessarily a fixed point in time. You could make it less ambiguous and say 「今日、帰るのは5時に事務所を出て、6時に(家に)着く予定です。」or something like that. I can't really think of '事務所から' being appropriate here. – BJCUAI Dec 27 '19 at 15:42

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