I am going through a Genki exercise (Genki 1, page 163) and there is a picture of a man, with questions on the side. For example, "暇ですか". Would this usually mean it is asking about the man or yourself?

This is kind of confusing because some of the question do have the topic/context for example "この人" or "ここは".

I do know that Japanese is a context heavy language but who would it usually be directed towards if you said something like "暇ですか" or "頭がいいですか" because to me, it seems almost as likely that if you asked "頭がいいですか" then you would be asking if you yourself are smart.

  • Usually, in this exercises the picture is there precisely to specify the context, so I would assume it refers to the man in the picture, if there is no one else.
    – jarmanso7
    May 23, 2020 at 23:25
  • Honorifics frequently create context. A non-honorific, plain, "暇" (instead of honorific "お暇") might suggest the book is asking the reader "Is this scene an example of the definition of 暇 (free time)?" In conversation, were Aさん to ask Bさん "暇ですか" (Do you have free time?) without the honorific お, called 美化語, might be strange, but I'm just a beginner on these subtleties. This is just a humble observation.
    – rppkgai
    May 24, 2020 at 3:31

1 Answer 1


While this may not be what you were hoping to hear, the answer is: it really all depends on the context. That said, I think this word "context" gets used very broadly in situations like this - the reality is that some of that "context" is word knowledge and common sense. Let's look at some of your examples:

暇ですか? is almost certainly about someone else, because you know whether or not you are free - in essence that's a decision you make. It would be bizarre to ask someone else.

頭がいいですか is again overwhelmingly more likely to refer to someone else. The reason here is a little more difficult to pin down, but I would say it boils down to the fact that it's very weird to ask someone else to determine ground truths about your own intelligence. Even in English, Am I smart? strikes me as a bizarre question. Note that if it were intended to be rhetorical, Japanese has other mechanisms used to make that explicit like かな.

Now, conversely, if you ask 頭がいいと思いますか? this could easily be a question about whether the other person thinks you are smart. It could of course also be a question about whether the other person thinks they are smart; this is one of those cases where context really will make the decision. In a vacuum though, I would assume this meant Do you think I'm smart?.

There are always ways to make things ambiguous, though. If you are in a group of three and someone asks 暇ですか?, it would be perfectly appropriate for you to clarify who they were asking about with something like 私ですか or 私がですか?.

Also while you likely wouldn't use the word in this case, it is conceivable that you could be asking someone else about whether you were free in a sentence like


If that person managed your calendar, and you were talking about your calendar.

  • Are you sure that 私がですか? is grammatical?
    – jarmanso7
    May 23, 2020 at 23:23
  • @jarmanso7 Yes. It's a very common colloquial construction; you can see that there are nearly a million hits on google for this exact phrase.
    – Mindful
    May 24, 2020 at 0:59
  • All right, I had that feeling that using が actually requires a predicate, like 私が暇です. Thanks
    – jarmanso7
    May 24, 2020 at 9:31
  • @jarmanso7 it requires a predicate in the sense that the predicate has to have already been made explicit in the conversation; constructions like this where you have a particle with omitted predicate are used basically exclusively to clarify what someone else said. Feel free to ask a question about it if you're curious, it works with other particles too.
    – Mindful
    May 24, 2020 at 17:08

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