The Existential Verbs ある & いる

第42課:  The Existential Verbs ある & いる

When we learned about the copula verb だ, we learned how it is the “to be” verb in Japanese when talking about how “X = Y.” An application of “to be” in English that does not exist for だ, though, is when talking about “there is X.” In this scenario, there are primarily two verbs that come to mind: ある and いる.  

Both verbs establish the existence of things, but what sets them apart and how they are sometimes interchangeable can be confusing. 

The Verb ある: Conjugations

Of the two verbs, ある is the most basic and fundamental to describing existence. Before delving into how it is used semantically, let’s review how it conjugates. 

The verb ある is a slightly irregular R-Type Godan Verb because of how it lacks a plain negative form. Instead, that role is completely taken over by the adjective ない, which means for “there to not be.” Consequentially, ある’s basic conjugations are:

ConjugationPlain Speech Polite Speech
 Non-Past ある あります
 Past あった ありました
 Negative ないないです
ありません (Politer)
 Negative Pastなかったなかったです
ありませんでした (Politer)

Meanings of ある

There is X

The verb ある is the basic existential verb in Japanese and can be understood simply as meaning “there is X” in the broadest sense. In practicality, it is largely restricted to inanimate objects or abstract entities. 

1. 日本には火山が多くある。

In Japan, there are lots of volcanoes.

2. 公衆電話はありますか。
Is there a public telephone?

3. 両国間には国交がありません。      
There aren’t any diplomatic relations between both nations. 

4. この国には法律というものがある。
There is something called “laws” in this country.

With any sentences that states “where” something is, the particle に marks the location of X. It should not be confused with the particle で as it shows “where” something occurs. This is the difference between a “state of being” and an “(ongoing) action.” 

5a. 日本では方言がたくさんあります。X
5b. 日本には方言がたくさんあります。〇
In Japan, there are a lot of dialects.

6a. 日本では方言がたくさん話されています。〇
6b. 日本には方言がたくさん話されています。X
In Japan, there are a lot of dialects spoken.

With stating one’s state of being a fundamental meaning of ある, that means it can also be used to show what situation the agent finds themselves in.

7. お客様の担当ドライバーが薬物またはアルコールの影響下にあるとお考えの場合は、すぐに運転を中止するよう要求してください。
In the event that you believe your designated driver is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, please immediately request to cancel your ride. 

Orthography Note: When ある is used to indicate that someone/something exists in a certain state/situation, it may seldom be seen spelled in Kanji as 在る.

Indicating Possession

Aside from translating as “there is,” ある may also indicate possession of inanimate and non-physical/abstract entities. 

8. 昔、多くの領土を治め、金も銀もたっぷりあった王
The king who long ago took over lots of territory and had plenty of gold and silver

9. もう逃げ場はありません。
There is/you have nowhere to hide.

When something is associated with the agent in this manner with ある, entities can be viewed as attributes or even accessories to said agent. People have a height and weight, but many also have the right to vote. Roses may have thorns. Weight can be had with words in the same way that one’s face has all the hallmarks of your emotions. 

These are all situations in which ある is applicable, and what they all have in common is showing possession that is intrinsically true whether the entity is a physical item on the agent’s person or an abstract thing that is associate with them.

10. 財産はありますか。
Do you have assets?

11. その動物は体重が200キロもある。
The animal has a weight of at least 200 kilograms.

12. 高さは六十メートルある。
It has a height of 60 meters.

13. 教養のあるように振る舞うことは、実際に教養のない人がすることだ。
Behaving like one [has sophistication/is sophisticated/is educated] is what people who actually [don’t have sophistication/aren’t sophisticated/aren’t educated] do.

14. 綺麗なバラには棘があるよ。
(Even) pretty roses have thorns. 

15. 互いに面識がありました。
(They) mutually [had been/were] acquainted. 

16. どうして人間(に)は食べ物の好き嫌いがあるのですか。

Why is it that humans have likes and dislikes with food?

Particle Note: Dropping the particle に lessens the emphasis on stating where the attribute being discussed resides. 

17. (私は)日本に行ったことがあります。
I have gone to Japan.

Grammar Note: ~ことがある is used to express the experiences that one has.

Due to Japanese’s tendency of dropping the subject, the intrinsic nature of the relationship between ある and an entity need not always be distinguished from “there is” when translating into English. If you are at a friend’s home and look in their refrigerator for milk, there is no real difference between saying “is there milk in here somewhere?” or “do you have milk in your fridge?” 

18. 牛乳はありますか。
[Is there/do you have] milk? 

19. 時刻表はありますか。
[Is there/do you have] a timetable?

20. 風呂付の部屋はありますか。
[Do you have/are there]a room with a bath?

In contrast, the synonymous verb 所有する meaning “to own” explicitly make clear that the agent definitively has something in their possession. Also unlike ある, 所有する has to be used in the progressive form (with ~ている → next lesson) to express how ownership is ongoing. Such a conjugation is not necessary with ある as it itself marks how things exist in the now. 

21. 現在、車を所有していますか。
Do you currently own a car?

Grammar Note: The progressive form (a.k.a “-ing” form in English) in Japanese is not used with existential verbs because the very conjugation in Japanese utilizes an existential verb. Meaning, such a form would be semantically redundant. 

Orthography Note: For the meaning of “possession,” ある is often seen spelled as 有る, but this spelling can also substitute other potential Kanji spellings. 

To Occur

It is also possible to use ある in the same sense as “to occur” when used with entities that relate to situations. In this situation, the location of where said situation occurs is marked with で.

22. 事故があった。
There was an accident.

23. 奈良で地震がありました。
There was an earthquake in Nara.

24. 町のお祭りがある。
There is (going to be) a town festival.

25. 加害者と被害者の間に何か(が)あったんだろうか?
I really wonder if [there was something/something had happened] between the offender and the victim?

Sentence Note: Ex. 25 is a great example of how the meaning of “to occur” is an offshoot of expressing the location of something pertinent to said place. The particle で isn’t possible here because the situation between the two people aforementioned is presumed to be far more serious and longstanding. In other words, what ある is referring still likely refers to actions, but those actions are a part of a greater situation. So, when the agent(s) find themselves in a predicament, think ある.

Existing is Living

Although this section may seem contradictory once the other existential verb いる is formally introduced, another offshoot meaning of ある that stems from its use of marking existence is that something exists/is alive in this world. 

26.  生ける者は結局死ぬのだからこの世にある間は楽しくありたい。
The living ultimately die, so I wish to have fun while I am (alive) in this world.

27. あの地蔵は今この寺にある。
That jizo statue currently resides in this temple.

Sentence Note: Ex. 27 demonstrates how this meaning can be used figuratively to personify the 地蔵 as a living entity within the temple. 

Orthography Note: For this usage, you may rarely see ある spelled as 存る.


When paired with the quotation particle と, ある stands for the situation being quoted, most often in written form with which the speaker has come to find out about it. This usage is often paraphrased to と書いてある, which utilizes the て form and ある combined (see next lesson). 

28. 命令とあれば、仕方がない。
We have no choice if it’s a command.

29. 聖書には「初に神は天と地とを創造された」とある。
It is written in the Bible that, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”


Whenever you wish to say “some/a certain…” without explicitly stating what it is – whether it be a time, place, object, etc. – you can use ある before said noun.

30. ある人に頼まれました。

I was asked (of this) by a certain person.  

31a. 大昔、ある所におじいさんとおばあさんがありました。

Long time ago, there was an old man and an old woman.

Sentence Note: In older language, ある regularly indicated the existence of entities regardless of whether the entity was inanimate or not. Although ある does still indicate circumstances people find themselves in, aside from that, the verb itself in modern speech is hardly paired with entities that are alive. This, however, is a recent change in the language, and narrating a story from the past would certainly be great context to utilize older wording. 

Another reason for opting for ~がありました would be to firmly establish their presence/existence in both time and space. For now, though, we’ll hold off for just a bit how いる, the other existential verb, would sound in this sentence to first get properly acquainted with it. 

Orthography Note: When spelling ある in Kanji for this meaning, only 或(る) is used.

The Verb いる: Conjugations

The verb いる is a regular Ichidan verb whose basic conjugations are as follows:

Conjugation Plain Speech Polite Speech
Non-Past いるいます
Past いたいました
Negative いないいないです
いません (Politer)
Negative Pastいなかったいなかったです
いませんでした (Politer)

Meanings of いる

In Modern Japanese, いる is primarily used to mark the existence of something that is both animate (moving or capable of moving) and alive (or at least made out to be alive). 

32. 佐藤さんは家にいませんでした。
Mr. Sato was not at home.

33. この公園にはいろんな動物がいます。
There are all sorts of animals in this park. 

34. 50頭を超えるゴリラがいました。
There were over 50 gorillas.

35. 神様はいつもあなたのそばにいます。
God is always right by your side.

However, as its Kanji spelling 居る implies, it can be used to broadly demonstrate the existence of anything on the move, while also simultaneously indicating where it is in time and space. This is why it is so commonly used in reference to vehicles. 

36. バスはまだバス停にいると思いますよ。
I believe the bus is still at the bus station. 

37. 隣の車線にクレーン車が居ると、倒れてくるのではないかと疑問に思ってしまう。
Whenever there is a crane in the adjacent lane, I wonder whether it’s going to come collapsing down. 

38. 追い越し車線に車が数台いる。
There are several cars in the passing lane.

39. 明星がいる。
There is the evening star, Venus.

Etymology Note: The original meaning of 居る was as the antonym of 立つ meaning “to stand.” That being said, its ability to refer to things moving about predates its ability to refer to living things that happen to be stationary. However, because living things are generally on the move, that is how it eventually became associated with the living. For trees, though, which are living but always stationary, only ある is used as “living” was an added condition to the use of いる to its already existing prerequisite of being with something animate. 

いる is till heavily correlated with living objects. It will often be used as a synonym of 住む meaning “to live (at).”

40. 兄はロンドンにいます。
My older brother is (living) in London.

Similarly to ある, いる may indicate the possession of living things. This is most often used to demonstrate blood relationships.

41. 私(に)は一人も兄弟がいません。
I don’t have a single sibling.

Speakers do at times extend this nuancing to pet ownership, but the verb 飼う meaning “to raise (an animal)” is preferred. A factor as to why this is can be explained by the inherent ambiguity had by using いる between “there just being an animal” versus actually owning one.

42. 犬がいません。
There isn’t a dog.

Without any context, いる will default to a simple statement on existence.

43. 我が家には3羽います。
[There are/we have] 3 birds in our home.

When ある & いる Overlap

Upon having learned the individual meanings of ある, it would seem that いる is grammatically unnecessary to express existence at all if ある can already state the existence of anything. 

Although that was most certainly the case in older stages of the language in which いる didn’t start out as an existential verb, the associations that they respectively currently have dictate how a sentence is interpreted when either happen to be possible. 

ある VS いる: Scenarios of Overlap

Whenever there is overlap between ある and いる, it is not the case that the feeling of the sentence remains unchanged upon swapping one out for the other.

44. 人形がいっぱい{いる・ある}ね。
There are lots of dolls, aren’t there?

Sentence Note: いる is used in situations as handling dolls when the speaker hinges toward how human-like they are.

45. あそこにロボットが{います・あります}。

There is a robot over there.

Sentence Note: When robots are truly human-like and are very much animate, いる is more than acceptable if not preferred despite not being alive.

46. あそこにバスが{いる・ある・止まっている}。
There is a bus over there.

Sentence Note: As discussed earlier, いる gives the implication that the bus has been in transit and that the speaker is describing its temporary stationary state. Otherwise, ある or a reasonable paraphrase such as “is stopped” = 止まっている will be more appropriate. 

Although ある in certain literary contexts, almost certainly written with an emphatic Kanji spelling to go along, can mean “to be alive,” in scenarios in which it contrasts with いる, the entity is ‘dead’ or at least not in the realm of the living with ある. 

However, due to understandable sensitivities that people have towards fellow human beings being no longer with us, いる is overwhelming preferred when referring to the deceased.

47. ピーナッツのアレルギーで死んだ人が{いました・ありました}。
There were people who died from peanut allergies.

As for deceased pets, people generally refrain from using ある for similar reasons. Most people don’t want to intentionally sound morbid.

48. 毒入りのものを食べて死んだ猫が{いた・あった}。
There was a dead cat that ate something laced with poison.

As for dead animals in a generalized scenario detached from human emotions, ある is preferred, but of course, people who have deeply held beliefs about the death of any living thing may wish to not follow this norm. Also, there is nothing wrong with paraphrasing ある・いる of the sentence in such a situation.

49. コップの中に死んだ蝿が入っている。
There is a dead fly in my cup.

Another word to consider is 怪我人 meaning “injured.” Though it is a noun relating to people, ある can still be used as an extension of how it is used to note the occurrence of something. Meaning, “injuries occurring” is equated with “those injured.” In general, when ある is used with living people, the people are being stated in an abstract sense void of emotional attachment. 

50. 乗客の中に怪我人は{いませんでした・ありませんでした}。
There were no people injured among the passengers.

51. 妻子の{ある・いる}人{が・を}好きになってしまいました。
I’ve ended up liking a person with a wife and kid(s).

52. 神が{ある・いる・存在する}。
[There is/are god(s)/kami/God(s)/kami exist].

Sentence Note: Ignoring the various interpretations of the word 神, describing a spiritual entity with いる is most common in modern speech, but that does not detract from the grammaticality of using ある, especially when spelled as 存る. As for the use of 存在する, this is the formal word for “to exist.”

Returning back to Ex. 31, 31a reflects how ある was widely used to express the existence of people in slightly older Japanese. In typical spoken language, this sentence would be rendered in various ways: by switching to いる, paraphrasing out the existential verb (31c), or using おる, which is a dialectal variant of いる that is incredibly common throughout Japan. 

31a. 大昔、ある所におじいさんとおばあさんがありました。

31b. 大昔、ある所におじいさんとおばあさんがいました。

31c. 大昔、ある所におじいさんとおばあさんが住んでいました。
31d. 大昔、ある所におじいさんとおばあさんがおりました。

Long time ago, there was an old man and an old woman.