帰る (kaeru) and 戻る (modoru): Are They Interchangeable?

At a high level, the verbs 帰る (kaeru) and 戻る (modoru) both mean ‘to return’, but there are some contexts in which they might seem interchangeable which leads to confusion about which verb to use. However, by looking closely at the specific meanings and nuances of each, you will be able to accurately differentiate and use them.

帰る (kaeru) means to go back to one’s home base. 戻る (modoru) means to return to where one was previously and is also used to indicate a return to a previous state. 帰る (kaeru) does not require the speaker and listener to have a shared knowledge of the point of arrival, whereas 戻る (modoru) does.

kaeru and modoru are indeed similar verbs and whole research papers have been written on the topic of their differences and whether they are interchangeable [1], [2]. In everyday speech, there are places in which they could be used interchangeably, and the speaker’s intended meaning would be understood either way, but strictly speaking, kaeru and modoru have different nuances which we will explore below.

帰る (kaeru)

To go back to one's home base with the nuance that arrival at one’s home base marks the end of a return journey and concludes the purpose of the original movement. Kaeru is almost exclusively used in reference to the movement of people, although it can also be used for vehicles that carry people [1].

帰 – homecoming, arrive at

Related words:
帰国 (kikoku) – returning to one’s home country
帰宅 (kitaku) – going home, returning home
回帰 (kaiki) – going full circle and returning to the start point

In one study [1], it was found that when a speaker uses kaeru, the most common point of arrival is ‘home’, as in one’s dwelling. But the interesting thing that emerged is that often, there is no specific destination mentioned, which in a Japanese sentence would be marked by the particles に (ni) or へ (he). This leads to the following observation:

“kaeru is a speaker-centered word that does not require a shared point of arrival [between the speaker and listener], meaning “a person progresses from the original state by going to or reaching a certain place”.

Ayaka Onodera

The ‘certain place’ is based on the concept that each person has a fixed place to exist in the world (a home base) [1]. The ‘speaker-centered’ argument stems from the following type of phrase 「お客さんが帰った」 “the customer(s) went home (left)”. This could be a statement made by the proprietor of a restaurant at the end of the night for example.

We do not know exactly where the customers go after leaving the restaurant, but the assumption from the speaker’s point of view is that they are eventually going to reach their home base, i.e., they will progress from the state of being in the restaurant, to new state once they reach their home base and the purpose of their movement will be complete.

Example sentences:
It's my daughter's birthday today, so I want to go home early.
Remote mine workers are allowed to go home for one week every month.
I have been in Japan for 5 months studying abroad, but I will be going back to my home country next month.
All the customers have all gone home, so let's clean up.

戻る (modoru)

1.	To return/go back to where one was previously. 
2.	To go back in the opposite direction from which one came. 
3.	Someone or something returns to one's original or previous state or nature. 
4.	Something returns to its original owner.

戻 – return, revert, resume, go backwards

In the first meaning, a person (or people) goes (go) back to a place that they had previously left in order to complete some objective. The place that they return to is not necessarily their final destination, there could be a subsequent movement thereafter. A common example is when somebody forgets something somewhere and needs to go back to get it.  Another example is when someone gets called back to a previous location.

Example sentences:
I forgot my umbrella at the restaurant. I’ll go back quickly and get it.
I got an urgent call from my boss at 9pm at night and had to return to the office.

With the second meaning, if a destination is not specified, a direction will be. And since the direction will be the one that you previously came from, you know where you are going back to. In this case, you have a goal of returning to a previous location, such as your starting point, or a point that you passed by (perhaps without noticing).

Example sentences:
The weather suddenly took a turn for the worse, so we decided to head back to the hotel.
This street is a dead end. Let's go back the way we came.

In the first and second meanings of modoru, a person does not stay at the place to which they have come because some external factor compels them to return to a previous location or to backtrack. The implication is essentially that they are caused to move in reverse in ongoing journey. In contrast, kaeru is a forward movement in which a person goes to their home base as their final destination which completes their journey [1].

The third meaning, returning to a previous state or nature is unique to modoru. Some common examples with this meaning are: 「元に戻る」which means going back to normal, returning to a previous topic in a conversation, and going back to square one or back to the drawing board when a plan does not work out.

Example sentences:
I want to go back to university for my master's degree.
My computer was behaving oddly, but when I restarted it, it went back to normal.
Our conversation seems to have strayed; can we please get back to the topic of customer satisfaction?
Let’s go back to the drawing board.

Another example is when an interruption happens during an activity or task in which you have to take a moment to take care of the interruption before going back to your activity/task. In these cases modoru very commonly co-occurs with the word 「いったん」(ittan) which means for a short time, briefly, or temporarily [2].

Example sentence:
The batteries in my wireless keyboard suddenly died. After taking a moment to replace them, I went back to working on my essay.

The third meaning also applies to first and fourth meanings. With the first meaning, when a person returns to where they previously were, they are also returning to a previous state by reaching that place [1]. With the fourth meaning, when the object returns to its owner, it returns to its original state of existence. A common example is when a lost or stolen object gets returned to its owner.

Example sentence:
My bike was stolen at the train station a few months ago, but the police caught the thief and finally it was returned to me.

One final observation is that when using modoru the location or state to which a person or object returns is very frequently explicitly stated and marked by the particles に (ni) or へ (he). The reason is that with modoru, the speaker and listener need to have a shared knowledge of the location or state in order to fully communicate meaning [1].


[1] Onodera, Ayaka. (2019). 「帰る」の意味分析─「戻る」「去る」との比較から─. Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University.

[2] Riggs, Hidemi. (2017). 「帰る」と「戻る」の使い分け:認知言語学的視点からの一考察. 日本語日本文学』第27号.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

Recent Posts