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Grammar detail: 間 - あいだ vs ま vs かん

間 - あいだ vs ま vs かん
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間 is a very common kanji (in fact, the 21st most common in Japanese), and it is encountered very early in any Japanese course. Each of its four Joyo readings (カン, ケン, あいだ and ま) are all typically introduced relatively early on. The on yomi are typically introduced as part of the very common words
じかん
時間
(time), and
にんげん
人間
(human being). But what about the kun yomi, あいだ and ま? Both appear to have similar meanings, so when should you use one or the other?
The basic guidelines are as follows:
  • あいだ is typically used when describing a literal time interval or physical space between things
  • ま is often used when the distinction is more figurative, in particular such as a period of time
  • あいだ is used when describing something that happens during something else
  • both ま and あいだ are used in specific set phrases, such as
    く,
    う or
    なが
    あいだ
  • かん is generally used when 間 is attached as a suffix, such as in
    いっしゅうかん
    一週間
    (one week long),
    こっかかん
    国家間
    (trans-national),
    がっこうかん
    学校間
    (intra-school) or
    ゆうじんかん
    友人間
    (between friends), meaning for ~ long, inter-, trans- or between etc
Below we provide examples of each of these cases.
In these sentences, the space / interval / room described has an actual physical presence:
たいよう
太陽
くも
あいだ
から
とつぜん
突然
あらわ
れた

The sun suddenly broke through the clouds.
その
かわ
りょうこく
両国
あいだ
なが
れている

The river flows between the two countries.
ぎょう
ぎょう
あいだ
もっと
けなさい

Leave more space between the lines.
In the set phrase
なが
あいだ
(a long time), the あいだ reading is used:
なが
あいだ
さがしていた
ほん
つかった

I found the book I had long been looking for.
In the following examples, the interval described relates to time. The latter two use the common set phrase
く, which means literally 'to put an interval' - to insert a pause (in a conversation etc.):
20
せいき
世紀
あいだ
こうしたことすべて
わった

In the course of the twentieth century all this changed.
その
きょうだい
兄弟
12
ねん
いて
まれた

The brothers were born twelve years apart.
かのじょ
彼女
ように
たばこ
煙草
つけた
As if to add a pause, she lit a cigarette.
Sometimes the distinction is not very clear, and in these situations both ま and あいだ may be appropriate. あいだ will give a more literal tone, ま will suggest a bigger, more figurative sense.
When the context is a period of time during which something occurred, rather than an interval between things, あいだ would be appropriate.
なつやすみ
あいだ
あの
やま
のぼりたいです
I want to climb that mountain during the summer holidays.
えている
あいだ
あたた
まれ

Warm yourself while the fire burns.
Here are some examples of 間 used as a suffix and read かん:
かのじょ
彼女
びょうき
病気
しゅうかん
週間
にゅういん
入院
した

Her illness kept her in hospital for six weeks.
こっかかん
国家間
ふんそう
紛争
へいわてき
平和的
かいけつ
解決
されなければならない

International disputes must be settled peacefully.
この
れっしゃ
列車
とうきょう
東京
はかたかん
博多間
はし
っている

This train runs between Tokyo and Hakata.
One final note: the けん reading of 間 is only used as part of specific words, such as
にんげん
人間
(human).
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Kanji used in this grammar

カン   ケン   あいだ interval, between   ま space, room   
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ジ   とき time, occasion   
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ジン   ニン   ひと person   
チ   お to put   
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ゴウ   ガッ   カッ   あ to fit, come together   あわす to match   あわせる to unite, join   
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チョウ   なが long   
イチ   イツ   ひと    ひと- one   
シュウ    a week   
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コク   くに country   
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カ   ケ   house   いえ    や    
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ガク   まな to learn   
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コウ    exam   
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ユウ   とも friend   
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タ   タイ   ふと fat   ふと to get fat, to put on weight   
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ヨウ    positive, male, sun   
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ウン   くも cloud   
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トツ   つ to poke   
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ゼン   ネン    resemble   
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ゲン    present   あらわれる to appear   あらわ to show   
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セン   かわ river   
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リョウ    both   
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ル   リュウ   ながれる to flow   なが to pour out, to flush    
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コウ   ギョウ   アン   ゆ    い to go   おこな to take place   
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クウ   から empty   あ to be empty   あける to empty, vacate   そら sky   
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ホン   book   もと origin   
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ケン   み to see   みえる to be seen; to appear   みせる to show   
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セ   セイ   よ the world   
キ    chronicle   
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ヘン   unusual   かえる to alter, change   かわる to change   
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ケイ   キョウ   elder brother; brother   あに elder brother   
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ダイ   テイ   デ   おとうと younger brother   
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ネン   とし year   
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セイ   ショウ    life   なま raw   いかす to enliven   いきる to live   いける to arrange flowers   うまれる to be born   う to give birth to   き pure, undiluted   お to grow, to sprout   はえる to grow, to sprout   はやす to grow, cultivate   
ヒ   かれ he   
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ジョ   ニョ   ニョウ   woman; female   おんな woman   め woman   
エン   けむり smoke   けむ to smoke (chimney etc.)   けむ smoky   
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ソウ   くさ grass   
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カ   fire   ひ    ほ-    
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サン   やま mountain   
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ネン   burn   もえる to be burning   も    もやす to make burn   
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ダン   あたた warm, genial   あたたかい warm   あたたまる to get warm   あたためる to heat   
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ヘイ   ビョウ   やまい illness   や to fall ill   
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キ   ケ    spirit   
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ニュウ   い to enter   はい to enter   いれる to put in   
イン    institution   
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フン   confused   まぎれる to be confused   まぎらわす to make confusing   まぎらわしい ambiguous, confusing   まぎらす to divert, distract   
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ソウ   あらそ to contend, to compete, to contest; to argue, to dispute   
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ヘイ   ビョウ   たい flat   ひら ordinary; flat   
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ワ   オ    peace, harmony   なご to be calmed down   なごやか calm, gentle   やわらぐ to be softened   やわらげる to soften; to alleviate   
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テキ   まと target   
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カイ   ゲ   と to untie, solve, resolve   とける to come undone, disappear   とかす to melt, dissolve   
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ケツ   きめる to decide   きまる to be decided   
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レツ    row   
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シャ   くるま car   
トウ   ひがし east   
キョウ   ケイ    capital   
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ハク   バク   doctor
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タ   おお many   
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ソウ   はし run   
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