Let’s learn how to use different Japanese words that mean to return to the original state or location: 返る, 戻る, and 帰る.
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Used for: states
It means that something, once its state has changed, returns to its previous state. (It also has other meanings, such as “to turn over.” We skip them here.)
“My three-year-old daughter started crying a lot since her brother was born as if she had turned back into a baby.”
*My daughter, who went from baby to toddler to preschooler, started acting like a baby, which is her old state.
It also means that a thing is returned to its original owner. When a borrower returns something borrowed, the transitive verb (他動詞) 「返す」is used.
“Can you give me back the comic book I lent you the other day anytime soon?”
Used for: locations
While 「返る」 means that the state of things returns to its previous state, 「引き返す」 means that a person or vehicle changes its plans and returns to its previous location because of some problem or obstacle during its travel or immediately after its arrival at its destination.
“Due to bad weather, the plane turned back to Narita Airport.”
*In this case, 「引き返す」 is used because the airplane returned to its original location (Narita Airport, the departure airport) due to bad weather conditions. Although there is no problem in using 「戻る」, which is introduced next, 「引き返す」 gives more of an impression of referring to the impact of the reason for the return.
Used for: states or locations or both
It means that once a state or location has changed, it returns to its previous location or state. When expressing a return to a location, it does not necessarily have to return to the starting point. It can also be used to retrace a few steps along the path you have walked so far, as in the following example sentence.
“I guess I dropped my keys somewhere. Let’s go back this way and look for them.”
This verb also means that a thing is returned to its original owner. The transitive verb 「返す」 is used when an individual returns something that was borrowed; on the other hand, the transitive verb「戻す」is often used when the subject is a government, financial institution, or company that has received too much money to return it to its rightful owner.
“If you go through the procedures at the duty-free counter, you will get the money back for the consumption tax.”
Used for: locations
It mainly means that a person returns or goes to the place he or she originally belongs. When simply saying 「帰る」, it often means to go back to one’s home. As the place you originally belong, you can also use your country, hometown, or company.
“I want to leave (go home) early today.”
*When the speaker doesn’t mention the location, it basically means going home.
“I hope the war is over, and they can return to their homeland as soon as possible.”
「返る」 and 「戻る」 are synonyms, meaning almost the same thing when talking about a state, but used in different idiomatic situations.
(A person who had fainted) to regain consciousness; (A person who has been in an unusual state of mind due to being obsessed or concentrating on something) suddenly regains his/her calm and returns to his/her normal state.
“I thought about what he had said in a daze but was brought back to myself by the sound of the phone.”
To remember how you felt when you decided to start a certain thing and approach things anew with that feeling in mind.
「私が日本語を勉強するきっかけになったこのドラマを見ると、初心に返ることができる。」 “Watching this drama, which inspired me to study Japanese, reminds me of how I felt in the beginning and motivates me to work hard again.”
(A couple once separated) to be in a relationship (marriage) again.
*より (Yori) is several thin strands of thread or other thin material twisted together. It is an idiom to put the once separated and untwisted threads back together again (in a romantic relationship).
“Huh? Did you get back together with her after such a terrible breakup?”
To start again.
*振り出し (Furidashi) means the starting point of a Japanese board game called Sugoroku, and it is a term used to describe starting all over again, mainly due to negative causes. Originally, it means to return to the “starting point” physically, but it also means to return to the “starting state”.
“Now that her alibi was proven, the investigation was back to square one (they need to start over from scratch).”
「戻る」is not only a physical move back, but also includes the nuance that the state of a person (or a thing) also returns to its previous state accordingly. Therefore, each of the following example sentences has a slightly different nuance.
“to move back to the homeland”
It includes the nuance of a person who has lived in Japan returning to his/her home country to live.
“to move/go back to the homeland”
It means that a person who has been living in Japan is returning to his/her home country, but it does not mention whether it is a temporary return for vacation or he/she moves to the home country.
“to turn back to the homeland”
This refers to a person who was going to come to Japan and urgently returns to his/her home country due to some problem like a visa failure or the death of a relative.
For example, if you were coming to Japan from Germany to study, and a Japanese person asked you the following questions:
He asks when you will return to your home country after finishing your school course in Japan.
He asks when you plan to return temporarily to your home country, e.g., for your next vacation.
*実家 (jikka) means parents’ house.
“(Get divorced and ) to move back to the parent’s home”
It indicates that a person who once lived apart from his or her parents due to marriage, going to college, etc., returns to his or her parent’s home to live there again. When a person who has lived apart from his or her parents after marriage says 「実家に戻る」, it often implies that he or she is divorced.
“to visit the parents’ home”
It simply refers to moving back to parent’s houses. It mainly refers to temporarily returning to his/her parent’s home for a vacation. It can also be used when returning to his/her parent’s home to live there, but the term does not refer to whether it is temporary or not.
“(Something unscheduled happened and) to turn back to the parents’ home”
It indicates that a person is in a hurry to return to his/her parents’ home while traveling from his/her parent’s home to a certain destination, or after arriving there, due to certain obstacles.
「返る」：To return to the original state.
「戻る」：To return to the original state or place, or both. The location can be anywhere a person was before now.
「帰る」：The return of a person to a place. The place is limited to the place to which the person belongs (home, country, hometown, office, etc.).
「引き返す」：To return to the starting point urgently due to some obstacle on the way to the destination or shortly after arriving there.