Saturday, June 23, 2012

Some basic words in Japanese: "no"

A common idea is that Japanese people (and Asian people in general) cannot say "no". This is a misconception even though it is true that they tend to use it less often and in another way compared to "western" people.

If your boss asks you: "could you do this for me?" then, effectively, "no" is not an option. I actually think there is not so many countries/companies where "no" is an option.

If your boss asks you: "was it Spain you went to last year?" and you went to Italy, then you should say "no". It would be stupid to say "yes", just because you think "no" does not exist in Japanese.

1) The theoritical "no"
Let's begin with the dictionary. Most will give you the translation いいえ iie (long i and ends with  e like the first e of Emily) for "no". However, this is not commonly used in situations where you would use "no" in English.

spain ni itta koto ga arimasuka
Have you ever been to Spain?

Iie, mada itta koto ha arimasen
No, not yet.

This is polite and theoretically correct. However this is not commonly used by Japanese people. We will see what would be more natural in the next section.

So when do Japanese people use いいえ? I wanted to say never, but I thought about it and there is a situation where Japanese people frequently use it. It is to reply to a "thank you", or a "sorry".

kore, arigatou
Thank you for this (for example for a gift).

いいえ、いいえ、別に。。。 (often shortened to いえ、いえ)
iie, iie, betsu ni ...
Don't worry, that was nothing.

shinpai sasete, gomenne
I am sorry I made you worry ("about me", for example).

いいえ、いいえ、大丈夫です。 (often shortened to いえ、いえ)
iie, iie, daijoubu desu
No problem.

2) In practice
  • 違う、違います chigau, chigaimasu (to make a mistake, be mistaken) is used instead of "no"

For example:
kyonen, spain ni ikimashita ne
Last year, you went to Spain, didn't you?

chigaimasu, Italia deshita
No, we went to Italy.

anata ga taberenai no ha, cabagge datta kke?
What was it again you did not like (to eat), cabbage?

Chigau, chigau, celery
No, no, celery.

  • まだ(です) is often used on its own, without いいえ
To use back the first example:
spain ni itta koto ga arimasuka
Have you ever been to Spain?

mada desu
Not yet.

3) Informal situation
In informal situation, a double tone mumbling will be used instead of いいえ. It is difficult to write it down as it is simply mumbling. People may write it うんう (hmm hm) but that does not give you a good idea of how to say it. Let's just say if the mumble is mono tonal, short and going down, it is the informal "yes", if it includes two sounds, then it is "no".

4) Nuances and degrees of no
Generally, Japanese people manage to guess the "no" without it being said simply by the way the other person reacts. A person who would act a bit passive, for example, could be showing his/her disappointment. Imagine that you are going with your Japanese girlfriend to Europe and plane tickets to Paris are too expensive. If you ask her "is it fine not to go to Paris?" or "can't we go to Paris another time" and she does not answer with a clear "yes", then this means "no". Only western guys would need a clear "no" in this situation to understand it is "no" (this may be more a guy/girl thing than a Japanese/western thing).

Otherwise, there are some degrees of yes and no.
I have listed some possible answers to "could you do this for me" kind of question, with the closest English meaning in practical:
- もちろん/mochiron/sure: this is a positive yes
- するよ/suru yo/I will do it (or other verbs depending on what you are asking for) : again, a positive yes

- OK: yes, but depending of the intonation it can be "no problem" or "I'll do it but that's really because of you"
- 頑張ります/ganbarimasu/I will try: this is the kind of "no, but as 'no' is not an option, this is the closest-to-true option I have". You should probably explain more why you need it, or ask if there is any problems with what you are asking for (there is, but you should not ask what they are, simply ask if there are some).
- ちょっと難しいかな/chotto muzukashii kana/It may be difficult: this generally means no.

- 無理だよ/muri da yo/It is impossible: no
- だめ/dame/never: no way
- いやです/iya desu/no: not even in your dreams (what on earth were you asking for?)

That was it for 'no'. I hope you understand better how to say 'no' in Japanese, or more specifically how to identify them when Japanese people say it.