Think about the last time you agreed or disagreed with someone.
Without much thought, you may have given a non-verbal answer, such as giving a thumbs-up or shaking your head in disapproval. You may have even given a one-word answer like “Sure” or “Nah.”
There are several ways to agree and disagree in English. The same is true in Japanese.
But while you may be quite liberal with your tone and word choice in English, it’s not so simple in Japanese.
When speaking Japanese, you must use the right word at the right moment, or else you’ll risk offending someone.
Choosing the right words or actions may appear difficult, especially in a foreign language. But that’s where I’m here to help!
In this post, you’ll learn how to say yes or no in any Japanese-speaking situation, whether you’re with important colleagues, your closest friends or anyone else.
Agree to Disagree: How to Say Yes and No in Japanese
Tips and Tricks for Saying No in Japanese
Learning how to say no is a vital skill you need in any language. In Japanese, it can be a bit difficult. There are significant cultural differences to consider when refusing someone or something.
The Basic Word for No: いいえ
When learning Japanese, you’ll hear the sound “no” in both Hiragana and Katakana. In Hiragana, it appears as の and in Katakana as ノ. These characters represent the sound “no” and shouldn’t be mistaken for disagreement.
The basic word for “No” in Japanese is いいえ. This word is the most straightforward way to say no but is rarely used because it often comes off as too blunt.
While there are many ways to say no in Japanese, saying いいえ is a simple term that leaves out any errors in interpretation.
Why You Should Say No Without Actually Saying “No”
While there’s a simple way to say “No,” it’s also a big “no-no.”
Politeness and respect are important aspects of Japanese culture. Bluntly telling your boss “No” when you can’t make time for a project is seen as highly disrespectful and offensive. Instead, it’s better to apologize or state that it’d be difficult, instead of saying “No.”
Saying No in Formal Settings
There may be times when you have to disagree with someone you respect, like a teacher or manager. Even if you’re on friendly terms with a higher-up, it’s still important in Japanese culture to use the right words and expressions so no one feels offended. This is even more important in business situations, as it helps both parties save face to avoid any embarrassment.
Some polite words and phrases you can use without coming off too strong include:
難しいです。(むずかしい です。) — It’s difficult.
考えておきます。(かんがえて おきます。) — I’ll think about it.
結構です。(けっこう です。) — No, thank you.
These phrases can be combined with other terms to sound more formal:
ちょっと難しいです。(ちょっと むずかしい です。) — That’s a little difficult.
If you’re having a drink with co-workers, but don’t want a refill, you can also say:
大丈夫です。(だいじょうぶ です。) — No, thanks.
While these phrases will help you in front of superiors, it’s also important how you say them. Of course, you never want to yell or cause a scene. Saying the phrase and gently trailing off at the end will make the phrase sound more gentle and less assertive.
Saying No Around Friends and Family
When around friends and family, you can express yourself more freely without worrying about losing your job. Although いいえ may be too blunt for even the best of friends, there are more informal terms to use when disagreeing.
There are a few simple words and phrases you can use to express disagreement with those who know you best. A few terms include:
ううん — No.
いや — No!
だめ — No good!
違う (ちがう) — That’s wrong.
ちょっと… — Well… / That’s a little…
These are informal ways to say no and shouldn’t be used in polite company.
Utilizing Apologies to Decline Offers and Invitations
There may come a time when you’re invited to an event but can’t make it because you have other plans. Instead of saying “No” and embarrassing your friend, you can apologize.
One simple phrase that can double as “No” and “I’m Sorry” is すみません (I’m sorry). You can combine すみません with ちょっと for an even softer apology:
すみませんが、ちょっと… — I’m sorry, but that’s a little…
Refusing by Vaguely Saying No
Another inoffensive way to refuse an offer is to repeat the main subject and add ちょっと:
仮面ライダーを見ませんか？ (かめんらいだーを みませんか？) — Do you want to watch Kamen Rider?
仮面ライダーはちょっと… (かめんらいだーは ちょっと…) — Kamen Rider? Well…
The way you say ちょっと is vital here. You’ll have to trail off at the end of the word ちょっと so it doesn’t sound too harsh. This will let the listener know you’re refusing while also saving them some embarrassment.
Using the Negative Form of a Verb to Say No
Another way to say no without saying “No” is by using the negative form of a verb.
テレビを見ますか？ (てれびを みますか？) — Do you watch TV?
テレビを見ません。(てれびを みません。) — I do not watch TV.
This way of saying no isn’t for everyone because it’s more than memorizing a simple phrase. Conjugating verbs into their negative forms will take some practice because there are a variety of rules to consider.
Speaking with Actions to Say No
In casual settings, a gesture may be all you need to say no. Crossing your arms into an “X” is one example.
Often used in the workplace, sucking or hissing through the teeth or rubbing the back of the neck usually means no. Even a long pause and a sigh can mean no. These aren’t meant to be rude gestures, but rather, are non-verbal ways of disagreeing.
Tips and Tricks for Saying Yes in Japanese
Similar to saying no in Japanese, there are many ways to say yes. Yes is less tricky than no, because you run less risk of offending someone. However, there are still a few phrases that should be used in casual, rather than formal, settings.
The Basic Word for Yes: はい
One of the first Japanese words you may have learned is はい. This term is the most basic way to say “Yes” in Japanese.
Other times, はい doesn’t translate to a simple “Yes.” In many cases, はい is used as a confirmation, like saying “Correct.” This will depend on the context of the situation.
The Japanese language has terms that can be interpreted in a variety of ways with various levels of politeness. If you’re unsure if you should say はい or another term, it’s best to keep it simple.
The word はい can be used in any context, either with friends or colleagues. So, when in doubt, just use はい.
Saying Yes Around Friends and Family
While you can use はい with anyone and still sound polite, you can relax around friends and family.
There are multiple words you can use to say yes:
そう — Yeah.
うん — Yes.
ああ — Yeah.
One term to watch out for is ええ. Although ええ means yes, it’s used more by women than by men.
Emphasizing Agreement with Short Phrases
If a single word isn’t enough to express your agreement, there are a variety of phrases that can be used to express agreement in Japanese.
そうです。— That’s right.
うん、もちろんです。— Yes, of course.
When Yes Means No
If learning the right ways to say “Yes” and “No” wasn’t confusing enough, sometimes “Yes” can mean “No,” depending on the context.
In this example, the one-word affirmative response can be interpreted as “Yes, there is soda” or “No, there is no soda.”
ソーダがありませんか？— Isn’t there any soda?
Adding additional information will make your answer clearer:
はい、ソーダがあります。— Yes, there is soda.
いいえ、ソーダがありません。— No, there is no soda.
Knowing how to say yes and no are important parts of learning Japanese. With this basic guide, you’ll be able to know when to nod in agreement or how to politely decline an awkward invitation while staying respectful and not hurting anyone’s feelings.
While it may seem confusing at first, practice makes perfect. But don’t feel afraid to use a simple はい or いいえ when you need to clearly express “Yes” or “No.”
And One More Thing…
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Lisa Nguyen is an illustrator, comic creator and freelance writer. She writes about video games, Japanese entertainment, and tokusatsu. Follow her on Twitter @siroria.
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