What do you do when two Japanese words seem to mean the same thing? Learn about the nuances, of course. 

Some basic words in Japanese can be the hardest to get down correctly, and in this article we’re going to tackle a couple of them. 

Differences between Wakaru and Shiru

わかりません(wakarimasen) means "I don't know"?
しりません(shirimasen) means "I don't know"?

One of the first things you learn how to say in Japanese is “I don’t know,” or “Wakarimasen” (分かりません). But wait, doesn’t the word “shiru” (知る) also mean “to know?” Couldn’t you also say “Shirimasen?” You kind of can’t, and we’re going to talk about why. 

Let’s Talk About Wakaru (分かる) in Japanese

We’re going to start with the word you probably learned first. “Wakaru” can be translated as “to know,” “to understand,” “to comprehend,” “to grasp,” and like a million other things. It’s a really useful verb to know. To wakaru! (I’m sorry, please ignore my bad jokes.)

The biggest thing to understand with “wakaru” is that you are gaining knowledge or understanding through your own efforts. You can understand a language or school subject through study. You can understand feelings, your personal potential for doing something, a cause for something, or anything else you can know, comprehend, or grasp. 

Maybe a few examples will help to illustrate this. You can say “I understand math,” by saying “Suugaku ga wakaru” (数学が分かる。). You can say “I understand how you feel,” with “Sono kimochi wo wakarimasu” (その気持ちを分かります。). You can say “I don’t know if I can do that,” with “Dekiru ka dou ka wakaranai” (出来るかどうか分からない。)

Anything that requires you to personally put in effort to know or understand can use the verb “wakaru.” That’s why “Wakarimasen” is such a useful phrase for beginners to learn. It almost means “I haven’t figured it out yet.”  

Let’s Talk About Shiru (知る) in Japanese

“Shiru” is different because it is information you get from an outside source. “Shiru” is translated as “to be aware of,” “to know,” or “to be conscious of.” This is more of a fact-based version of the English word “to know.”

You won’t need to put in effort to study and somehow understand someone’s phone number. You just ask them or look it up. It’s information you acquire from an outside source. 

“Shiru” is also used in basic questions like “Do you know Mr. Tanaka?” or “Tanaka-san wo shitteimasu ka” (田中さんを知っていますか。). You would get your information about Tanaka-san from Tanaka-san himself, if you knew him. 

If you were to use “wakaru” instead of “shiru,” it would change the sentence into, “Do you comprehend Tanaka-san?” While you can say it, the meaning is completely different. Comprehending Tanaka-san would definitely take a lot more personal reflection and effort than just knowing who he is.

As you may have noticed with my example, “shiru” often takes the form “shitteiru.” In fact, I’d wager that you’ll hear “shitteiru” way more than “shiru.” Changing this verb to “shitteiru” makes it stative (ooh, a fancy grammar term!). This means it’s describing a state of being. In English, “to know” is also stative. You aren’t putting any sort of action into the verb. You just exist in a state where you know. 

It’s much more common to use this verb as a stative, since it is describing someone’s awareness of information. Either they know it, or they don’t. Usually action isn’t involved in that. 

The tricky thing is that usually when you say “shiru” in the negative, you don’t change it to the “-teiru” form. So if you don’t know Tanaka-san, you would say either “Shiranai” (知らない) or “Shirimasen” (知りません), depending on the formality of the conversation. 

Slang Note: If you wanna be a cool kid, these words have some different colloquialisms, mostly for negative responses. Instead of “Wakaranai,” I’ve heard “wakanai” and “wakaran.” In Kansai they say “wakarahen.” For “Shiranai” I’ve heard “shiran.” You kind of just mumble the actual word or cut it short to make it slang. But don’t do that in front of your boss. These are very informal versions of these words. 

Throw Away Your English Instincts

Well, you don’t need to completely throw away your English, of course. But you should ignore it when trying to understand these two words. 

Both of these words are covered by the English verb “to know.” But if you try to focus on the English translations of these, you may end up just picking one and using it in every situation. That will make you wrong half the time, and your Japanese will sound weird. Trust me, I have some friends who have done that.

As always, listening is going to be your best friend. Try to listen for situations when native speakers use “wakaru” and “shiru,” and you’ll start to pick it up. You’ll also be able to pick up the common conjugations, which will help you realize how it can sound weird to say “shitteinai.” 

Having an understanding of basic verbs like this will really help elevate your Japanese. Using the right verb in the right way will always help your Japanese sound more fluent.

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