You may think that saying “yes” and “no” would be the easiest thing you learn in a language. In Japanese, you probably learned that pretty quick. “Yes” is definitely easy. You’ve got hai (はい) when you want to be polite and un (うん) when you’re being more casual. Then you may have learned that you can say “no” with iie (いいえ), iya (いや), or uun (ううん). These words all work for saying “no,” but the indirectness of the Japanese language can make knowing when and how to say “no” pretty difficult, especially when you are learning Japanese online.

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How to Say “No” in Japanese

Let’s look at a few situations when you may want to say “no” in a more indirect sort of way in order to show respect and understanding of Japanese culture.

NO in Japanese 1 : That Sweet Hand Motion.

One thing you may not have learned through studying Japanese online or on your own is the hand motion for saying “no.” Yes, there is a hand motion. Yes, it is very useful. Yes, once you learn it, you will always do it for the rest of your life, even when speaking English. I even do it when I speak Chinese. I’m not sure if that’s right. But I do.

The hand motion is simple enough. Hold your hand up perpendicular to your face, like you’re going to karate chop something. Then move your hand left and right in a waving motion. Congratulations! You just said no in Japanese!

This hand motion is a nonverbal sign for “no” in Japanese. Even if you don’t say anything, you can use this to communicate the word “no,” even across a room from someone. You don’t need to shake your head, because the hand sign is enough.

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NO in Japanese 2 :“No, no.”

If you want to be polite (which is really good to do), you should try to make sure you never just say “no.” Saying iie (いいえ) in Japanese on its own can sound a little harsh. This doesn’t really fit because iie (いいえ) is more polite than iya (いや) and uun (ううん). You can say those ones on their own, but know that they sound a little less polite, and iya (いや) can come off as particularly blunt.

It’s better to group iie into pairs of iieiie (いいえいいえ) when using it on its own. This takes the edge off of it when you want to say no a bit more gently. You can use these words on their own and not sound harsh if you tack some sort of explanation on the end of them. Instead of saying a flat “no” when someone asks if your friend is American, you can say something like, Uun, furansu jin da yo.” (ううん、フランス人だよ) or “No, he’s French.” This sounds a lot better than just saying iie and leaving it there.

NO in Japanese 3 :“It is different.”

If someone gives you information, and you know it’s wrong, a good way to tell them that is using the verb chigau (違う). This word literally means something along the lines of “It is different,” so it can be a soft way to correct someone. This is also kind of a way to avoid blaming someone. In English, we might be more likely to say “You’re wrong,” where this word is putting emphasis on the correct answer being different, not the person being wrong.

Chigau can also be made more polite by conjugating it into chigaimasu (違います), and it can also take one of our basic words for “no” in front of it. You can be pretty polite when you tell someone they are wrong if you say something like, “Iie, chigaimasu. Watashi wa amerika jin desu.” (いいえ、違います。私はアメリカ人です。) or “No, that’s not right. I’m American.

NO in Japanese 4 :“No, I’m alright.”

There are some situations in Japanese culture where you need to say no, at least the first couple times. One big situation is when someone offers you something. If they are holding a cake out to you and saying, “Please eat this cake,” you are socially obligated to say no. No matter how good that cake looks or how hungry you are, the correct answer is no. You may be thinking, “But what if I really want the cake??” Don’t worry.

They will offer the cake again.

Yes, 99% of the time, the person offering you something will offer it again. They will probably be more insistent, saying things like “Douzo,” over and over again. You need to look at that cake, consider how much you want to eat it, and refuse again. Now you may be really concerned. How are you going to get this cake if you keep turning it down? You may be saying, “No, I’m alright,” but you don’t have the cake. How can you be alright? When do you get the cake? Your hand is waving no, but your heart is telling you that you have missed an opportunity for delicious cake.

And then they will offer the cake again.

It is now, on this third offer, that you can accept the cake with humble gratitude. This is a cultural thing that can definitely be hard to learn when learning Japanese online. But it’s also really important. In this situation, if you accepted the cake the first time it was offered, you could come across as very rude. I once made this mistake when offered ice cream, and the couple that offered it laughed and asked me how fat I had gotten in Japan. Accepting something on the first offer is just a little too direct for Japanese culture. Follow the rule of accepting things on the third offer, and you should be just fine. Except there may be that 1% that will only offer something once, usually because they see you aren’t Japanese, and they are trying to adhere to your culture instead.

NO in Japanese 5 :“It’s not that I don’t like it, but…”

Now the next question is, what if you don’t like cake? What if someone offers you something, and you really don’t want it? How do you actually turn something down without coming across as rude?

The answer is to be indirect. One of the most useful phrases I learned for turning down food offerings was “Kirai jya nai desu kedo…(嫌いじゃないですけど…) or “It’s not that I don’t like it, but…” Despite this translation, this sentence usually tells the listener that you don’t like something. It’s so indirect, it literally has the opposite meaning of what you are trying to say.

You can generally give an explanation like this when something is offered to you for the second time. It’s polite to just refuse something the first time, but once it is offered again, if you really don’t want it, you can give a little explanation like this and they will stop offering it to you.

NO in Japanese 6 :“That’s kinda…”

Being indirect isn’t just a way to say no to food you don’t like. You can say no indirectly by using incomplete sentences and letting the listener infer your reasoning based on context. For example, if your friend asks you to go to a concert with her tomorrow, and you either can’t go or don’t want to, you can tell her no just by saying something like, “Ashita wa…” (明日は…) or “Tomorrow is…” From this, she can guess that you are already busy. Maybe you have family obligations, maybe you’re taking your goldfish to the vet, or maybe you just want to roll around on the floor and watch TV instead. You don’t really need to give her a direct explanation because she will just assume you can’t go.

You can also throw other words in the mix like chotto (ちょっと) if you are being a bit less formal. If you’re doing a group project and your partner asks you to write the entire ten page essay by tomorrow and you know there’s absolutely no way that’s going to happen, you can say something like, Sore wa chotto” (それはちょっと…) which would translate to “That’s kinda…” or “That’s a little…” Your partner can guess whether you were going to finish that sentence with “…not fair.” or maybe “…not gonna happen.” or even “…impossible.” You don’t have to be that direct. Your indirectness and tone will tell them the answer is no.

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“No, no, no~”

Another interesting situation where you should definitely learn to say no is when someone tries to give you a compliment. This is kind of like when someone offers you food, except it is polite to always refuse to accept compliments.

The Japanese language is big on humility. When you speak, you always want to elevate the listener and keep yourself lower than them. It’s just basic Japanese etiquette. So when someone praises you or offers you a compliment, you need to refuse it.

There’s no need to be dramatic when refusing a compliment, and refusing it correctly can actually show the person you are grateful for the compliment, even if you don’t sound like it.

So when someone gives you a compliment, all you need to do is wave your hand in that useful gesture for no (this is to swat away any compliments before they stick to you) and say, Iie, iie, iie,” or “No, no, no.” For some reason, compliment refusals like this come in groups of three no’s.

If you say “Thank you,” to a compliment, you’ll come across as kind of prideful. This goes against what most English speakers learn. Compliments are nice and make people happy, so why wouldn’t you thank someone for a compliment? Don’t do it in Japanese. It makes you sound weird and maybe even a bit full of yourself if you aren’t careful.

The opposite also doesn’t work well. If you try too hard to fight against a compliment, someone might think you don’t really accept it. If they say something like “Wow, you must be a really good cook,” and you reply “No, I’m the worst cook in the entire world,” they will probably think you really think that and didn’t accept their compliment. Whereas if you just say “No, no, no,” and maybe blush a little bit, they’ll know you really appreciate the compliment.

Negative Questions

In English, there’s a big problem with negative questions. How do you answer them? If someone asks you, “Do you not like tomatoes?” what is the correct way to answer that? If you say yes, does that mean you do or don’t like tomatoes? What if you say no? Then you get into double negatives which are even worse. Obviously, there are linguistic answers to all these questions, but most of us get confused by these types of questions.

Luckily for us, Japanese doesn’t have this problem. But it may be a little counterintuitive for a native English speaker.

When someone asks you a negative question in Japanese, answering “yes” will confirm it and “no” will deny it.

So to take our tomato example from above, in Japanese someone may ask you, Tomato ga suki jya nai no?” (トマトが好きじゃないの?). If you answer “Hai,” you are saying “Yes, I do not like tomatoes.” If you say “Uun,” you are saying “No, I do like tomatoes.” You can also clarify if you are uncertain by actually saying whether or not you like them after answering yes or no.

Why Is This Important?

When you’re learning another language, a big chunk of that is going to be learning another culture. And when you learn a language like Japanese online, it’s especially important to learn those cultural quirks so you don’t feel awkward or out of place when you finally get to talk to native Japanese speakers in person.

Simple things, like knowing how to say “no,” can really help you feel more comfortable with the language. It can also help you understand better how the Japanese think and why they may say the things they say. A lot of these situations aren’t the same as what a native English speaker might do, so it’s important to be familiar with them to really get a grasp on Japanese.

Something as simple as learning how to say no can help you take your Japanese to the next level and help your Japanese sound closer to what native speakers use.

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