The Many Meanings of “Hai” : One of the first things you probably learned to say in Japanese is “hai” (はい). Even a lot of people who don’t know any Japanese at all still know that’s the word for “yes.” It’s right up there with well-known Japanese words like “konnichi wa” and “arigatou.”
However, “hai” doesn’t always mean yes. How could the word for “yes” not always mean yes? We’ll take a look at that in this article, and explain the different ways you can use “hai” in Japanese conversations.
Hai(はい) Means “Yes”
This is probably a bit obvious, but “hai” can be used to say “yes.” This is the most straightforward translation, and a lot of times it is used like the English “yes.”
“Hai” is a good way to say “yes” in any sort of formal situation. For less formal conversations, you can always use “ee” or “un,” depending on the situation and your speaking style, but “hai” will always work.
Another way you can translate “hai” in this context is “that is correct.” It’s a confirmation of whatever the speaker said before. This explanation sounds a lot like I’m just explaining the word “yes,” but you’ll see the distinction in the next section.
Hai(はい) Means “No”
When “hai” is used as confirmation, it can actually mean “no.” This happens with negative questions.
Negative questions can be really confusing in English. If someone asks you “You didn’t go, right?” it’s hard to know how to answer. Does “yes” mean you did or didn’t go? Who knows? Well, people who know the correct way to answer a negative question with proper English grammar know, but for the rest of us it can be very confusing.
Japanese doesn’t have this problem, and it has to do with the “that is correct” translation of “hai.” If someone asks you “Aren’t you coming tomorrow?” they might say something like “Ashita konai no?” (明日来ないの？). In English, you could say “yes” and mean “Yes, I’m coming.” But in Japanese when you say “hai,” it means “That is correct, I’m not coming.”
You can confirm negative questions with “hai,” and dispute them with “iie.” This might feel backwards from English, so it’s important to keep this in mind when answering negative questions in Japanese. When in doubt, you can clarify what you mean by saying something like “Hai, kimasen” (はい、来ません: That’s right, I’m not coming).
Hai(はい) Means “What?”
This is probably the use of “hai” Japanese language learners are the least familiar with. “Hai” can be used when you don’t understand someone to ask “what?” or “come again?”
This works when you don’t understand the meaning of what they said and you want to express your confusion. But it also works if you just misheard someone. If they’re speaking quietly, or you didn’t quite catch what they said for some reason, saying “hai?” with a questioning tone will prompt them to repeat what they said.
You can also use “hai” in this way when someone is trying to get your attention. If you go to someone working in a grocery store and say “Sumimasen” to talk to them, they might turn and say “hai” to show they are listening to you. We sometimes do this in English by saying “Yes?” with a questioning tone.
It’s Aizuchi (相槌)
I talked about aizuchi in a previous article (this one), and I mentioned “hai” along with all the other words for yes. Aizuchi are interjections you use when someone else is speaking to show them you are listening.
When used as an aizuchi, “hai” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes.” It just means you’re listening. It’s a great aizuchi to use in formal situations, especially for phone calls or business exchanges. And don’t worry, it sounds a lot more natural in Japanese than repeating “yes” over and over again in English.
It Means Other Things Too
There are a few other ways “hai” is used in Japanese. I’ve heard it used kind of like the word “alright” in some more casual contexts. For example, if you told your roommate you’re going to the store ten minutes ago, and you’re finally getting around you it, you could say, “Hai, ikimasu.” You can draw out the “hai” to make it sound even a bit more casual.
It can also be used to show a bit of uncertainty if you use the right tone. In English, if we’re tentatively agreeing to something, we might say “Alright…” or “Okay…” and trail off to show uncertainty. You can express the same feeling by saying “Hai…” with a more cautious tone.
“Hai” is also used when someone is taking attendance. In English, we tend to say “Here,” or “Present,” when our name is called, but in Japanese they say “hai.”
There’s probably a few other meanings I’ve missed, but these are the ones I’ve noticed when speaking with Japanese people. It always helps to pay attention during conversations so you can pick up on the different ways native speakers use words like “hai.”