Japanese

How to Say NO in Japanese

There is a popular saying that “there are 730 Japanese words for yes but none for no.” This isn’t really true however, and there are actually quite a few words that you can use, and today you’ll learn how to say no in Japanese.

In addition to the most common Japanese words for no, I’ll also go over a couple of useful phrases that you might find yourself using in different circumstances.

For example, if you want to decline an offer for more food or drink, there are certain polite phrases that are better to use instead of a flat out refusal.

Or when someone invites you to a movie, to a date, or just to hang out, and you either can’t do it, or you simply don’t want to. Again, there are nice ways to turn them down that won’t come across as harsh as a straight no.

The Japanese Words For No

The first way to say no that I want to cover is also the one that most students learn first. It’s a polite word that you should be able to use in any situation you find yourself in.

  • いいえ (iie) = no

This word is usually spelled in hiragana like I’ve listed above, but it does have a kanji that you could potentially run into while reading. The kanji is 否 and is commonly combined with other kanji to form compound words.

Here are some examples:

  • 否定 (hitei) = denial
  • 否決 (hiketsu) = rejection
  • 拒否 (kyohi) = refusal

Notice how the reading of the kanji gets changed in these compound words.

As a final note on this word, sometimes you will hear it repeated rapidly as in 「いえ、いえ」 which is a common way in Japanese to say “No, no, not at all” as a form of saying “you’re welcome” instead of the normal way.

The informal way to say no in Japanese is a little bit different.

  • いや (iya) = no

When compared to いいえ, the word いや is more common to hear in Japanese media such as manga, anime, or video games due to the more relaxed nature of casual talk between friends and such.

An English equivalent might be like saying “Nah, man.”

It’s also common to elongate the ending vowel in order to add emotion to it, such as イヤー (iyaa) when a person is yelling. In English it would be like saying “noooo!” or something.

Another word that sounds the same is 嫌 (iya) which means “disagreeable” or “unpleasant” and is often used to express a person’s dislike of a situation, person, or food (and so on).

For example, if you dad told you to marry the person you hated most, you might reply with this word.

  • 嫌だ!!絶対に!!(iya da!! zettai ni!!)
    (eww) NO!! Absolutely not!!

The last way to say no is also a casual word, and is often used by children and women.

  • ううん (uun) = no

The two things to keep in mind with this word are that, even though it is spelled with two う (u) vowels, it actually sounds a lot more like the English “mm” with a wavering tone.

Try to listen for it in the anime or TV shows you watch and then mimic it once you find it.

The other thing to know about this word is that if your shorten it to just うん (un) then it actually changes to the word yes in Japanese, which of course you don’t want to accidentally say when you mean the opposite.

And now we will get to the last word in this section.

  • だめ (dame) = not good / no

The word だめ gets used a lot in Japanese, and in appears in many grammar patterns as well. But the basic meaning of the word is “not good” and can be used to say no to someone when they ask a question or something that you think is a bad idea.

For example, if a friend asked if they can eat your last cookie, you might tell them だめ (dame) to say “no, don’t do that” which not only gives them a negative answer, but also suggests that their intention is “no good” or a bad idea.

Alright, that should cover it for the most common Japanese words that you can use to say no. Let’s move on to some other situations that would be better off utilizing alternative phrases when you want to turn someone down.

How To Decline An Offer Of Something

Many times people will offer you something, such as a drink or piece of candy, and for whatever reason you need to decline it, but want to do so politely.

Maybe you’re on a diet, or the thing they offered you is gross and you just don’t want to put it in your body. I can appreciate that fact.

Anyway, in English we would typically say something along the lines of “No, thank you” to turn down this request, and as it turns out there is a similar phrase that you can use in Japanese.

  • 結構です (kekkō desu) = No thank you

This literally says something like “it is sufficient” which is an indirect way of saying “I’m fine” or “no thank you” in Japanese.

As a culture side note, when you are having a meal in Japan is customary for other people to refill your drink. If you’ve had enough, then you can simply leave your cup full as a way to let other people know you are finished.

If you keep emptying it though, they will keep refilling it!

Now let’s get to a lesser polite way to say that you don’t need or want something.

In Japanese the word 要る (iru) means “to be needed” or “to be wanted” and can be used when you want to say something like “I need $5 to buy some more bacon” and whatnot.

Well, as it turns out the negative version of this word gets used a lot in casual situations to say that you don’t want or need something that is being offered to you.

  • 要らない (iranai) = I don’t need it

But this word often gets shortened down even further to just 要らん (iran) in order to say “don’t need it” to whatever a person is giving you.

So maybe a person picked up a dirty penny off of the ground and asked you if you would like it. This would a situation where you could shake your head and say 要らん.

But personally, I always accept free money so I would say hell yeah!

How To Turn Down An Invitation From Someone

Have you ever been invited to hang out with something who you really just didn’t like all that much? Or what about a time when you’re busy with other things, and a friend wants to hang out, but you don’t have the time?

In America, we tend to value directness in these kinds of situations and let the other person know clearly, although kindly, that we can’t hang out or attend the event.

But in Japan, there is a much greater emphasis on communicating through the use of ambiguity and speaking in a roundabout sort of way.

One way that this appears often is in turning down invitations to other people for parties, dates, events, and the like.

Usually, the person who is saying “no” won’t actually say it directly, as that would be far too harsh and forward. So instead they use a few key phrases which we will cover now.

Keep in mind that when a Japanese person says these, what they are really doing is turning down the invitation, and most of the time the other person catches the hint and drops the issue.

But if you’re an American, or from another part of the world that is pretty forward (*cough!* *Germany!*), then you might miss the unspoken message. So after reading this part, you should be able to tell when the other person is actually turning you down.

  • ちょっと (chotto) = a little

This first word is probably the most common one, and if you hear it used, then you can safety assume that it is a “no” from the other person.

Usually it is part of a phrase that says something like, “I’d love to, but it would be a little hard to due to my obligations, so I will have to pass this time.” Here’s an example to show what I mean.

  • 日曜日、映画に行きませんか? (nichiyōbi, eiga ni ikimasen ka?)
    Won’t you go the the movies with me on Sunday?
  • あ、日曜日はちょっと… (a, nichiyōbi wa chotto…)
    Ah, Sunday is a little…

By using ちょっと in this way, you are allowing the other person to save face and avoid any damage to their ego because you are in essence saying that “it’s no YOU, it’s the situation…” as the reason for why you can’t join them.

There are a couple of other words that can be used in this same way to gently turn an invitation down.

  • きびしい (kibishii) = tough
  • むずかしい (muzukashii) = difficult

It’s pretty normal to see either of these words combined with ちょっと to say something along the lines of:

  • ちょっとむずかしいかも… (chotto muzukashii kamo...)
    That might be a little difficult…

Saying No By Using A Verb’s Negative Form

Something that happens more often in Japanese than in English is repeating a verb in its negative form as a way of saying that you did not do something.

So if a person asked you if have already eaten lunch, rather than say いいえ, you could also just say:

  • まだ食べていない (mada tabete inai)
    (no) I haven’t eaten yet

These sorts of situations are common when the question being asked is centered around a verb. Then you can use that same verb in your reply, and just change the form of it to reflect the reality of the situation.

  • メキシコに行ったことがある? (mekishiko ni itta koto ga aru?)
    Have you ever been to Mexico?
  • 行ったことがない。 (itta koto ga nai.)
    (no) I’ve never been.

Or in the case of this last reply, it can be shortened even further to just.

  • ないです。 (nai desu.)
    Nope.

So As It Turns Out, There ARE Ways To Say No

I’ve read on the internet (so it much be true) something along the lines that these words don’t 100% line up with the English word for “no” and so if you think about it that way, then Japanese might just not have this word.

But I think that’s going a little too far into the nitty and gritty details of the differences between languages.

The truth is that very few languages line up with others. What we need to do is understand the basic meaning of words, know how to use them, and them get lots of exposure to them so that out brains can learn to use them naturally.

I encourage you all to pick a couple of these words and practice them until you memorize them, and then continue on with your language learning journey.

Do you know any other words for no? What are some creative ways you’ve been turned down by others?

6 Comments

  • Dana

    I really enjoyed this article. We have a language learning website ourselves, and while it is not directed at one language in particular, I’m especially drawn to Japanese because our son has spent years living in Japan. He, too, is very much a fan of anime. He tries to explain the Japanese language to me, as he teaches English to them, so your article holds special meaning to me. Best wishes on your quest.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey thanks! That is super cool that you guys are teaching languages too! I often read other people’s sites myself to look for more and better ways for people to learn. After all, lots of other people have methods that work, so they are worth giving a try.

      And that is awesome that your son knows Japanese and teaches English! A man after my own heart, haha!

  • Judy

    Nick,

    It was interesting to learn that there are so many ways to say “No” in Japanese. I enjoyed reading the post.

    As you said, it is better to know than to need to know. I can see how lack of knowledge could be embarrassing for someone or possibly cause them to get into trouble.

    I wouldn’t want to say the wrong thing to my boss. Good tips for travelers.

  • Steve & Kris

    I had no idea there were so many ways to say “No” in Japanese. Very interesting that there are so many applications. If you think about it, in English, depending on how you say the word, it can mean many different things. I understand English is one of the hardest languages to learn, because of all the nuances. “No” can be discipline, or unsure, or funny. It just depends on the circumstances.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I’ve also heard that English can be very hard to learn. Lots of nuances and it doesn’t follow its own rules. It’s pretty cool to see how Japanese is similar to English, and also how it’s different!

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