Today I’m going to be covering how to say only in Japanese. As it turns out, there are quite a few different words in Japanese that get translated into “only” when you look them up in English.
Hopefully I can help shed some light on which words these are and when it’s a good time to use them. I’ve tried to be as concise as I can while still keeping explanations and examples simple (and therefore easy to understand).
If at any point you’re not sure about something, please feel free to let me know in the comments section at the end.
Using だけ and のみ
For this first section I’m going to be going over the two Japanese words だけ (dake) and のみ (nomi).
The first word だけ is typically used when referring to a small number (quantity) of something.
For example, let’s say that you just showed up at a friend’s party and you’re expecting there to be around 20-30 people in total. When you ask your friend how many people are here, they tell you “only three people.”
- san nin dake desu.
- It’s only three people.
In this way you can see how a larger number of people were expected, and so the word “only” emphasizes the small number.
Another example might be if a person asked you how many hours of TV you watch per week and you reply with “only 2 hours” you’re indicating that this number is low when compared to the average amount other people watch.
- ni jikan dake
- only two hours
Alright, let’s check out the other word now.
The Japanese word のみ means the exact same thing as だけ but the difference is that のみ is typically used in writing and in literary works, whereas だけ is more common in spoken Japanese.
Using しか and Negative Verbs
The Japanese word しか (shika) is an interesting one because it means “only” just like all the other words we’re covering in this article, but this one must be combined with a negative verb.
Because of this, I feel that it’s easier to understand this word as meaning “nothing but” within the context of a sentence. Let’s take a look at an example to see this now.
- mizu shika arimasen deshita.
- There was nothing but water.
- There was only water.
As you can see from the two English translations, they both mean the same thing. The difference is that the first one draws extra attention to the fact that all other things were absent.
If you imagine going into the store to get a drink and you see that every single thing is sold out and empty except for water, then you begin to see how this one works.
For whatever reason, this is one word that took me a while to really understand. I think it’s because of the negative verb ending that gave me trouble in understanding that this word can be interpreted as “only” in English.
The word しか is actually a Japanese particle and it can be combined with verbs to say that you have to do the verb. It’s kind of like saying that there is only one choice.
- iku shika nai.
- There’s nothing to do but go.
- The only option is to go.
N1-Grammar with に限り
For those of you who are planning on taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), you might be particularly keen on learning this next word if you’re intending on taking the N1.
The word in question is に限り (ni kagiri) and there is actually a fantastic YouTube video on it (all in Japanese) that not only explains how it works, but also provides some example sentences.
If that’s something that interests you, then check it out by watching the below video. If not, then skip below and I will summarize how this word works.
The word に限り effectively functions just like the word だけ except that it is generally used to transmit information in an official manner.
For example, you might see a sign at the hot springs that says 女性に限り (josei ni kagiri) that means “women only.”
Because of the way that it’s typically used, this word is seen as stiff and kind of formal. You wouldn’t want to use it when talking to people, but if you had to write a note for other people to see then it would be a good word to choose.
When “Only” Means “Merely”
Sometimes we use the word only in English when what we really mean is merely. Normally I wouldn’t split hairs like this, but this distinction is actually important when you want to use the correct Japanese word.
There are three Japanese words that can all fall into this category of “only; merely” meanings.
- わずか (wazuka)
- ただ (tada)
- たった (tatta)
The first one is used when there is a small quantity of something.
- wazuka go funkan
- merely (only) five minutes
This word isn’t strictly limited to numbers however, and you’ll see it used with other things. There is also a kanji 僅か that occasionally gets used, so keep that in mind.
The second word is typically used when something is ordinary or common. It can be understood as the English word “just.”
- tada no messenjā desu.
- It’s just (only) the messenger.
The third and final word can be understood as “no more than” which is kind of a roundabout way of saying only.
- tatta hitotsu no hōsoku
- only one law
- no more than one law
Hopefully these explanations and examples are clear enough to help you understand them. If not, just let me know and I’ll try to find some better ones.
Only One Word Left
The last word that I wanted to share is 唯一 (yui itsu) and it of course means “only” like all the other words we’ve gone through, but the main difference is that this last word means “sole.”
We use this word in English phrases such as:
- the sole reason
- the sole heir
- the sole survivor
As you can see, in each of these cases we could replace sole with only and they would mean the same thing.
- yui itsu no sentakushi
- The only option (choice)
That’s all I’ve got for today’s post. Let me know if you have any questions or comments. Thanks!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: