Living in Japan

How to Politely Say No in Japanese

Saying “no” in Japanese can be considered an art form, as the indirect nature of the language and cultural norms make it difficult to refuse something or someone. Here’s how to say no gracefully, while conveying what you need to.

Author: Jasmine Ortlieb

The word “no” in Japanese is いいえ (iie), but when it comes down to actually refusing something or someone, more thought and planning is involved than you may imagine. On top of this, the word “no” is often not mentioned at all!

While the best way rejecting something or someone varies on the situation and the people involved, there are certain phrases and keywords to use that clearly convey “no.” This article introduces how to say no so that you can make your stance firmly without being rude in any situation.

1. Don’t Say the Word “No”

Instead of directly saying no, more often than not, conveying an excuse first is acceptable when making a refusal. Coming up with an excuse sometimes can be difficult, but you don’t have to be too specific–in certain situations, being indirect will work.

Simply using a keyword like “ちょっと” (chotto) will convey to your partner hesitation, difficulty, and get the message across that you can’t fulfill their request.

明日はちょっとはちょっと… (ashita wa chotto…) Tomorrow isn’t good.

今夜こんやはちょっと… (konya wa chotto…) I can’t go tonight…

Keep in mind that this usage of “ちょっと” is entirely different than “slightly” or “brief,” as it implies complete negation.

Other descriptors that can be used in addition to ちょっと include:

大変たいへん (taihen)
きびしい (kibishii)
むずかしい (muzukashii)
・だめ (dame), typically used in close relationships

These descriptors can also be used conveniently get out of something you don’t want or can’t do while maintaining politeness, without actually saying the word “no.”

As mentioned above, in most cases, even just mentioning these words will let the inviting party know that you are saying no, making just these phrases sufficient–but be sure to have an actual reason why you’re refusing, just in case.

2. Be Polite About It

When you do refuse someone, you will want to choose words that express your regret, すみませんが (sumimasen ga) will work well in all situations.

If you are saying no in a professional setting, you can use おそりますが (osore irimasu ga) and 恐縮きょうしゅくですが (kyo shuku desu ga), which are formal phrases, before explaining your reasons why you can’t do something.

– すみませんが、今週末こんしゅうまつ予定よていがあってくのが大変たいへんです….
– (sumimasen ga, konshumatsu wa yotei ga atte, iku no ga taihen desu)
– I’m sorry, but I have plans this weekend and won’t be able to go.

– (osoreirimasu ga, kyo wa isogashikute, sankasuru no ga muzukashii)
– I’m sorry, but I’m busy today and won’t be able to participate.

Again, you can note how you don’t need to say “いいえ” expressly for the nuance to be conveyed to your partner, and that by just mentioning 難しい can mean that a refusal is occurring.

3. Express Your Thanks

If someone has approached you with some sort of opportunity or invitation that you are grateful for, it is polite to express your thanks to this person in many languages–including Japanese. This will also help further soften your rejection. Below are a few examples of how to put this into words in a couple of situations:

– せっかくの機会きかいをいただきましたが
– (sekkaku no kikai wo itadakimashita ga)
– This phrase means “Thank you for giving me this opportunity, but…”

– (ikitai no wa yama yama desu ga)
– This phrase can be translated as “I would love to go, but…”

It is kind to thank someone for taking the time to ask you a favor or invite you to something, so doing this will help let the inviting party that you care.

4. Be Receptive to Future Invitations

If the timing was poor and you want to open yourself up to future invitations and opportunities with this person, be sure to tell them that, too. This is can be conveyed by including よろしくおねがいします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) in your phrase:

– (konkai wa muzukashii desu ga, mata no kikai ni yoroshiku onegaishimasu)
– This phrase can be interpreted as “I can’t make it this time, but please let me know/please invite me next time.”

You can change your phrasing and politeness level depending on whom you are communicating with, but finishing the phrase with a よろしくお願いします/お願いいたします will help maintain good relations and positivity.

5. Be Straightforward when You Really Need to Say No

While directly saying “no” in Japanese is rarely needed, if a partner keeps on pushing and prodding you, sometimes you will need to be more straightforward to get your point across.

You can, of course, do this with いいえ, but you can also try using language like できません (dekimasen) or できかねます (dekikanemasu) to express that you cannot physically or mentally do something, or even 無理むり (muri), to express that something is impossible for you. These words will get the message across.

The Art of Saying No in Japanese

Japanese is a language of indirectness and politeness, so saying no to someone or something can take more planning and perseverance than you may think. Using the phrases and keywords above will make your refusal go smoothly, while making your point.

You can also use these phrases and hints to help understand when someone is saying no to you!

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