Knowing how to say "No" in Japanese

Saying no in Japanese is a tricky subject. The people in Japan will rarely give a direct “no” as an answer, preferring instead to give an indirect answer that conveys the message of no.
Giving someone a direct no is too disruptive in a society that values keeping the harmony at all costs. As a result, the Japanese will usually choose their words carefully, especially in business-related situations.

How to Say No in Japanese?

The exact word for no in Japanese is “いいえ (iie)”, but the Japanese actually use a wide range of expressions to avoid having to use a strong no.
For example, they could say chotto that convey the “difficulty” to answer the request.
B: 「ごめんなさい、明日はちょっと用事があって・・・」
A: Ashita, isshyo ni nomimasen ka?
B: Gomennasai, ashita ha chotto youji ga atte…
A: Why don’t we drink together tomorrow?
B: I am sorry, tomorrow I have some errands…
Perhaps the best way to interpret no in Japanese is to understand the different levels. We have divided them into 4 groups, starting from definite expression to the grey area of the ambiguous no in Japanese.

When around Friends & Colleagues
In a Business Context…
Other ways of indirectly saying “No”
Showing Uncertainty to indirectly say “No”

When around Friends & Colleagues

  • 無理(むり) – (Muri)- Impossible
  • ダメ – (Dame)- No good
  • 出来(でき)ない – (Dekinai)- Can not

The first group of expressions is easy to understand. むり, ダメ and できない are typically used by friends and close colleagues. むり literally means something is impossible based upon the circumstances.
できない is less definite. The word shows the speaker’s regret that the circumstances would not allow acting in accordance with one’s request. Always keep in mind, these expressions are rarely if ever heard as a response to a request in business-related situations.

In a Business Context

  • 厳(きび)しい – (Kibishii)- Hard (conditions)
  • 難(むずか)しい – (Muzukashii)- Difficult
  • 大変(たいへん) – (Taihen)- Hard (task)

The expressions of group II can be used in business situations. When a Japanese person replies in English in response to a request by saying something is difficult, they are simply translating the 難しい into what they consider an indirect and polite no in Japanese.
たいへん, on the other hand, refers to a suggestion or request that is not easy because of a situation’s complexity. What exactly is たいへん is subjective and creates ambiguity amongst the parties involved in various business relations.

Other Ways to Indirectly Say “No” in Japanese

  • 微妙(びみょう) – (Bimiyoe)- Delicate (situation)
  • 忙(いそが)しい – (Isogashii)- Too busy
  • 結構(けっこう)です – (Kekkoedesu)- No thank you

Group III is such a grey area that even native Japanese could misinterpret the signal. Sometimes one wonders if this is done on purpose to avoid any kind of commitment or avoid breaching the harmony when multiple parties are involved in the decision-making process.
The greyest of all amongst group three is the Japanese expression けっこうです. The expression can have distinctly opposite meanings such as “ok” and “no thank you”, showing that something is not wanted or needed.
びみょう expresses a borderline scenario where neither party can express certainty as to which scenario will play out. Clearly, uncertainty is expressed in this word. More often than not, the ultimate decision declines one’s request.
Which brings us to いそがしい, which is typically used as an excuse to decline a request. Therefore, one does not need to reply by asking when the person may have more free time to perhaps affirmatively acknowledge the request.

Showing Uncertainty to Indirectly Say “No”

  • …かもしれません / かもしれない / かも – (…kamo shiremasen)- Perhaps
  • 臨機応変 [りんきおうへん] に対応 [たいおう] する – (rinkiohhen ni taio suru)- Depends

Whether or not group four is more or less ambiguous than group three is also subject to interpretation. However, the primary difference is that group four expresses the potential for an affirmative response. Initially, the request is declined, however, the Japanese are expressing their uncertainty of the circumstances.
Those circumstances could change at an unforeseen time in the future. The expression, “りんきおうへんにたいおうする” is similar to the English expression: let’s play it by ear. This expression is often used to postpone difficult decisions at business meetings when the voting is not unanimous.
As you can see, no in Japanese is a tricky point: ambiguous and subject to lots of interpretation.

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