When you start living in Japan, it’s crucial to be polite to the people around you.
Among the biggest hurdles that every foreigner has to overcome is knowing how to say no in Japanese. While saying "no" in most countries is pretty simple, Japan’s social standards make it a little trickier than most.
If you’re looking to learn how to politely say no in Japanese, there are several ways to do it. Let’s check out how you can say "no" correctly. This knowledge should make your social interactions easier and a little less awkward.
The Japanese Word for 'No'
Let’s start by looking at the most basic word for “no.” In Japanese, the polite way to say “no” is “いいえ (Iie).” Regardless, いいえ (Iie) is still rarely used as a way to refuse, even in formal situations. It is the most straightforward, blunt way of doing it, while the casual way of saying “no” is いや (iya).
In common parlance, most people say いえ (ie) rather than いいえ (iie) due to the awkward pause that the extra い (i) syllable adds. While both are correct, you’ll find that more people will use the former.
While this sounds easy enough, the truth is you can’t use いいえ (Iie) to disagree with anyone when you’re living in Japan. Why? It speaks a lot about how the Japanese culture works and how society views harmony and bonds.
Within Japanese society, it’s crucial to nurture harmonious relationships with each other. Enryo (restraint) and kikubari (sensitivity to the feelings of others) are among the mutually shared virtues in Japan. Most of this means staying positive with the people around you and trying to help people “save face” with each other.
Iie is very direct to the point, the same as shooting down someone’s attempt to connect with you. Japanese people will rarely give a straight “no” as an answer. Many prefer to give an indirect answer, which should imply the idea of saying “no.”
Giving a straight “no” is too disruptive, which can be offensive in a society that cares about harmony. This does not mean that いいえ (Iie) has "no" place within common Japanese parlance. It’s just dissimilar to what we know.
When to Use いいえ (Iie) and いや (Iya)
In general, people in Japan use いいえ (Iie) as a standard reply to thank you. In this context, it works more as a “you’re welcome,” “not at all,” or “don’t worry.” Its use is primarily in removing the burden of gratitude from the other person, helping them “save face.”
However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t use it for its true purpose. いいえ (Iie) is also helpful in clarifying a statement and making corrections. If you have to straighten up a fact, いいえ (Iie) is the right way to do it.
You will also likely encounter the term いえいえ (ie ie), which is a commonly used way to say “you’re welcome” or “don’t bother.” If you’re also looking at how to say no in Japanese very casually and softly, this is another way.
The word いや (iya) is a more casual form of いいえ(iie), which you commonly use with friends and acquaintances. Its pronunciation is quick and sharp, akin to how Westerners say “nope.” At the same time, this is also a straightforward way of showing disagreement.
You would want to sparingly use this いや (iya), especially with people you don’t know or at your workplace. If you’re working in Japan, saying this to your manager is your first-class ticket to getting fired.
There are also circumstances where いや (iya) is akin to 嫌い (kirai) or hate. As いや (iya) also means to dislike, it can pertain to opposing a situation. The latter word, 嫌い (kirai), will always refer to an object or person.
How to Truly Say “No” In Japanese
So, is there a better way to say no in Japanese? Yes, there are many ways to say "no" in Japanese. These will depend on who you’re talking to and your situation.
There are several contexts where you can use these words, which include:
- ちょっと (chotto) - “That’s a little…”
- だいじょうぶ (daijoubu) - “No Thanks”
- 違う (chigau) - “That’s not right”
- すみません (sumimasen) - “I’m sorry/Thank you but…”
- -じゃない (-ja nai) - negative suffix
- だめ (dame) - “No good”
- 無理 (muri) - “Impossible”
- 出来ない (dekinai) - “I cannot”
- 大変 (taihen) - “It’s difficult”
- 厳しい (kibishii) - “It’s tricky”
- 難しい (muzukashii) - “It’s too difficult”
- 結構です (Kekkoe desu) - “No, thank you”
- 忙しい (Isogashi) - “Too busy”
- 微妙 (Bimyou) - “Delicate (situation)”
- やめとく(Yametoku) - “I’ll pass”
As you can see, there are more than a dozen ways to say no indirectly. These have their uses, with some phrases working as a more general “no,” while others work better in several situations. For example, many of the more indirect phrases are something you’ll find yourself using when working in Japan.
Using ちょっと - Chotto to Say No
The simplest way to refuse anything in Japanese is to say ちょっと (chotto). The word can mean many things, from “wait,” “a little,” “excuse me,” and even “hey.” Depending on the context, it also is a fantastic way to refuse without being direct.
Saying ちょっと (chotto) as a refusal creates a level of ambiguity. In situations in the West, this is akin to saying “but…” and trailing off your sentence. It helps keep the harmony within the conversation, giving the speaker a hint of refusal.
Why use ちょっと (chotto)?
The idea behind the phrase is simple; you’re communicating that there’s difficulty in abiding by the request. You also try to talk through gestures and facial expressions when saying this phrase. Sucking in your teeth and grimacing can help get your point across.
Saying 'No' to Friends and Family in Japan
In casual situations, knowing how to say no in Japanese should be simple. With family and friends, you would want to use 無理 (muri), だめ (dame), and 出来ない (dekinai). These are primarily simple ways to disagree or decline while being indirect about the situation.
For starters, 無理 (muri) is a literal word for “impossible,” a simple, casual way of declining an invitation. It’s also a common word you’ll use if somebody else suggests an impossible task that you don’t want to participate in. The phrase is definite and can be final, depending on your intonation.
In Japanese, だめ (dame) is a common word that you use to express negation about something in a conversation. The word だめ (dame) is quite flexible, so you can use it to refuse, express dislike, or deny any statement that your family and friends tell you.
On the other hand, 出来ない (dekinai) offers a less definite answer, which is mostly used with invitations. When you want to show regret that you can’t agree to the invitation due to circumstances, this is the word you want to use.
Consider, however, that these words are not something you use in a business setting. Many of these are words you say to friends or family, rather than those with your superiors or clients.
Saying 'No' in Business Situations in Japan
Now that you know how to say no in casual Japanese conversations, you'll want to learn the right words in Keigo. Business Japanese or Keigo is a complex web that you have to consider, but saying "no" mainly comprises of using the phrases 厳しい (kibishii), 難しい (muzukashii), and 大変 (taihen).
Depending on the situation, the word 厳しい (kibishii) connotes the words strict, rigid, hard, and tricky. 厳しい (kibishii) is most useful when you want to show how unsure you are with the request. This can be a request to take on more work, go outside to drink, or some other invitation you’re unwilling to do.
At the same time, the word 難しい (muzukashii) is a polite way of turning down people. 難しい (muzukashii) is an implication of a hard no but is obfuscated by its ambiguity. If you’re looking to ensure with a colleague that something won’t happen or you can’t relent to their request, this should be a good word to use.
難しい (muzukashii) also implies something is “mentally difficult.” By claiming something is difficult, the Japanese say that it is unlikely to grant a request or invitation. This implies that you don’t want to go through the “difficulty” of going through the action, which means it will not happen.
Finally, 大変 (taihen) or hard offers the same value as 難しい (muzukashii), albeit it refers to physical difficulty. It’s best to use 大変 (taihen) as a refusal of a physically laborious task or invitation. If you’re not in the mood to go out or you think a task is too much for you, it’s best to use this word.
How to Say 'No' in Japanese Politely
When you work in Japan, declining requests and turning down someone can be difficult, but doing so with humility can defuse a situation quite quickly. One of the best ways to show humility in saying "no" is to use positive words that show that you’re kindly turning them down.
For starters, すみません (sumimasen) is a fantastic way to show your humility in a situation. Saying すみません (sumimasen) expresses regret that you can’t help or join them. You can add this to any reasoning, and it should help soften the “blow.”
Another positive word is だいじょうぶ (daijoubu), which in most contexts means “okay.” In situations where you need to decline someone’s good deed, this word works similar to “no thanks.” Using だいじょうぶ (daijoubu) conveys warmth and friendliness while saying “no” to another party.
In more formal situations, you would want to use 結構です (Kekkoe desu) in place of だいじょうぶ (daijoubu). This phrase is very formal and usually used in the workplace.
Strangers, managers, and even teachers in Japan use this with their colleagues. You can also use this to decline merchants from adding more items to your list at a grocery.
How to Say 'No' in Japanese Using 'Ja Nai'
One of the things you learn when studying the Japanese language is the suffix -じゃない (-ja nai). This suffix converts any sentence into its negative counterpart. The more polite form for this word is でわない (dewa nai).
Adding -じゃない (-ja nai) at the end of your sentences negates the noun or adjective used. This allows you to say no without a direct or firm refusal. This form of denial gives you a way to state facts without truly disagreeing with the speaker.
As with Japanese grammar, not every sentence uses -じゃない (-ja nai). There are entire negative forms for every type of word, but most casual conversations accept -じゃない (-ja nai).
Other Ways to Say No in Japanese
The words above are some of the most common ways to say no in Japanese. Other words work in more specific situations. It’s good to have these words and phrases in your arsenal to help you be more precise in your communication.
Using 違う - Chigau - “Different”
Another of the most common ways how to say no in Japanese is 違う (chigau), which means “different.” This phrase connotates disagreement with a statement given by another person. You would need to correct the fact too.
Mostly, its use is similar to いいえ (iie), where you confirm if a statement is true or not.
Using 忙しい - Isogashi - “Busy”
The term 忙しい (Isogashi), which means “busy” or “to be busy,” is a rarely used word in the context of a refusal. The term usually is part of a statement when you talk about your daily activities. However, you can use the word to refuse an invitation, noting how busy you are. This will immediately stop the speaker from asking if you have free time to accommodate their request.
Using 微妙 - Bimyou - “Doubtful”
Another slang that you’ll likely encounter is the word 微妙 (bimyou), which means “subtle,” “sensitive,” or “doubtful.” Using 微妙 (bimyou) is a way to say no without specifying details.
You're showing uncertainty as you tell the other party that things are “sketchy” or “doubtful.” This will give you some leeway, too, in case you want to accept the request at a later time.
Using やめとく- Yametoku
The term やめとく(yametoku) is a curious way of saying no in Japanese. The phrase is a way to emphasize that you don’t want to do something or accept an invitation.
While this sounds like a straightforward way of saying no, it is anything but. The word can’t stand on its own, as it needs another word of refusal like ちょっと (chotto).
Saying 'No' with Body Language
Now that you know every way how to say no in Japanese, we’ll also leave you with essential tips. As we noted, Japanese culture requires harmony and ambiguity when refusing other people. Regardless, body language and facial expression are different ball games.
When conversing in Japanese, body language will help you clarify the words you’re saying. For example, saying ちょっと (chotto) with a grimace or a lip twitch emphasizes your refusal. This can make or break your statement; hence you want to make sure your body language follows what your mouth says.
Be clear with your hand gestures. Use negative hand gestures like fanning your hand out to confirm that you’re saying no. Wave your hand around and be dynamic in your movements while staying polite with the other party.
Refusal in Japan can be one of the trickiest parts of the language to navigate. Knowing how to say no in Japanese the right way can simplify how you deal with other people. The more ways you know how to decline people, the more balanced your life becomes.
Knowing how to politely say no in Japanese also gives you a way to connect deeper with your colleagues. Living in Japan has its layers, so knowing when to say yes and no at the right moment helps. It can give you the freedom you need while keeping a harmonious relationship with everyone around you.
P.S Want to work in tech in Japan? Check out our list of software developer jobs in Japan.