Cool Phrase – いいぞ (Update)

I’ve got another article on the Japan Times Bilingual Page. Longtime readers will recognize the topic, as well as the little girl who hates bugs, from the contest I ran back in April 2008.

So, yes, いい is often used to say “no, thank you” and imply that something is not fine and not good, but it does also get used in the standard definition of good, fine, great. One way to differentiate between the meanings is applying a particle to the end. よ will grant permission to someone else, ね will express your pleasure with something and/or seek confirmation, よね seeks to confirm okay-ness, and ぞ is a useful way to cheer someone on.

When I was on JET, we coached the speech contest kids, and I have vivid memories of one of the Japanese English teachers saying いいぞ、いいぞ in a slightly gruff voice when the kids did a particularly good job. It was kind of like “attaboy, attaboy” or “now you’re cookin’ with gas” – that type of thing. Definitely a nice little phrase to keep in your wallet for the right situation.

Quick TOP SECRET breakdown of possible English tone equivalents (as usual, getting used to it is far superior to translation):

いいよ – “Sure, go ahead”
いいね – “That’s nice!” “That sounds good!”
いいよね – “Not a problem, right?”
いいぞ – “That’s the stuff!”


Dammit, I missed a bunch of particles, as noted in the comments by Leonardo. They are:

いいな – “Lucky! (a la Napoleon Dynamite)” “That’s nice!”
いいわ – “Sure thing.”
いいわよ – “Sure thing, hot stuff.”
いいけど – “I guess…”
いいけどね – “T’were it only true…”

遠慮:Prometheus:: 怠る:Epimetheus

遠慮, as mentioned previously, means to actively refrain from doing something. This is a nifty way around negative imperatives or having to reply with a very blunt negative refusal.

怠る (おこたる) is another wicked cool Japanese verb that means, fundamentally, not doing something. Unlike 遠慮, which has a relatively positive meaning, 怠る has a negative connotation – it means to inadvertently fail to do something.

The usage pattern is Nを怠る, N being any noun or nouned verb such as 〜するの or 〜すること. (“Nouned,” by the way, is a verbed noun.) I’ve run into it recently while looking at manuals for arcade games. One sentence that comes to mind is 定期的な掃除を怠ると、X – “Failure to undertake periodic cleaning will result in bad consequence X.” I can’t remember what bad consequence X was, but I think it was something along the lines of electrocution…or maybe just malfunction?

定期的な掃除をしないと、is a perfectly valid alternative except for that pesky ない hanging around near the end of the clause. The company providing the manual wouldn’t ever want to imply that the game center purchasing the game, the お客様 as it were, might not do something, so they instead suggest that they might fail to do something.

Japanese is awesome.

遠慮 and 怠る correlate nicely with Prometheus and Epimetheus, as suggested in the title to this post. For those of you unfamiliar with the myth, 1) your parents deserve a smack on the head – what were they making you read when you were a kid? – and 2) this is a good place to start.

Prometheus (literally “forethought”) and Epimetheus (“afterthought”) were given the job of divvying up cool traits to all the animals. Epimetheus went about the task with Japanese efficiency, giving elephants really long trunks, making giraffes super tall, allowing cheetahs to run really fast, and neglecting to save anything for humans. To help his brother, Prometheus made man in the shape and image of the Gods. This angered Zeus, so he denied humans fire. Prometheus stole it anyway.

怠る is perfectly Epimethean. I guess Prometheus didn’t really 遠慮 all that much, but 遠慮 definitely involves forethought, so perhaps this is still a useful analogy.  

Avoiding the ない

I’ve got a short piece on 遠慮 over at Néojaponisme. It’s a rewritten version of one of my first posts  – “How to Say No by Saying Yes”. Don’t forget that you can also make use of お断り as a “Hell no” for comedic purposes.

遠慮 is a useful phrase for avoiding ない, but かねます is a far more blatant dodge. It is a verb ending that attaches to the stem (most often to the verbs できる, する, 致す, and 負う) and means “can’t” or, more appropriately in this case, “unable to”.

So rather than use できない or できません, you can say できかねます which has the same fundamental meaning. This is, as you can probably imagine, an incredibly polite, serious way to say something. Personally I find it hilarious that you can just replace the unpleasant negative ending with one that isn’t negative and make it all better. I’d like to meet the first guy who did that.

(Oda Nobunaga: おい、お前。パイ作ってきてくれ。
Advisor: えっと、あのぅ。パイ、作れなーあっ。作ることができなーあっ。作り...かねます。
Nobunaga: かねますって、一体何なんだ?
Advisor: はっきり言えば、できないということ。
Sound of head falling on tatami.)

In every case, the speaker finds him/herself unable to do something that puts him/her in an unfortunate position. かねます almost has a built in “unfortunately” along the same lines as 〜てしまった as well as a “we ask for your understanding” as in ご了承ください.

An extremely useful set phrase I learned in college is わたくしどもでは決めかねます, which can be used if you’re ever put on the spot to make a decision that is outside of your immediate jurisdiction; it literally means “I alone am unable to make that decision”, but it also sort of implies that you will consult your superiors.

する, 致す, and できる are generally attached to other verbs. For example, 賛成 (さんせい) – そういう考えもあるかもしれませんが、賛成できかねます。 “You may think that, but I (unfortunately) am unable to agree.”  

負う, as ALC tells us, is often used to duck responsibility – 責任を負いかねます.

Very much like 遠慮, かねます is one of those secret code words/patterns that is able to convey a lot of meaning efficiently because everyone knows what it really means. You, too, can tap into all the trappings of かねます, as long as you know when you need to use them.

Further Experimentations with いい

Ever since I wrote this post, I’ve paid more attention to people’s reactions to my けっこうs and my いいs. To be honest, I started using more いいs than けっこうs and have noticed far less confusion on the part of the employees. I was generally using 「けっこうです」 or 「袋はけっこうです」- the most common situation where I have to refuse something – and often noticed that the person would respond with 「いいですか」I wrote that けっこう might be easier to understand from a non-native speaker, but I’ve started to think that might not be the case.

I’m using the same phrases just with いい. I’ll have to start mixing it up a little more to see the results. I’m still convinced it could be my intonation with けっこう – there are more syllables to mess up.

Friday Puzzle – Somebody Farted Answer

This puzzle is from three weeks ago. Sorry for the delay. The gesture is dismissive, and there are a few possible one-word answers that could go along with it. Here are a few I thought of:

違う(ちがう)- with this word you are actively correcting what another person said. What they said is wrong, and you are swatting it out of the air.

大丈夫 (だいじょうぶ)- this one is used to dismiss something unnecessary. It may or may not be wrong, but either way you are “alright” without it.

いい – this word means “good,” of course, but I’ve written previously about its other meanings. Like 大丈夫, this dismisses something unnecessary.

In all the cases, the speaker would draw out the syllables for as long as he waves his hand. I wanted to make a video to show how this works but have had very little free time, so for now I’ll attempt to represent the intonation like so:

chigau → chiGAuuuu

daijoubu → DAIIIIjoubuu

ii → iiiiiiiiiiii

違う is most often used with the first facial expression – you’re angry that they are misunderstanding you. 大丈夫 and いい can probably be used with either, mostly the second, which was my attempt to represent surprise.

Only a few responses for this puzzle, but only Thomas kept his answers to single word responses. He offered 臭い, which I’ll accept, and だめ, which I think is strong but could also work. So, Thomas earns his second beer.

Power Up Your いい

Another short Wednesday post due to job interviews.

Mastering Japanese can sometimes be as simple as mastering the ladder of politeness – remembering which phrases are used for those high on the ladder and which are used for those lower on the ladder.

いい, as I mentioned last Friday, is often used to either ask permission or refuse something. It’s common courtesy to ask someone, 「いいですか。」 before you sit down next to them. (Notice how I didn’t use a question mark in that sentence. This is something else you should just get used to – you don’t need question marks all the time in Japanese.)

You can power up your いい by turning it into よろしい. This is a polite way to say いい. You can also power up your ですか by turning it into でしょうか. So here’s a little ladder for you.

いい?/いいの? (My spider sense tells me that this last one is all about the intonation and that will be easier to be understood as a question if you add the の.)

That’s in order of most polite to most casual. Notice that, as usual, the more syllables a phrase has, the more polite it is.

Friday Puzzle – Bugs are Fantastic Answer

I give out stickers to kids at elementary school. We play karuta nearly every week, and when the kids have taken five cards, I allow them to choose one sticker from a stash that I accumulate whenever I go to Tokyo or happen to see cool stickers.

When I was in Australia, we passed a dollar store, so I stocked up on cool Aussie stickers. I got a bunch of flags and antipodean animals. They also had a big sheet filled with bugs, one with ladybugs and another with beetles.

Some of the boys liked these stickers, but I still haven’t given them all away. A month or so ago, a girl was trying to choose her sticker and I said, “How about a bug, mam?” 「虫はいかがでしょうか。」, purposely speaking a little over-politely to be funny. She replied in kind speaking slowly, “No bugs, thank you.” 「虫は、いいです。」

No one likes bugs. Except, of course, these crazy kids in Japan, but they’re mostly the elementary school kids…and the few junior high kids who still like them…and become adults who really like them.

So, no, bugs are not nice, good or cool. I’d rather have very little to do with them, thank you very much.

This use of いいですis the often overlooked refusal of something. Think about this conversation for a second:

A: Would you like anything else to eat?
B: No, thank you.

In English, we incorporate “thank you” into our refusals. I can’t tell you how many times my “No, thank you”s have been misconstrued as “Thank you? Well, here ya go!” (Perhaps because I mumble?) In Japanese, similarly, they incorporate a “good” word into a phrase of refusal – いい.

To make it clearer, you can attach a もう to the front of your いいです, implying that “(whatever you) already (have is) okay.” Okay might be the closest translation. So here are your phrases:


The second being a more polite version of the first. I think けっこう might be slightly easier to understand coming from a non-native speaker who, like myself, is probably messing up the intonation of the phrase.

Here’s a conversation I had on Wednesday for further reinforcement:

Konbini lady: 袋はいりますか。
Me: けっこうです。
K: いいですか。

You copy? In English it looks something like this:

K: Do you need a bag?
M: No, thank you.
K: You’re okay (without a bag)?

The lady wasn’t asking me if I was good or if I thought bags were nice or something, she was asking me if I was okay without a bag. An easy way to differentiate this usage of いいです from others is that this one will hardly ever, perhaps never, have anything in front of it. The other usage you will see constructed like this: 〜がいいです, with が directly expressing the subject of いい.

Robin wins again this week, with his answer, “somebody offered to put bugs in the girl’s lunch (you wouldn’t do that would you daniel?) and she was politely refusing them.”

Hell no

A funny, casual alternative to 遠慮 is お断り. Technically it’s derived from the keigo(お+断り+します) of 断る(ことわる), which means to reject or refuse, but I think the actual usage is more casual. It’s generally used as a terse method of shooting down an unreasonable request.


Daniel: 俺と付き合ってくれ!     Go out with me!
Sumiko Nishioka: お断り。       Hell no!

There’s absolutely no way I could get a date with Sumiko Nishioka, and she and the imaginary audience in my brain all knew that, which is why she frowned and okotowari’d me, causing the audience to laugh at my suffering.

It’s generally delivered in a flat, flat tone with an air of “I’m not amused, asshole.” Although the English “Hell no” is hardly ever delivered in a flat tone, the meaning is just about the same, and it’s also capable of generating laughter.

(Side note:

I’m convinced that part of the reason お断り is so funny is that it doesn’t have any of the trappings of Japanese politeness – no 残念ながら, no hesitation, no apologies. Compare it to the conversation with my supervisor below and you can probably tell that the second sentence in both have, essentially, the same meaning and are merely delivered in starkly different tones.)

How to Say No by Saying Yes

Japanese people hate saying no. Not only do they hate saying no, they even hate using negative endings to verbs. This presents a problem for many foreigners, who upon arrival suddenly find that there are many things they would like very much not to do.

Well, have no fear, citizens, there is a wonderful Japanese word called 遠慮(えんりょ). Encapsulated within these two tiny-yet-complex characters is a phrase with a built-in no. Yes, that’s right, by doing this verb you are actually not doing something.

For example, the following conversation:

Supervisor: ダニエル先生、あのう、来週飲み会ありますが、どうですか。
Daniel: あそうですか。誘ってくださってありがとうございます。残念ながら、今月お金がちょっとぎりぎりで、遠慮します。

Now, in English:

Supervisor: Hey Daniel, umm, there’s a drinking party next week. You in?
Daniel: Oh yeah? Thank you for inviting me. Unfortunately I’m a bit short with cash this month, so I’ll hold back.

If you wanted to get even more polite you could say, 遠慮させていただきます, and utilize the causative tense.

遠慮 literally means “to hold back” or “to be reserved,” something like that, but what it really means is no. It reminds me a lot of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where the captain says, “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” The lady’s all like, WTF? and then he goes, “IT MEANS NO!”

遠慮 is Japanese code word for no. Everyone understands the meaning, and it can efficiently and politely be used to say “No thanks.”

(A side note:

It’s good practice to thank people for an invitation whether or not you accept or decline. That way the invitations will continue to come. )