Japanese Refusals

In Japanese culture, a refusal may sometimes suggest "no" not only to the request or invitation, but could also imply a rejection of the personal relationship altogether. Japanese speakers might choose to be careful not to hurt their interlocutor's feeling by avoiding a refusal assertion. Words of apology, expressions of regret, and self-devaluating comments are sometimes offered to soften the impact of the refusal. Since a refusal could endanger personal ties and relationships, it may be considered acceptable to present even a fictitious reason for not being able to comply. Refusal expressions are often left incomplete and the interlocutor infers the intended refusal.

Classification and Examples of Japanese Refusal Strategies

I. Direct

  1. Using performative verbs (okotowari itashimasu)
  2. Non-performative statement
    • "No" (iya)
    • Negative willingness/ability (...dekimasen/shimasen/soouha omoimasen)

II. Indirect

  1. Statement of regret (moushiwake arimasen/zannen desu)
  2. Wish (otetsudai dekireba yoinodesuga)
  3. An excuse, a reason, an explanation (zutsuga surunode/tsugouga waruinode)
  4. Statement of alternative
    • I can do X instead of Y (watashinara...suru/watshinara ...no hougaii)
    • Why don't you do X instead of Y (hokanohitoni kiitara?)
  5. Set condition for future or past acceptance (mottohayaku ittekuretara ...shitanoni)
  6. Promise of future acceptance (kondowa ...shimasu/...to yakusoku shimasu)
  7. Statement of principle (tomodachito torihikiha shinaikotoni shiterunda)
  8. Statement of philosophy (katachiaru monowa kowareru monosa)
  9. Attempt to dissuade interlocutor
    • Threat or statement of negative consequences to the requester (bunpouwo mushishite kaiwa bakari yatteitara atode komarimasuyo)
    • Guilt trip (ikanaito kanaiga okorimasu)
    • Criticism of the request/requester (statement of negative feeling or opinion; insult/attack (sorya hidoi kangaeda)
    • Request for help, empathy, and assistance by dropping or holding the request (wakatte kurenaikane)
    • Letting the interlocutor off the hook (shinpai shinaide)
    • Self-defense (dekirudakeno kotowa yatte irunodesuga)
  10. Acceptance that functions as a refusal
    • Unspecific or indefinite reply
    • Lack of enthusiasm
  11. Avoidance
    • Nonverbal
      • Silence
      • Hesitation
      • Doing nothing
      • Physical departure
    • Verbal
      • Topic switch
      • Joke
      • Repetition of part of request, etc. (Getsuyoubi desuka?)
      • Postponement (kangaete okimasu)
      • Hedge (u-n wakaranaina/sorewa komarimashitanee)

Adjuncts to Refusals

(Beebe, Takahashi, & Uliss-Weltz, 1990)

  1. Statement of positive opinion/feeling or agreement (sorewa ii kangae daga/ soushitainowa yamayama daga)
  2. Statement of empathy (anataga muzukashii jyoukyoni irunowa yoku wakarimasuga)
  3. Pause fillers (e-to soudanaa/u-n/ano-)
  4. Gratitude/appreciation (taihen arigatai hanashidesuga/hijyouni kouei desuga)

Above passages taken from (Ikoma & Shimura, 1993)

Native speakers of Japanese tend to use direct refusals less frequently than native speakers of American English. Japanese often do not complete their sentences, avoiding the expression of direct refusal. For instance, by saying only Nichiyoubiwa chotto... 'Sunday is...um' ... they avoid finishing the sentence with ...dekimasen... 'I can't do it' ...

The most commonly used structures of incomplete refusal expressions are:

  1. Excuse/reason + te/de
    Mou Xsan ni kashicyattete ... 'I've already lent it to X and...'
  2. Excuse/reason + node/kara
    Watashimo benkyo shinakucya ikenaikara ... 'Because I have to study myself...'
  3. Excuse/reason + ga/kedo + ne

  5. Excuse/reason + shi/shi + ne

  7. Negative response
  8. Statement of positive opinion or agreement + kedo/ga

  10. Alternatives + ga/keredo + mo

Ne at the end of a sentence is sometimes used with speakers of equal status, and more often with those of lower status.

Most of these incomplete refusal expressions involve an excuse or reason for the refusal (We are going to have a memorial service that day...), some form of hesitation (Well...), a suggestion of an alternative (How about a week later?), and/or the offering of a positive opinion or agreement (It was so kind of you to invite me). Some other strategies such as using idiomatic expressions or stating empathy are rarely used. The incomplete sentences typically occur at the end of the speech act of refusal.

Moushiwake arimasen. Jitsuwa sonohiwa houjiga atte, shinsekiga atsumarutame, fubono tetsudaiwo ichinichi surukotoni natteirundesu. Sekkaku goshoutai itadaitanodesuga ... 'I'm sorry. Actually we are going to have a memorial service that day. Since our relatives will be here, I am supposed to help my parents all day. It was kind of you to invite me but...'

Sorewa hontouni kyuna hanashidesune. Sekkakudesuga, senyakuga arimashite syusseki dekimasenga ... 'That's really short notice. Thank you for the invitation but I have a prior engagement and cannot come but...'

Japanese speakers might avoid sounding rude to their interlocutors -- particularly of higher status -- and prefer such ambiguous incomplete sentences. Such incomplete sentences seem to be used more often in Japanese when speaking to someone of higher status than of equal or lower status.

Above passages from Shimura (1995).

Japanese speakers seem to be sensitive to high versus low status in their use of apologies. For example, excuses are commonly given as part of Japanese refusals but Japanese might start with an expression of regret or apology and then give an excuse when interacting with someone of higher or equal status. When refusers are higher in status, they tend to express empathy for the requester (or positive opinion), and then present an excuse. In this case, they tend to omit an apology/expression of regret. On the other hand, when they are lower in status than the requester, they often make their apology/expression of regret first, then give an excuse.

Japanese excuses tend to be less specific compared to American excuses. Whereas Americans prefer "air-tight" excuses, being specific about their plans and naming places they need to go to, Japanese tend to give vague or weak excuses. (I have a previous engagement/This Saturday will be inconvenient/I have things to take care of at home).

Above passages from Beebe et al. (1990).

The exceptional case is that Japanese speakers may be more concrete or specific when they refuse food, giving reasons or even making a philosophical statement, while Americans might normally say No, thank you. Native speakers of Japanese are likely to give a reason for refusing food a friend offers at the dinner table.

Typical refusals in both Japanese and English are:


Iya- mou onaka ippaidayo. 'No, I'm stuffed'
Iya, mou takusan. Onaka ippaidayo. 'No, I've had enough. I'm stuffed'
Mou onaka ippaide hairanai. 'I'm so full that I can't eat any more'
Iya- mou jyuubun itadaitashi saikin mata daiettowo hajimata bakaridakara yoshitokoukanaa. 'No, I've had enough and I've gone on a diet recently again. I probably won't have any more'
Tottemo oishiindakedo onaka ippaidashi...hanbunnara hairisoudakedo hanbunzutsu shinai? 'It's very good but I'm full...maybe I can take half of it. Why don't we share one?'


No thanks, I'm stuffed.
Oh, no thank you. I've had enough.
Nah, I'm full.
Love to, but couldn't eat another bite!
I couldn't possibly.
No thanks, I'm watching my weight.

In Japanese refusals, speakers tend to offer many more alternatives (I'll do X instead) and they do so more often than Americans speaking in English. Japanese offer alternatives more often when they are higher in status than lower in the interaction.

[ Research notes on Japanese Refusals... ]

Above passages from (Ikoma & Shimura, 1993) and (Beebe et al., 1990)



Beebe, L. M., Takahashi, T, & Uliss-Weltz, R. (1990). Pragmatic transfer in ESL refusals. In R. Scarcella, E. Andersen, S. D. Krashen (Eds.), On the Development of Communicative Competence in a Second Language (pp. 55-73). New York: Newbury House.

Ikoma, T., & Shimura, A. (1993). Eigo kara nihongoeno pragmatic transfer: "Kotowari" toiu hatsuwa kouinitsuite (Pragmatic transfer from English to Japanese: The speech act of refusals). Nihongokyouiku (Journal of Japanese Language Teaching), 79, 41-52.

Shimura, A. (1995). "Kotowari" toiu hatsuwa kouiniokeru taiguu hyougentoshiteno syouryakuno hindo, kinou, kouzouni kansuru chuukanngengo goyouron kenkyu ‘Frequency, function, and structure of omissions as politeness expressions in the speech act of refusal.’ Keiougijyuku Daigaku Hiyoshi Kiyou (Keio University at Hiyoshi, Language, Culture, Communication, 15, 41-62.

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