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Ambiguous Japanese Expressions Difficult for Natives to Distinguish

Most Japanese people learning English feel that English lectured at a language school is completely different from conversational English. Likewise, there is a big difference between the difficulty of Japanese taught in a classroom and that of Japanese used in conversations. What is often heard from people learning Japanese is that the language has a lot of ambiguous expressions.

This time, the topic is such ambiguous Japanese expressions.

Their ambiguity is so high that each expression can have multiple meanings, but

please excuse me if there is my personal understanding.

Ambiguous Japanese Expression No.1:

"大丈夫 ( daijoubu )"

"大丈夫 (daijoubu)" is a typical ambiguous word in Japanese, and normally translated as "something/someone is OK."

■ Examples of "大丈夫(daijoubu)"


Teacher: "具合悪そうだね。"

("guai warusou da ne" : You look sick.)

Student: "大丈夫です。"

("daijoubu desu" : I'm OK.)


Eatery Staff: 割り箸は必要ですか?

( "waribashi wa hitsuyou desuka" : Do you need disposable chopsticks?)

Customer: "大丈夫です。"

("daijoubu desu" : No, I don't need them. I'm OK without them.)


These examples show how typically Japanese people are not good at answering by saying yes or no. Whether to the worries or kind suggestions, we say "大丈夫 (daijoubu)," which has connotations such as "It's OK like this," "I'm fine as usual," or "I have no problems."


Ambiguous Japanese Expression No.2:

"どちらかというと A ( dochiraka to iu to A )"

This expression sometimes confuses Japanese people a lot too. "どちらかというと A (dochiraka to iu to A)" is used to choose one from two choices when there is not a big difference between them and has a close meaning to "prefer A to something/someone," "do/be A rather than something/someone," or "I would say A if I consider which to choose."

Sometimes it might sound like the person is being indecisive, but most of the time that's not the case.

■ "どちらかというと A (dochiraka to iu to A)" used in a dating situation


Boyfriend: "焼肉と お寿司 どっちが食べたい?"

("yakiniku to osushi docchi ga tabetai?" : which do you want to eat, yakiniku or sushi?")

Girlfriend: "どちらかというと お寿司かな"

("dochiraka to iu to osushi kana" : if I consider which to choose, I would say osushi.)


The expression, "if I consider which to choose" might sound like, "if I have to choose from the two," and give an impression that she might want to eat something else. However, you don't need to worry like that. Such a concern will cause you to waste your time by considering other options and you will not be able to reach your destination.


Ambiguous Japanese Expression No.3:

"一応 ( ichiou )"

"一応 (ichiou)" generally means "to some extent," "kind of," or "in case," and when this expression is used for something related to what has already been done and for something related to what will be done in the future, the meaning can be completely different.

■ "一応 (ichiou)" used for something done in the past


Boss: "昨日 お願いした 資料 できた?"

("kinou onegai shita shiryou dekita?" : Have you finished the document I asked yesterday?)

Assistant: "一応 作ってみました。"

("ichiou tsukutte mimashita" : I have finished, but I am not sure if it's perfect. )


In this case, "一応 (ichiou)" works to indicate that it is certain the assistant has completed the task, but he/she is not sure about the quality because the judgement of the quality differs depending on individuals.


Akira: "東京大学に 合格したんだって?"

("Tokyo daigaku ni goukaku shitandatte?" : I heard you passed the exam to enter the University of Tokyo!)

Akira's friend: "うん。一応、合格したよ。"

("un ichiou goukaku shitayo" : Yeah. I kind of passed.)


Some people use 「一応 (ichiou)」 even when the quality of the achievement is great because they are being modest.

■ "一応 (ichiou)" used for something related to what will be done in the future


A: "今度、ディズニーランド 行かない?"

("kondo Disneyland ikanai?" : Why don't we go to Disneyland sometime?)

B: "いいね!一応 考えてみる!"

("iine! Ichio kangaete miru!" : Sounds nice! I will think about it in case I might be able to come with you.)


Thus, by adding "一応 (ichiou)" to a verb indicating future action, the chance the action will be performed drops drastically. In my experience, it would be expected that the action would not probably be performed or would need various efforts and adjustments to be performed in the future.

Thanks to the expression, "一応 (ichiou)," I have made vain efforts many times.


Ambiguous Japanese Expression No.4:

"やばい ( yabai )"

"やばい (yabai)" is translated as "terrible" by Google Translation.

However, this expression is very confusing because the meaning varies by generation.

One of its origins is that prison guards in the Edo era used to be called "厄場 (yaba)" and people started to use "やばい (yabai)" when someone was being caught for a crime.

Then time passed, and in the 1980s, young people (currently in their 40 to 50s) started to use the word as meanings of "scary," "dangerous," "terrible," etc.


・ "やばい (yabai)" used to describe someone looking scary

 "あの人 やばい" (ano hito yabai : He/she is scary.)

・ "やばい (yabai)" used to describe someone with a weird taste in fashion

 "あの服 やばい" (ano fuku yabai : That outfit is terrible.)


In these examples, "やばい (yabai)" is used to express a negative judgement.

Meanwhile in the late 1990s, the youth (currently in their 30s) started to use the expression as meanings of "good-looking," "amazing," "moving," "cool," etc.


・ "やばい (yabai)" used to describe someone looking good.

 "あの人 やばい" (ano hito yabai : He/she is cool.)

・ "やばい (yabai)" used to describe a touching movie.

 "あの映画 やばい" (ano eiga yabai : That film was moving.)

・ "やばい (yabai)" used to describe a great play of a soccer player.

 "あのプレー やばい" (ano purei yabai : That play was amazing.)


This time, "やばい (yabai)" is used to express a positive judgement.

So, "やばい (yabai)" can have either positive or negative connotation depending on generation as well as context, which is confusing and kind of "やばい (yabai)," isn't it?


Ambiguous Japanese Expression No.5:

"そうだね (sou da ne)" and "あ、そうだね (a sou da ne)"

"そうだね (sou da ne)" is translated as "I agree" by Google Translation. I too will take it as an agreement to some extent.

However, if an interjection, "あ (a)" is added before "そうだね (sou da ne)," it gets complicated.

For example, if someone is talking about a movie with a person whom he/she wants to ask out, the connotation will be changed as below.


Someone asking out: "じゃあさ、今度一緒に映画観に行こうよ!"

("jah sa, kondo issho ni eiga mini iko yo! : Then, let's go watch the movie together!”)

Someone being asked out: "あ、そうだね (a sou da ne : Um, yep.)"


In this situation, the interjection, "あ (a)," is playing a significant role and indicates the profound intention of the speaker.

The feelings and thoughts behind this very short sound are:

  • Unconcealable surprise caused by being asked out all of a sudden;

  • Not-so-happy feeling that makes the person hesitate to say yes immediately;

  • Some kind of guilty feeling of saying no because the two were enjoying their conversation;

  • A mind that he/she needs to say yes/no or how to say no if not going.

These feelings and thoughts are embodied in the sound unconsciously.

Usually, the interjection comes out when the speaker is surprised or uncertain and has a connotation that the speaker might say no after a second thought in spite of saying "そうだね (sou da ne)" because the offer was quick and unexpected.

Just like "一応 (ichiou)," "あ (a)" indicates that some kind of effort and adjustments would be needed to perform the action.

In business situations, many males sometimes use "おぉ (Oh)" instead of "あ (a)".

If you start looking for ambiguous Japanese expressions, you will find them endlessly.

So, what kind of expressions have confused you in your daily life?

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12 mai 2023

Ambiguity isn't something unique to the Japanese language. There are many times that Americans, Brits, and even Aussies use ambiguity in native English. It can be used to convey modesty or limit otherwise negative feelings. What is more important in this discussion isn't the use of words that can be used ambiguously but when the word themselves don't always mean what they say—literally. For example, "hai," or "yes," is often used to mean "no." That is, it is used in affirmation of what the speaker is saying/asking and not as a reply to the question. Example 1 "Gomi wo sutenakattano?!?" (You didn't take out the trash?) "Hai." (Yes means that I acknowledge that I didn't take out the trash. In English, yes would…

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