The words that will be taught in this lesson are as follows. There will be a lot of overlap in how they’re used, but it is important nonetheless to see how each of them are used.
Japanese culture is known for its favoring of indirect expressions. That is not to say that a direct and affirmative “no” can’t be expressed in Japanese. To the contrary, the most basic words for “no” are all capable of expressing opposition, disapproval, or rejecting. It is because of Japanese’s sensitivity to social circumstances that causes all “no” expressions to be multifaceted and seemingly ambiguous.
The antonym of はい is いいえ. By default, it is the direct translation of “no.” It is the correct word for any non-verbal “no” you may encounter. For example, a “yes” and “no” window will display はい (Y) and いいえ (N). いいえ is also the most formal and polite of all the variants of it. Although this point will be important to remember as we learn more about these phrases, understand that this is not an absolute and that there will be times when using いいえ may cause an unwanted reaction.
Usage 1: To express negation when presented a question that seeks affirmative or negative response (yes-no question). This is the most basic understanding of いいえ.
“Is it still snowing?” “No, it stopped snowing two hours ago.”
Boss: “Did I say for you to do it this way?”
Subordinate: “No(, you did not).”
Usage Note: At face value, it seems that the responder is replying politely. However, such a response, especially to a confrontational yes-no question would be conversely inflammatory and undoubtedly stir animosity. This is because a direct denial, even if the response is the truth, is not demonstrating the responsibility of fixing the perceived problem that the questioner is seeking. To stop confrontation, adding fuel to the fire is counterproductive. Ex. 3 would be an appropriate use of いいえ whilst still being polite in this sort of circumstance.
No, that is not how you said (to do it), Chief. I was mistaken. I am terribly sorry.
Sentence Note: Practically speaking, this response would not necessarily come to mind. A more expedient answer to the question that would still be polite would be Ex. 4.
I’m sorry, was I incorrect?
Sentence Note: This response would bring about a response that would inevitably result in admitting personal responsibility, which is what Ex. 3 explicitly states from the beginning.
Usage 2: Declining someone’s proposal/request— “no thank you.”
“Would you like a coffee refill?” “No thank you, I’m fine.”
Usage Note: Many speakers, especially young people, tend to use 大丈夫です for “no thanks,” as it is less direct than saying いいえ、結構です. In formal, business situations, いいえ、結構です is preferred as a certain degree of directness is expected. Additionally, colloquialisms are typically frowned upon in such situations. The same can be said for the English-speaking world.
Usage 3: Negating someone’s idea/statement.
“Today’s incident was just a coincidence.” “No, that can’t be true.”
Usage 4: Rejecting the premise of a question.
“Mom, you wouldn’t happen to have seen my bag, huh?” “No, I don’t know anything about it.”
“Hey, did you not come to work yesterday? “No, I came just as usual.”
Usage 5: Indicating one has no intentions of furthering the conversation or intends to end the conversation upon being pressed for explanation.
"What exactly am I going to find out soon enough?” “Oh no, it’s nothing.”
Usage 6: Rejecting thanks and praise out of courtesy.
“I really appreciate it. Thank you.” “Oh no, it’s nothing.”
“Thank you.” “Oh no, you’re welcome.”
Both いえ and いや can be seen as variants of いいえ, but they have morphed to be somewhat different in their unique ways. Intrinsically, they carry all six usages seen above, but when it’s appropriate to use them will determine how the other person interprets your response.
“Yamashita-kun, don’t hold back and drink.” “Oh no, I’m fine.”
No, no, what counts more than anything is that I am of use to you.
Negating Presentation of Information
A situation where いえ and いや can be used interchangeably in plain or polite speech but cannot be replaced by いいえ is when one is negating and/or criticizing how information is being presented or gently yet affirmatively correcting someone.
“Did you know that the Sun revolves around the Earth?” “Um, actually, the Earth revolves around the Sun.”
Sentence Note: In this situation, the responder to the first person’s statement is rejecting the information trying to be shared. In such circumstances, both いえ and いや are appropriate.
“What’s wrong? You’re all pale.” “Oh no, it’s nothing.”
Sentence Note: In this example, it isn’t that the responder is negating that he/she is pale. The responder is negating the question itself which implies that something is up.
Person A: Huh? Where are you going?
Person B: Oh no, you see, there’s a small urgent matter that’s come up…
Person A: Why are you talking about something like that?
Person B: Oh no, you see, the thing is….
Particle Note: Unlike いいえ, いえ and いや can both be followed by the final particle ね.
Oh no, share houses and what not are definitely something not to do.
Variation Note: いや can alternatively sometimes be heard as いーや.
“Alright, I’m going to take attendance. Ozawa-san…” “Hey, um… Shiraishi Sensei, your class is the one next over.”
Usage Note: Whenever one is simply negating how information is being presented but not negating the truth of the statement, then only いや becomes appropriate.
“What’ll we eat for dinner?” “Uh, that has nothing to do with right now.”
“When you say ‘too soon’…?” “Ahh, I made a slip of the tongue. Well, since it’d be troublesome if this were oddly suspected by you all, I’ll explain things.”
From 繁昌するメス by 松本清張.
Variation Note: Elongated as いやー, いや can express a feeling of having gone too forward toward oneself.
Generally speaking, いいえ and いえ are both seen as typically being more appropriate in polite speech than いや.
22. 「山手線に乗るんですか」「｛いえ 〇・いいえ 〇・いや X｝、違います」
“Do you ride the Yamanote Line” “No, that’s not the one.”
23. 「エクセル使うの？」「｛いや 〇・いえ X・いいえ X｝、違う。エクセルは不要だね。」
“Do you use Excel? “No, Excel isn’t needed.”
“Do you got the criminal arrested?” “No, not yet.”
However, it is not always the case that いや can’t be used in polite speech. For instance, it can be used just like いいえ and いえ when rejecting thanks/praise, and using it instead can bring about a more familial sense.
“So you passed Kanken Level 1? Congrats!” “Oh no, well, thankfully it went all fine.”
Usages Unique to いや
At times, いや isn’t just a variant of いえ but a contraction of 嫌だ, and it can be seen elongated as いーや, but unlike the いや that’s equivalent to “no,” the intonation drops sharply after the mora for this usage.
“Could you lend me some money?” “No way!”
Only いや can be used when talking to oneself, and this is for any capacity of self-directed commentary, even when one is talking to someone.
The post office, um… if you make a right there and then on the second, no, the third light take a right, and then keep going for a while, it’ll be on the right.
A variant of these two unique senses of いや is 否. This negation word is most often seen in the grammar point か否か meaning “whether or not,” but it also finds itself synonymous with いやだ or いや, although it is somewhat old-fashioned in these regards. It also happens to be used in the literary sense of “nay.”
Unfortunately under the circumstances, there is no other alternative but to answer with “no.”
No, absolutely not!
I’m sacrificing myself for the company, no, to contribute to society.
In casual conversation, ううん can be used to mean “no.” It holds the six basic meanings of いいえ that were discussed earlier but solely within the confines of casual, plain speech. In addition to those meanings, it can also be used as an interjection similar to “uh” or as an interjection indicating strain /struggling.
Intonation Note: To mean “no,” pitch rises as the end.
No, it’s no use.
No, that’s not true...?
“Has Keiko already here?” “No, she hasn’t come yet.”
Er, what was it?
No, it’s fine.