I think a lot of Japanese learners have struggled with subtle nuances, no matter how fluently they can speak Japanese. We have the phrase 空気を読む (kuuki o yomu), which means “read between the lines” in English. That means to infer what people want or do not want from a situation or atmosphere and decide what you should or shouldn’t do. You might say that Japanese culture is made up of that kind of thinking. Japanese people feel that clear expression can be considered impolite, so ambiguity is one of the cornerstones of traditional Japanese society. Today, I’m going to teach you some similar ways to say things that have slightly different nuances to cultivate your understanding of Japanese.



1. ありがとう vs. すみません (arigatou vs. sumimasen)


Which do you use more often when you say “thank you” in Japanese, ありがとう (arigatou, thank you) or すみません (sumimasen, sorry)? What about the situation below? There is no correct answer, but which would you personally use?


  • Someone picks up the pen you dropped on the floor
  • Someone holds the button for you to get off the elevator
  • You receive a souvenir from your neighbor


I personally use すみません (sumimasen, sorry) in all of the above situations. There are words such as “thank you” to express your thanks when you want to show your appreciation for someone, which is when someone does something for you. In that situation, the other person brings benefits to you, which is positive for you. However, it requires time and effort for the other person, which is negative for him or her. If you focus on the positive side of what you received and want to express your thanks or feelings of gratitude, you say ありがとう (arigatou, thank you).


On the other hand, you say すみません (sumimasen, sorry) if you focus on the negative side of what someone had to sacrifice. Most people choose ありがとう (arigatou, thank you) when someone says “happy birthday” to them, because that person just wants to celebrate your day and they don’t have to make much effort to simply say it. So it’s easier for you to focus on your happy feelings (if they came to your birthday party or bought a present, that’s a different story).


However, a positive thing for you and a negative thing for the other person tends to happen at the same time in most situations, so people often choose すみません (sumimasen, sorry) as a result. You won’t be wrong if you choose ありがとう (arigatou, thank you); you can choose either one. But the point is, you will be more Japanese if you choose to say すみません (sumimasen, sorry) more frequently.



2. だけ vs. ばかり (dake vs. bakari)


The meaning of “X + だけ” (dake) is that there’s nothing else except X, while “X + ばかり” (bakari) is used when there is a lot of X.


  • 箱にはりんごだけ入っている。Hako ni wa ringo dake haitte iru. There are only apples in this box.
  • 箱にはりんごばかり入っている。Hako ni wa ringo bakari haitte iru. There’s nothing but apples in this box.


In the first sentence, the emphasis is that you found only apples inside the box and nothing else. In the second sentence, you are emphasizing your surprise at seeing a lot of apples when you opened the box, but this is not to say that there could not have been other things in it as well. ばかり (bakari) expresses a large quantity or frequency, so you should use ばかり (bakari) in the following sentence:


  • 弟は毎日酒ばかり飲んでいる。Otouto wa mainichi sake bakari nonde iru. My (younger) brother drinks nothing but alcohol every day.


If you used だけ (dake), that means your brother doesn’t drink anything else but alcohol. Usually, that’s not the case, so you can’t use だけ (dake) here. On the other hand, ばかり (bakari) sounds natural because it merely expresses that he drinks too much alcohol. Also, ばかり (bakari) implies that it is unfortunate, so it often has a negative tone.


Therefore, 箱にはりんごばかり入っている (there’s nothing but apples in this box) and 弟は毎日酒ばかり飲んでいる (my younger brother drinks nothing but alcohol every day) both sound like you are a bit disappointed.



3. だけ vs. しか (dake vs. shika)


You’re in a desert and have half a bottle of water. How do you describe your current feelings in Japanese?


  • 水が半分だけある 。Mizu ga hanbun dake aru. The bottle is half full.
  • 水が半分しかない。Mizu ga hanbun shikanai. The bottle is half empty.


Basically, だけ (dake) goes with positive sentences, whereas しか (shika) goes with negative sentences. In other words, だけ (dake) expresses “it exists, there is” and しか (shika) expresses “it doesn’t exist, there’s not”. So the first sentence sounds like you still have hope to live, because you think half a bottle of water is enough, but the second sentence sounds like you don’t have hope because you think that much water is not enough.


So what are the subtle nuances between the two sentences below?


  • 簡単な日本語だけ話せる。Kantan na nihongo dake hanaseru. I can speak only simple Japanese.
  • 簡単な日本語しか話せない 。Kantan na nihongo shika hanase nai. I can only speak simple Japanese.


Even though the amount of Japanese knowledge you have is the same, the first sentence sounds like you are proud of yourself because you’ve been studying Japanese, and now you know some simple Japanese. You can probably handle yourself when traveling to Japan, so you’re excited to go to Japan.


The second sentence sounds like you don’t have confidence in your Japanese, so you’re a bit shy to speak to people in Japanese. If you can grasp this nuance, you can choose more accurate Japanese words, among the many expressions, to better fit your feelings.


There are so many more words that I want to compare, but that will be too many to go over in one article. So for now, I just mentioned these three examples, which my students have previously asked me about. I hope you enjoyed this article and would love it if this helps you with your Japanese.


Hero image by ThisParticularGreg (CC BY-SA 2.0)