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Soften The Blow: How to Make Your Japanese Sound More Polite

Simple tricks for speaking humble Japanese.

By 5 min read

When Japanese people are asked for their honest opinion about something or how they really feel, they sometimes dilute their honesty with specific phrases to soften the blow. It’s much like using “kind of,” “a bit” and “a little” in English to make the language sound softer and less direct.

Some believe that Japanese people have been taught to “read between the lines” (kuuki wo yomu in Japanese) from a young age to avoid unnecessary conflict. But why do they try to avoid conflict so much?

In a way, chotto enables the speaker to use these rather strong words without making them sound too blunt or direct.

Maybe it’s because Japan is geographically isolated and has a high population density; people somehow feel the need to keep a distance from each other mentally. Thus, Japanese people would rather not say what they really feel if it lets them live in peace.

Many Japanese people are sensitive to how others react or respond to what they say, so they use these kinds of alleviating phrases a lot in their talk.

Let’s look at some of the most common ones you hear in everyday conversation.

1. The almighty chotto (a little)

Chotto tabeta

Words don’t get much more useful than chotto (ちょっと). It functions as an adverb in a sentence, modifying adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. The literal English translation is “a little/a bit,” so the most straightforward usage is to mean “to a small extent.” Then, you simply throw in chotto before an adjective, verb or adverb.

Here are some examples:

  • ちょっとべた: “I ate a little bit.”
  • ちょっとあつい: “It’s a little hot.”

Another usage of chotto is when you want to imply your dislike, rejection or say “no” without actually saying “no.” For example, when your Japanese colleague asks you to go for a drink after work, all you need to utter is chotto if you don’t feel like going. Most of the time, they get the message.

It would be more polite to make a complete sentence, such as Chotto kyou-wa ikenai-desu, orI can’t go today.” But the word chotto does the work on its own.

One thing to note is that many Japanese people use chotto so much in their daily conversation that they might not mean “a little” at all. In fact, chotto is often attached to adjectives such as unbelievable, unthinkable and impossible. In a way, chotto enables the speaker to use these rather strong words without making them sound too blunt or direct.

2. Amari or anmari (not very much)

Amari or anmari (あまり or あんまり) is always followed at the end by the negative form -nai (~ない) to make the statement sound a bit less negative.

For example:

  • あまりきじゃない: “I don’t like it very much.”
  • あんまりしくない: “It doesn’t taste very good.”

3. Expressing ‘I feel like’ or ‘I’m like’

Fuzaken natte-kanji!

Mitaina-kanji (みたいなかんじ) and tte-kanji (ってかんじ) translates to “I feel like” or “I’m like.”

These phrases come in handy at the end of a sentence or a word. You can add mitaina-kanji to a sentence and say bakanisareta mitaina-kanji (ばかにされた みたいな かんじ) orit’s like I was being made fun of.”

By adding -kanji, you’re letting people know that it’s not quite what happened, but you felt like that’s what happened. In this way, you’re not blaming anyone or stirring up conflict.

Here is another example:

  • ふざけんなってかん: “I’m like, stop that bullshit” or “I’m like, you’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Fuzakenna, a colloquial version of ふざけるな, is a pretty strong expression in Japanese, but the tte-kanji really does its work by indicating that the speaker has not lost their temper (at least not yet). This is probably because the softening tte-kanji comes at the end of the sentence, showing that the speaker has somewhat calmed themselves down.

As with mitaina-kanji, tte-kanji adds the meaning “I’m like” to make it clear that the speaker is not quite serious.

4. Nanka, the useful filler word

Nanka kono heya atsukunai?

Nanka (なんか) is considered a type of filler word in Japanese, such as “like” in English. There is a slight difference in the usage, though, as the implied nuance is that you are not willing to state things clearly for a number of reasons:

  • You can’t quite explain why you’re making the comment that you’re making.
  • The word you’re using is not quite right.
  • You want people to pay attention to what you say, but you don’t want them to take it too seriously. It’s usually used in the form of nanka-sa to get people’s attention.

Here are some examples:

  • なんかきじゃない or なんかきらい: “For some reason, I don’t like it.”
  • なんかあま: “It’s sweet.” (The implication is there’s a better word to describe it.)
  • なんかこのあつくない?: “Isn’t it hot in this room?” (In this case, you want the other person to agree with you, but you are aware that they might not feel the same way.)

5. Using kurai/gurai (about)

Memaigasuru gurai isogashi.

Kurai and gurai (くらい or ぐらい) mean “about,” but is also used to make an analogy. You add it to a quantity when you’re not sure the exact number, or add it at the end of a phrase to mean “almost like” or “to the point where.”

Here are some examples:

  • 100にんくらい or 100にんぐらい:  “About 100 people.”
  • まいがするぐらいいそがしい: “I’m so busy that I feel almost dizzy.”

So there you have five common phrases to make your Japanese sound less direct.

On a final note, if you used these words too much, they lose their “power” and simply become filler words. Sometimes it’s better just to say what you really mean to avoid confusion.

What do you think? Do you often “soften” your Japanese around anyone? Let us know in the comments!

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