Questions and Negation

In this section, you’ll learn how to ask and answer questions of the yes-no sort. Along the way, you’ll also learn how to use the negative form of desu.

Recommended background:

The Copula “Desu” – intro to the basic sentence structure

The Question Marker “Ka”

Unlike in English, no change in word order is necessary to turn a Japanese sentence into a question; simply add the particle か “ka” at the end.

やまださんは にほんじんです。 Yamada-san wa Nihon-jin desu. Yamada is Japanese.
やまださんは にほんじんですか。 Yamada-san wa Nihon-jin desu ka? Is Yamada Japanese?

The added ka is accompanied by a rising intonation, much like in English. Question marks are not customarily used with complete sentences (they would be redundant), but are often used in romanized Japanese anyway. They are, however, used with questions of this sort:

おなまえは? O-namae wa? (What is your) name?

In this case, you would still use a rising intonation.

Yes-No Questions and Negation

To answer a yes-no question like the first example, “Yamada-san wa Nihon-jin desu ka?”, the complete answer would be one of the following:

はい、やまださんは にほんじんです。 Hai, Yamada-san wa Nihon-jin desu. Yes, Yamada is Japanese.
いいえ、やまださんは にほんじんではありません。 Iie, Yamada-san wa Nihon-jin de wa arimasen. No, Yamada is not Japanese.

But unless you want the extra emphasis on the topic, it’s more common to omit it.

はい、にほんじんです。 Hai, Nihon-jin desu. Yes, (he) is Japanese.
いいえ、にほんじんじゃありません。 Iie, Nihon-jin ja arimasen. No, (he) is not Japanese.

Hai means “yes” as in “that’s correct”, and iie means “no” as in “that’s not correct.

In the case of the affirmative answer, the remainder of the sentence is the same as if you were making a statement of fact. In the case of the negative, there are several negative forms of the copula that you could use.

Negative Forms of the Copula
Affirmative です desu is/am/are
Negative では ありません de wa arimasen is/am/are not
じゃ ありません ja arimasen
じゃ ない(ん)です。 ja nai desu

Here, ja is a contraction of de wa, and is very common in everyday speech. You can safely use ja arimasen in most situations. The 3rd version is somewhat less formal. All of these can be used in simple statements or to answer a question.

(Question words like who/what/where etc. are covered on a separate page.)

When Yes Means No and No Means Yes

Something interesting happens in the response to a negative question in Japanese.

いきませんか。 Ikimasen ka? Are you not going?
はい、いきません。 Hai, ikimasen. Yes (you’re correct), I’m not going.
いいえ、いきます。 Iie, ikimasu. No (that’s incorrect), I’m going.

This is the opposite of what you would usually say in English: “No, I’m not going” or “Yes, I’m going.” But in Japanese, hai always means “that’s correct” or “I agree with you” while iie means “that’s not correct” or “I don’t agree with you”, so their use will sometimes be the reverse of “yes” and “no” in English.

In reality, the problem of negative questions is somewhat more complicated than this, due to a Japanese tendency of phrasing questions in the negative even when they expect the answer to be in the affirmative, in an effort to sound less forceful and therefore more polite. The listener is expected to respond to the speaker’s intended meaning, causing hai and iie to be swapped once again.

At some point I might do an article on this issue, but for now focus on the above point, which still holds true: hai and iie are not just “yes” and “no” but are based on whether speaker agrees or disagrees with what was just said, or on whether the the speaker is confirming or disconfirming what they were just asked.

What Next?

The Sentence Ending Particles “Ne” and “Yo”

Question Words

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