A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Tricky Japanese: Kotowatte Kudasai

Lots of people — both foreign people and Japanese — have asked me why I like living in Japan. I have about a million answers, but one that would definitely make my personal “Top Ten List” is the complexity of the Japanese language. I love the fact that I could stay here for the rest of my life and still be able to learn something completely new about Japanese — a new word, a new kanji character, a new turn of phrase — every single day. (This is definitely my “inner linguist” speaking.)

Today, I learned a new (and almost completely opposite — don’t you love it??) meaning for a word that I already knew.

The word is 断る (kotowaru)。

Until today, I thought that this word meant (and only meant) “refuse”. However, I learned today, that it also means “to get someone’s approval in advance”.

Consider the following situation. (It’s a strange situation, but this is a story about language learning, not how to write believable scenes!)

You and your colleague, Mary, send funny emails to each other all the time. One day, Mary forwards one of your emails to your boss. You don’t particularly want your boss to see these silly, private exchanges between you and Mary, so you say:

jikai watashi no mail wo joushi ni tensou suru toki wa, arakajime watashi ni kotowatte kudasai.
The next time you want to forward one of my emails to the boss, please let me know in advance.

Mary tells you that Tom asked her to forward the email to the boss, so you say:

jikai watashi no mail wo joushi ni tensou suru you tanomaretara, kotowatte kudasai.
The next time someone asks you to forward one of my emails to the boss, please refuse.

Okay, the situation is a little bit strange, but do you see where things go awry? 断ってください (kotowatte kudasai) can either mean “please let me know in advance” or “please refuse” — two rather different concepts. The probability of confusing second language learners with this word (especially by using the “get approval” meaning, as the “refuse” meaning is far more widely used) is almost 100%.

When I just started learning Japanese, this kind of discovery would make me want to throw my hands up in despair (run around screaming, punch things, hold my breath) and refuse to learn another word until this crazy language sorted itself out. But over the years I have found that everything starts to make sense after a while, regardless of how shocking it is when you first encounter it. In ten years, I will probably look back at this entry and laugh to think I ever _didn’t know_ that 断る has two meanings. At least, I hope I will laugh…


  • MHS says:

    Good stuff, sensei!

  • Hi.
    Thisi is a note from a Japanese.

    “Kotowaru” has only one meaning in origin. “Koto” means “thing”. “Waru” means “devide”. So “Koto-waru” means “deivde the thing” or “make it clear”, which can lead to two meanings, “refuse” and “tell me explicitly”.

    Thank you,

    (and sorry in advance if the sentences I wrote was clumsy)

  • Shaney says:

    Hello Muranaka-san,

    Thank you very much for that information!