(Watashi wa Tanaka-san no shōtai o kotowatta.)
I turned down Mr. Tanaka’s invitation.
The most common meaning of 断る (kotowaru) is “to decline” or “to refuse.”
Let’s take a look at more examples of how 断る (kotowaru) is used naturally in Japanese.
(Tomodachi to eiga ni iku koto ni natteita ga netsu ga dete shimatta node zannen nagara kotowatta.)
I was supposed to see a movie with my friends, but I had a fever, so I regretfully turned it down.
*Note: The past tense form of 断る (kotowaru) is 断った (kotowatta).
(Tomodachi no kaisha de hatarakasete hoshii to tanonda ga kotowarareta.)
I asked one of my friends to let me work at his company, but I was declined.
The Many Meanings of 断る (Kotowaru)
断る (kotowaru) has more than one meaning. It can mean:
- to refuse/ to reject
- to decline/ to turn down (Polite way)
- to ask for permission
- to inform/ To give notice/ To tell in advance
1: 断る (Kotowaru): To Refuse, To Reject
When you want to refuse someone’s request, you can say “断る( kotowaru),” as shown below, but it sounds a bit cold. If you say it playfully to your friends, it won’t be a problem, but it is rude to say “断る(kotowaru)” to someone with a higher social status than you.
断る(kotowaru) is usually written in kanji.
1. 健: 健史、ジュース奢ってくれよ。喉乾いたよー。
Ken: (Takeshi, Jūsu ogotte kure yo. Nodo kawaita yō.)
Ken: Takeshi, will you buy juice for me? I’m thirsty.
健史: 断る！(said playfully)
Takeshi: No! (I refuse!)
2. 健: 健史、金欠なんだよ。奢ってくれない？
Ken: (Takeshi, Kinketsu nanda yo. Ogotte kurenai?)
Ken: Takeshi, can you treat me to this? I’m broke.
健史: 断る！(said playfully)
Takeshi: No! (I refuse!)
(Kanojo wa kare no kekkon no mōshikomi o kotowatta.)
She rejected his marriage proposal.
2. お断りします (Otokowari Shimasu): (Polite Version) – To Decline, To Turn Down
お断りします (otokowari shimasu) is a polite way and softer way to refuse an offer. You can use this expression with strangers too. お断りします (otokowari shimasu) and お断り (otokowari) are also used in written language.
(Ie made kuruma de okuttekureru toiu Tomoko no mōshide o watashi wa okotowari shimashita.)
I declined Tomoko’s offer to drive me home.
(Shigoto no irai o uketa ga sono toki wa isogashikatta no de okotowari shimashita.)
I got a job offer but was too busy then, so I turned it down.
Sometimes, you’ll see a notice on people’s mailboxes or at the entrance of someone’s house in Japan, as shown below:
These signs can be found at the entrance of some classy/private restaurants.
First-time customers are not allowed. (Members only)
Sometimes, you can see a notice at a supermarket or a bar like this:
(Jūhassai miman nyūten okotowari.)
No entry under the age of 18.
(Petto nyūten okotowari.)
No pets allowed.
3. 断る (Kotowaru): To Ask For Permission (This Is Tricky!)
Let’s go right into an example of this meaning of 断る. Can you guess the meaning of the following sentence?
(Jōshi ni kotowatte sōtai o suru.)
- 上司 (jōshi): boss
- 早退 (sōtai): leave early
If you translate 断る (kotowaru) as “decline” or “reject,” the meaning will be “My boss rejected me, so I’m going to leave early.” However, this is not the meaning of this sentence.
断る (kotowaru) should be translated as “permission” in this situation.
This sentence actually means, “I get permission from my boss to leave early.” Or “I got permission from my boss, so I will leave early.”
Isn’t that weird? 断る can mean “to reject,” but it can also mean “to get/ask permission.” The bad news is that it is difficult to differentiate between the two meanings at first. Some sentences might make it impossible to tell which meaning of 断る is correct.
However, the good news is that using 断る to mean “refuse/reject” is much more common. Using 断る to mean “to ask for permission” is not very common. That being said, you may encounter it if you work in a Japanese-speaking environment, so it’s worth learning.
It is also easier to understand which meaning of 断る is being used in everyday conversations because of the context of the situation. Looking at one example sentence on its own makes it difficult to see which meaning of 断る is being used.
(Seito wa toire ni iku mae ni sensei ni kotowara nakereba naranai.)
Students must get a teacher’s permission before they go to a restroom.
We often say “断りも無しに (Kotowari mo nashi ni ) or 断りも無く〜する (Kotowari mo naku ~ suru.)”. It means “to do something without any permission.”
(Kare wa kotowari mo nashi ni kekkinn shita.)
He was absent (from work) without any consent.
(Kare wa kotowari mo nashi ni watashi no chokorēto o tabeta.)
He ate my chocolate without my permission.
(Kodomo ga kotowari mo nashi ni oya no saifu kara okane o mochidasu.)
A child takes some money from his parent’s wallet without permission.
(Kotowari mo naku tanin no ie ni hairu no wa hanzai da.)
Going inside someone’s house without permission is a crime.
4. 断る (Kotowaru): To Inform, To Give Notice
Depending on the context and situation, 断る (kotowaru) can also mean “to inform.” It is often used together with “予め (arakajime).” “予め (arakajime)” means “in advance,” so” 予め断わる (arakajime kotowaru)” means “to inform in advance .”This expression is used in formal situations.
This is another tricky usage of 断る since it can easily be mistaken as “to refuse/reject.” However, just like using 断る to ask for permission (explained above), this usage is easily understood from the context of a conversation. It takes a little while to get used to all of these different meanings, but once you understand the nuance of each meaning (through input/exposure, creating your own sentences, etc.), it becomes second nature.
(Arakajime kotowatte okimasu ga watashi wa kono projekuto ni wa hantai desu.)
Let me point out/ Let me inform you in advance that I’m against this project.
(Arakajime kotowatte okimasu ga kyō wa shōhin no shōkai dake de hanbai wa arimasen.)
Please let me inform you in advance that we will only be introducing our products today, so there will be no sales.
3. 予め 断っておきますが、１分でも遅刻した場合は不合格となります。
(Arakajime kotowatte okimasu ga ippun demo chikoku shita baai wa fugōkaku to narimasu.)
I will give you a fair warning / Let me inform you in advance that you will fail even if you are one minute late.
5. 体よく断る (Tei Yoku Kotowaru): To Turn Someone Down Without Offending Them, To Decline Politely
This is a tricky sentence to read, as 体 is usually read as “karada,” meaning “body.” However, in this expression, it is read as 体 (tei).
Many people can relate to how difficult it can be to decline someone’s offer politely. Japanese people find it difficult to refuse things, so they try to be as nice as possible when they need to decline someone’s offer. In this situation, we try to use “体よく断る (tei yoku kotowaru).”
This basically means that you give a reason why you can’t accept someone’s invitation. This reason can either be true or a “white lie.”
For example,your boss asked you if you want to get a drink with him after work. You don’t have any other plans and can go if you want to. However, you don’t like your boss and don’t want to hang out with him after work.
In order to decline his invitation without hurting your relationship with him, you 体よく断る (tei yoku kotowaru) your boss’s invitation, by telling him that you have other plans, or you are not feeling well, etc. In other words, you tell him white lies to prevent him from feeling bad or to maintain the professional relationship you have with him. Of course, you don’t need to tell white lies if you really have a good reason why you can’t go.
If you are the one who was declined and you think that the other person gave you an made-up excuses so you wouldn’t be offended, you can say 体よく断られた(tei yoku kotowarareta): I was turned down in a “nice” way.
1. 健史の兄: 健史、お母さんが今週末会いたいって言ってたよ。たまにはお母さんに会いに行ってあげて。
Takeshi no ani: (Takeshi, okāsan ga shūmatsu aitai tte itteta yo. Tama ni wa okāsan ni ai ni itte agete.)
Takeshi’s brother: Takeshi, mom said that she wants to see you this weekend. Why don’t you go to see her once in a while?
Takeshi: (Warui kedo, raishū tesuto ga arukara isogashikute jikanga naindayo. Okāsan ni tei yoku kotowatte oite yo.)
I’m sorry, but I have a test next week, so I’ll be busy. I won’t have time to go to see her. Please tell her nicely that I can’t make it.
(Tomodachi kara tanjōbi pātī no shōtai o uketa ga, sono hi wa taisetsu na yōji ga atta no de tei yoku kotowatta.)
I received an invitation to a birthday party from one of my friends, but I politely declined because I had something important to do that day.
6. 断るまでもないですが (Kotowaru Mademo Nai Desu Ga) / 断るまでもありませんが (Kotowaru Mademo Arimasen ga): Needless to Say
“までもない (mademo nai)” means “not amounting to anything,” so 断るまでもない (kotowaru mademo nai) would be roughly translated as “informing you will not amount to anything.” Or, in other words, “needless to say.” This phrase is often followed by a fact or piece of information that everyone is already aware of.
This phrase is often used in formal situations.
(Kotowaru mademo nai desu ga kono daigaku ni haitta kara to itte zen-in ga bengoshi ni nareru wake dewa arimasen.)
You may already know this, so I don’t think it’s necessary to tell you, but just because you got into this university doesn’t mean all of you can be a lawyer.
(Kotowaru mademo arimasen ga kore wa tada no rei de atte minasan ga kono rei ni atehamaru wake dewa arimasen.)
Needless to say, this is just an example, so it will not apply to everyone.