The art of saying I don’t understand in Nihongo

4 years in Japan and probably one of the Japanese words I still use the most often when speaking to Japanese people is わかりません (wakarimasen).

There are two easy ways (or phrases) to convey that you don’t know how to answer a question; わかりません (wakarimasen) and しりません (shirimasen). With my limited knowledge of Japanese language, I believe that these are the difference of the two.

しりません (shirimasen)
しらない (shiranai)

Basically, しりません is use when you don’t have the knowledge to answer the question. Translation is literally, I don’t know.

Person A: What is the value of x as it approaches the value zero?
Person B: しりません (I don’t know)

わかりません (wakarimasen)
わからい (wakanai)

わかりません is use when you can’t understand or you don’t understand the question or what is happening (Translations are I can’t understand or I don’t understand). It can also be use when you don’t actually have a way of knowing the answer (like if it’s really raining tomorrow when the weather app says it’s 30% chance of rain).

Person A: <speaking Japanese I can’t understand>
Rowell: ごめなさい、わかりません (I’m sorry, I don’t understand)


There you have it. I hope things are clear about the difference of the two.
Next time someone ask you a question you can’t answer, I hope you remember this article. 🙂

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