Anyone who's worked in Japan as an English teacher will undoubtedly have had at least one conversation like the one above. When a Japanese person responds to a native English speaker’s negative question, or vice-versa, there’s almost always a moment or of confusion before they’re both on the same page.
You see, in Japanese, the following exchange would make perfect sense.
A: Ara! Gyunyu nai! Kai ni ikanakya.
Ah, there’s no milk! I’d better go and buy some.
B: Gyunyu nai tte?
We don’t have any milk?
Of course, in English, the last utterance here would usually be “No (there isn’t any milk),” but in Japanese, the speaker, rather than affirming the presence or absence of said delicious cow-juice, either confirms or denies the statement that the other person just made. Rather than meaning “Yes (there’s no milk),” this final “un” actually means “Yes, what you’ve just said is true.“
If you're still confused, here are a few more examples:
Question: You aren’t going to the party?
Japanese Response: Yes (that’s right; I’m not going).
English Response: No (I’m not going).
Question: Oh, so you don’t like dogs?
Japanese Response: Yes (that’s right; I don’t like dogs).
English Response: No (I don’t like dogs).
Question: There aren’t any trains after 1 a.m.?
Japanese Response: Yes, there aren’t any.
English Response: No, there aren’t any.
We suppose the key thing for English speakers to remember is that Japanese yes/no responses to negative questions are intended to tell the questioner that whatever they’ve just said either is or isn’t the case. When you think about it, in a funny way it’s English, rather than Japanese, that’s the quirky one…
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