April 21, 2023

Double and Triple Negatives in Japanese [UPPER BEGINNERS-INTERMEDIATES]

Do you know the meaning of the following sentence? Use the vocabulary breakdown and try to come up with the meaning.

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  • あんまり not much, not very [informal way of saying あまり; it is used to modify the verb phrase ()()けない. It adds the nuance of "not taking too seriously.”]
  • ()に truly; really
  • ()けない to accept; to receive; to take [negative of ()ける (to take); in this context, "to not take" as in "to not take seriously"]
  • ()()けない not taking seriously [the negative form of ()()ける (to take seriously). In this context, it means "not taking seriously."]
  • ように so that; in order to
  • しないと if (I) don’t (do, then…); have to do [negative form of する (to do), followed by と (if… then…)]
  • いけない not good; must not (used to express a sense of obligation)
  • しないといけない must; have to [This expression is best learned as one word; it is used to convey the sense of obligation, meaning "must" or "have to." The verb する (to do) is used in its negative form (しない) followed by と and いけない indicating the necessity of the action.]

Now, try to translate that sentence.

Give it a shot and then click or tap the toggle below to see our translation:

Click or Tap for the Answer

If you are scratching your head, don’t worry, the confusion is probably due to the triple negative. (See the red letters in the toggle above.)


If you are scratching your head, don’t worry, the confusion is probably due to the triple negative. (the red letters)

  • 1 negative = negation ()けない
  • 2 negatives = positive しない
  • 3 negatives = negation again… いけない

Therefore, it means “must not.”

In English, we have this too. “I ain’t got no money” by all accounts ought to mean “I have at least a penny.” At least according to my 2nd grade English teacher.

In theory, this is true. In practice, well, that's another thing.

While double negatives become a positive in English occasionally, in Japanese, this is used all the time.

Think of the 1990’s movie Wayne’s World.

For a short period, it was popular to negate a previous positive statement by adding “Not!” at the end. (If you are too young to have seen it, save your brain cells and just know that little "not" factoid.)

It was an educational movie. NOT!

Japanese does this much more elegantly and frequently. Double negatives, triple negatives… Bring it on!

Double Negative Example


I like you.

Easy enough. Now after a short pause, you add a bit more:


I don’t like you.

Oh oh. But before she slaps you, you add one more step:


It’s not that I don’t like you.

The わけじゃない brings it back to a positive. わけじゃない is used to express that something is not the case or not necessarily true. It isn't the case (necessarily) that I don't like you.

Triple Negative Example

Back to today’s main example. I was speaking with a Japanese friend the other day and he said this sentence. I understood what he was saying, but my brain had to do three flips to confirm.


You must not take (it, him, her, etc.) too seriously.

This example has three negatives which means it remains overall negative. However, the final しないといけない should really be considered as a set phrase.

しないといけない means “I (or you) have to” or “must do” something. It is a combination of the negative form of the verb する (to do) which is しない  and いけない which means "not good" or "not allowed." When used together, the phrase conveys the idea that something needs to be done, otherwise it's not good or not acceptable. It is often used to express obligation or necessity in Japanese.

Let’s break this sentence down to follow the logic:


(not) too much


not too much | take seriously


not too much | take seriously | in order to


not too much | take seriously | in order to |  not do


not too much | take seriously | in order to |  not do | if (conditional particle)


not too much | take seriously | in order to |  not do | if | must not

This all becomes:

"We should not take it too seriously."

I apologize if my rambling explanation simply made it more confusing but look for other instances of double or even triple negatives in Japanese. It happens quite often.

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      • For English native speakers of course. For me it is very understandable as in my language it is exactly the same (even quadruple negatives which in the end are positive). It is easier to explain the negatives the same way as in mathematics – each double negative changes in positive. 🙂

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