Different ways to say ‘only’ in Japanese

By | March 13, 2014

In this post I’d like to discuss a few ways in Japanese to express the various shades of meaning of the English word ‘only’.

First, there is だけ which one of the simplest and most common ways of expressing ‘only’ or ‘just’. Let’s see a few examples.

  • 言ってみたかっただけ
  • I was just saying.    (this expression can be used when someone asks ‘Why did you say that?’, and there wasn’t a deep meaning behind your words)
  • それだけはしたくない。
  • That’s the only thing I don’t want to do.  (lit: “It’s only that which I don’t want to do”)
  • テレビをみてただけ
  • I was only watching TV.
  • それだけ
  • Thats all?  (lit: “Only that?”, Used when you expected more)

Beware that だけ doesn’t have a very strong sense of ‘only’ by itself. It also has other meanings such as expressing an approximate amount of something, like くらい or ほど.

One way to make the sense of ‘only’ a bit stronger is by using the phrase 〜しか〜ない, which is structurally similar to “~nothing but~” in English. This expression can be a little confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to use.

  • 10ドルしかない
  • There is only 10 dollars. (lit: “There is nothing but 10 dollars”)
  • 最近、映画しか見てない
  • Lately, I’ve only been watching movies.
  • それしかできないのか?!
  • Is that all you can do?!
  • 日本にしか興味がありません
  • I have no interesting in anything but Japan.

Figure out the pattern? Basically you need to add しか after the object (and after a particle if present) and then change the associated verb, adjective,  or other word, to the negative form.

A related use of this is the phrase 〜するしかない, which means “no choice but” in a dramatic sense.

  • 頑張るしかない
  • I have no choice but to try!

ただ is another word that can be used to mean ‘only’ in two different senses.

First, it can be used to emphasize ‘only’ at the beginning of a sentence, and can be used in conjunction with だけ。

  • ただ、言ってみたかっただけ
  • I was just saying.
  • ただそれだけだよ。
  • That’s all there is.  (lit “It’s only that”)

Second, ただ can be used followed by の to mean ‘merely’ or ‘simply’, as in ‘I’m only a man’.

  • 彼はただの男友達
  • He’s just a guy friend.

While we are talking about ただ, I might as well mention another it’s meanings, which is ‘free’ (as in beer). Another way to say this is 無料。

ばかり (sometimes pronounced ばっかり) is yet another Japanese word that can be used to mean ‘only’.

  • ばっかり
  • You’re full of lies! (lit: “all lies”)

If you use this word after a noun or a verb’s て form, you can express that someone is only doing that one thing.

  • 今日、ゲームばっかりしてるね。
  • You’ve been playing games all day today. (lit: “Today you’re only playing games.”)
  • あの子はしゃべってばっかり
  • That girl just keeps talking.  (lit: “That boy/girl is only talking”)

ばかり/ばっかり can also be used express something ‘just’ happened, as in it happened very recently. For this usage, simply put it at the end of a verb in the past tense.

  • いま帰ってきたばかりだ。
  • I just got home now.

Though it’s somewhat formal and I don’t see it too often, for completeness I’ll mention the word のみ, which can also mean ‘only’.

  • ”従業員のみ”
  • “Employees only”

“〜に過ぎない” is another expression that roughly translates to ‘only’ or ‘just’, though it’s somewhat formal and I see it mostly in written Japanese.

  • 彼は子供に過ぎないの。
  • He’s only a boy.

過ぎる means ‘to go over’ or ‘exceed’ so this literally means “He does not exceed a boy”. The meaning would be similar to ”彼はただの子供”.

Finally, if you want to say ‘only’ in the sense that there is only one of something, you can use the word 唯一(ゆいつ).

  • 唯一の友達に裏切られた。
  • I was betrayed by my only friend.
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