Japanese word highlight: 良かれ (yokare)

By | January 16, 2020

When speaking with native speakers there is never a shortage of unfamiliar words that come up. The other day I heard the word 良かれ (yokare) in daily conversation, and while I was able to guess the basic gist of what it meant, I wanted to dedicate an article to this interesting word.

First of all, I wanted to briefly mention the word いい (ii), which means “good” in various ways, and the word 良い (ii) which is a little more literary-sounding variant of it (that is still used today). You can see some more detail about these words in this post of mine. 良し (yoshi) is an even older word meaning basically the same thing, though it is not used that much anymore. While we are on this topic, 良かった (yokatta) is the past tense of these three words.

Anyway, when I heard 良かれ (yokare) I thought it was some form of that verb––and it turns out I was right. But what form? Let’s look at a sentence similar to the one I heard:

  • 良かれと思ってやったんだけど。。。 (yokare to omotte yatta n dakedo)
  • I thought it was good and did it.

I’ve given a rough translation in English, but this doesn’t capture the real nuance of this phrase which I will now explain.

It turns out that 良かれ is the command (or imperative) form of the verb 良し. But what is the command form of an adjective? In English, I guess this would be equivalent to something like “be good”. My dictionary has a few definitions that explain this a little better, for example うまくいってくれ (umaku itte kure) which means something like “go well!”

While you may find 良かれ occasionally in other contexts, it is perhaps most common on this 良かれと思って pattern. But this pattern has a slightly surprising nuance to it.

良かれと思って is used when the speaker things they have done something for the better or someone else, which in itself is consistent with the meaning of the word 良かれ. However, the extra nuance is that this phrase is often employed when the person in question didn’t actually benefit from said action, or at least didn’t feel they benefitted. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend using this phrase for situations when things actually turn out well. Thinking back, when I heard this phrase it was indeed used with a slightly negative nuance.

By the way, some sources indicate 良かれ would be better written using the kanji 善かれ, which fits well with the nuance of 善, “morally good”. This is an interesting article in Japanese about the different kanji that be used to write よい. Having said that, I’ve seen this written 良かれと思って in several places, so I think either way is acceptable. Even Japanese natives make mistakes using the non-ideal kanji once in a while.

On a final note, I wanted to mention that while calling 良かれ the command form (命令形) is technically correct, in some usages of this form there is no “command” per se. For example, take the phrase 多かれ少なかれ (ookare sukunakare), which means “more or less”, or the word 何しろ (nanishiro) which means “anyhow”. I’ve found that you can sometimes replace the command form with [te form] + も to get a good feeling for this nuance, for example:

  • 何しろ => 何しても
  • 多かれ少なかれ => 多くても少なくても
  • とは言え => とは言っても
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