Stating the obvious in Japanese (“atarimae”, etc.)

By | March 2, 2020

In this article I’d like to focus on a few ways to state that something is obvious, in the sense that it should be clearly understood or known by everyone. Another way we express this in English is with the phrase “of course”.

Before we get started, I’ll be using the words “darou” and “deshou” in several examples, and if you are not too familiar with these you can review them in this article. But in a nutshell, these words express someone’s opinion, and can have a strong feeling depending on the tone used when spoken.

To begin with, one of the simplest and most common ways to express something being obvious is the word 当たり前 (atarimae). This is often used as a simple response to someone saying something:

  • 日本は遠いね (Nihon wa tooi ne)
    • Japan sure is far.
  • 当たり前だろう! (Atarimae darou!)
    • Of course (it is)!

There are a bunch of other single words that be used in a similar fashion:

  • 勿論 (mochiron) <fairly common in daily conversation>
  • 無論 (muron) <has a literary nuance to it, usage is similar to ‘mochiron’>
  • 当然 (touzen) <sounds a little literary / formal>

Besides the above nuances, there are some differences in how these words are commonly used. One of the major ones is that 勿論 or 無論 can be used as the first word in a sentence, similar to English “Of course…”. For example,

  • もちろん、彼は負けた (mochiron, kare wa maketa)
    • Of course, he lost.

All four of these words can be used as adjectives as long as a の connecting particle follows them:

  • 当たり前のことだよ (atarimae no koto da yo)
  • That’s an obvious thing.

You might be wondering how to say “of course not” in the sense of “of course that is not true”. At first, you might try a phrase like this:

  • 当たり前じゃないよ (atarimae ja nai yo)
  • ???

But it turns out this means “It is not obvious!” and does not mean “Of course not!”. If you think about it, these do not mean the same thing in English.

To express “of course not” let’s learn a little more complicated way to say “of course”. It involves the verb 決まる (kimaru) that means something along the lines of “to be decided” or “to be certain”.

  • 僕が勝つに決まってる!(boku ga katsu ni kimatteru!)
  • I’m obviously going to win!

Literally, this means something like “it’s certain I will win” or “it’s (already) decided that I will win”. The general pattern is to add 〜に決まってる after a noun, na-adjective, or verb in the dictionary or past form. Here’s another example:

  • ポーランドは寒いに決まってるでしょう poorando wa samui ni kimatteru deshou)
  • Poland is obviously cold.

Now back to our question about how to say “of course not”. We can use “ni kimatteru” after a word that disagrees with or negates things. Perhaps one of the most natural phrases is:

  • 違うに決まってる(chigau ni kimatteru)
  • Of course not!

Another natural way to say something is not the case (similar to “of course not”) is the phrase そんなわけないでしょう (sonna wake nai deshou), or some variant of it. Literally I feel that this is a little closer to “There’s no way that is true”, however.

Finally, I want to give another way to express something being obvious using a simple, but very common Japanese word: そう (sou). This word itself is a little tricky to translate, but it may help to think of it as meaning “true” or “that”. I also sometimes think of it in terms of the word “so” in English, like in the phrase “Is that so?”

Anyway, you can use そう to make this simple phrase:

  • それはそうでしょう! (sore wa sou deshou)
  • Of course!

While I have translated this as “of course”, literally it means more like “That is true, right?”

In closing, I was curious about the word origin of 当たり前, which at first appeared to have come from a combination of the words meaning “hit” and “before”. But I discovered the origin is actually much different.

It turns out that 当前 is one way to write 当然 (touzen) as an “ateji” (phonetic equivalent), and “atarimae” simply comes from the kun’yomi (Japanese kanji reading) of 当前.

While I’m talking about 当たり前 I also wanted to mention another interesting usage that caught me off guard when I first heard it.

  • そんな事できて当たり前! (sonna koto dekite atarimae!)
  • It’s obvious to be able to do something like that (literal).

I put the literal translation of this phrase above, but it might be more easily understood in terms of “anybody can do something like that” or “being able to do that is no big deal”.

Grammatically, this phrase is a little odd because is uses the “te”-form to connect things, as opposed to something more structured like: そんな事できるのは当たり前. While grammatically this is correct, it sounds a little awkward and I’ve never actually heard it used before. So I’d recommend memorizing the 〜できて当たり前 phrase, which can be used the potential for of other verbs.

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One thought on “Stating the obvious in Japanese (“atarimae”, etc.)

  1. Tomek

    I just wanted to say I really appreciate your explanations of such often overlooked topics like this one. Also, I chuckled at the ポーランド example, as March has barely started and not only it’s already good 10*C here but we’ve also had even warmer day this winter. 🙂


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