During your travels in Japan, you will, of course, hear people all around you speaking Japanese. Common words and expressions you may encounter include “kawaii” (cute), “samui” (cold), “atsui” (hot) “ne!” (a tag question meaning “isn’t it?”, “aren’t you?”, etc), arigatou (thank you) and “mata ne” (see you), and more. Have you ever come across the word “daijobu” (sometimes spelled “daijoubu”) before?
If you have heard it before, you might be wondering what the word really indicates. This word is used in various situations, and take on various meanings. It is one of the most widely used Japanese words. So what does it mean, and how can you use it while you are in Japan?
“Daijobu” is written in Japanese kanji using the characters “大” (dai) meaning “big”, 丈 (jo) meaning “height” or “stature”, and 夫 (bu) meaning “husband”. Originally, these three symbols together (大丈夫 / daijoubu) actually meant noble male, but over the years, the meaning has changed completely.
We say “daijobu” when we tell others we are fine, and there is no need to be worried as everything is OK. For example:
- “30 minutes have passed. Will you really be able to arrive on time?” – “Daijobu desu”.
- “I heard you had been suffering from a terrible cold for a week. Are you okay now?” – “Daijobu desu”.
- “I’m so sorry about yesterday.” – “Daijoubu desu.”
“Desu” is a grammatical word which is used as part of a sentence after an adjective or noun; it’s like saying “It is (adjective)” in English.
However, Japanese people recently overuse it and the real meaning of this word is becoming unclear, making it a little confusing for those studying the Japanese language. So, let’s take a look at what kind of situations in which modern people use “daijobu”.
When a waiter asks them “do you want some water?”, people say “daijobu desu” to mean “no thanks” or literally “I’m fine”. But if they ask “Could I pour some more water into your glass?” and people say “daijobu desu”, it can be easy to become confused as to what this “daijobu” indicates. Do they refuse or accept the waiter’s offer? Most of the time you need to hear their tone and gesture.
To avoid confusion, if you’d like some water in a situation like this, it might be better to say “hai, onegaishimasu” (yes, please) or “iie, kekkou desu” (no thanks).
A customer is looking for a skirt, but she doesn’t seem to be able to find the one she wants. She asks the sales clerk, “I want this in a different color.” The clerk answers, “daijobu desu”. In this case, the sales clerk means she is able to order it or something similar, and the customer will get what she wants very soon. It may sound a bit too casual, but today’s young people do communicate with each other in such a way.
A man falls off his bike, and a passerby rushes to help him. She asks “daijobu desu ka?” (adding “ka” turns a Japanese sentence into a question; “daijoubu desu ka” means “are you OK?”), and if he’s not injured, he will respond with “daijobu desu” to indicate that he is fine.
If an old lady drops her groceries and someone helps her pick them up, she may say “daijobu desu!” or “I can handle it/I’m OK”. However, in this situation, you are far more likely to hear “arigato gozaimasu!” (thank you very much)!
The reason why Japanese people love using this magical word, often accompanied with “desu” to make a grammatically correct sentence, is that it can signify both “yes” and “no”, and it is mostly because our own culture lets them do that. We always try to read the situation, be peaceful, and avoid any trouble. “Daijobu” is the best way to prepare a safe answer for any kind of a question. However, it is important to make it clear whether you mean it as a positive or a negative with your facial expression and gesture.
It is probably easy for Japanese beginners to try using “daijobu desu” as the first step to accept something, say “no thank you” to something, or reassure someone that you’re okay. However, please be careful not to overuse it, especially in business, as it is an informal word. Feel free to practice it with your Japanese friends, though! Learning flexible phrases like these is the first stepping stone to learning to speak the Japanese language fluently and effectively. Next time you hear the word “daijobo”, pay attention to the speaker’s facial expression and gestures, practice saying it by yourself, and you’ll be ready to use it naturally like a native speaker in no time at all!