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Much ado about ‘nothing but’ in Japanese with ‘shika nai’

by Akemi Tanahashi and Hitomi Tashiro

Contributing Writers

Ōkii o-kane shika nai. (I only have a big bill.)

Situation 1: At a ¥100 shop, Ms. Gray buys two items.

店員: 2点で、216円になります。

グレイ: あ、大きいお金しかない。1万円で、おつりありますか。

Ten’in: Ni-ten de, nihyaku jūroku-en ni narimasu.

Gray: A, ōkii o-kane shika nai. Ichiman-en de, o-tsuri arimasu ka?

Shop clerk: These two items come to ¥216.

Gray: Oh, I only have a big bill. Do you have change for a ¥10,000?

Today we will introduce some uses of the phrase Xしかない/ しかありません (There is nothing but X). When X is a number of something, the pattern emphasizes that the number or quantity X is small. Other verbs in negative form can replace しかない, as in these examples: 参考書(さんこうしょ)は2冊(にさつ)しか持(も)って いない。(I have only two reference books.); 3人(さんにん)しか来 (こ)なかった。(Only three people came.). When X is a noun without a number, the pattern expresses that there is nothing but X, as in: 食欲(しょくよく)がなくて、果物(くだもの)しか食(た)べられない。(I have no appetite and can only eat fruit.); 子(こ)どもたちを 貧困(ひんこん)から救(すく)い出(だ)せるのは、教育(きょういく)しかない。(The only thing that can save children from poverty is education.)

Situation 2: Mr. Sere is worried about his gloomy-looking colleague, Mr. Mita.

三田: ああ、もう会社をやめるしかないのかなあ…。

セレ: どうしたの、深刻な顔をして。

三田: 経理課の川口さんと付き合っていたんだけど、ふられちゃったんだ。彼女の顔を見るとつらくて、もう会社に来られないよ。

Mita: Aa, mō kaisha o yameru shika nai no ka nā…

Sere: Dō shita no, shinkokuna kao o shite.

Mita: Keirika no Kawaguchi-san to tsukiatte-ita-n dakedo, furarechatta-n da. Kanojo no kao o miru to tsurakute, mō kaisha ni korarenai yo.

Mita: Oh, perhaps the only thing left to do is quit the company.

Sere: What’s up with you and that serious face?

Mita: I was going out with Ms. Kawaguchi from accounts, but she dumped me. Seeing her face [every day] is tough. I can’t come to the office any more.

In the pattern Xしかない, X can also be an action verb in dictionary form, in which case the phrase means “there is no other option than to do X,” as in Mr. Mita’s 会社(かいしゃ)をやめるしかない in Situation 2, or: もう、ここまで来(き)たら、やるしかない。(Since we’ve come this far, we’ve got to go through with it.) The colloquial version of やるしかない is やるっきゃない.

Bonus Dialogue: Mrs. Yamashita calls Mrs. Okubo to tell her about her son.

山下: うちの息子(むすこ)ったら、せっかくいい会社に入(はい)ったのに、3か月(さんかげつ)も経(た)たないでやめちゃったのよ。

大久保: 仕事 (しごと) がつらかったの?

山下: それが、いい上司(じょうし)や同僚(どうりょう)に 恵(めぐ)まれて、だんだん仕事がわかってきていたのに、突然(とつぜん)公認会計士(こうにんかい けいし)になりたいって言(い)って。

大久保: あら、すごいじゃない!

山下: 合格(ごうかく)すればね。でも、合格できるのは、 ほんの少(すこ)しでしょ。合格できなかったら…と思(おも)うと、夜(よる)も眠(ねむ)れない。

大久保: 母親(ははおや)が気(き)をもんでも仕方(しかた)ないでしょ。

山下: そうよね。合格を祈(いの)るしかないよね。

大久保: うん。息子さんを信(しん)じるしかない。そして、おいしい晩御飯(ばんごはん)を作(つく)ってあげてね。

Yamashita: My son got into a good company after a great deal of effort, but he quit within three months.

Okubo: Was the job hard?

Yamashita: He was lucky to have a good boss and colleagues, and he gradually came to understand the work. Nevertheless, suddenly (he quit the company), saying he wanted to be a certified public accountant.

Okubo: Wow, that’s amazing!

Yamashita: Yeah, but only if he can pass the exam. But just a small number of people pass. I can’t sleep at night thinking about if he doesn’t pass.

Okubo: It’s no use worrying.

Yamashita: I guess you’re right. I have no choice but to pray.

Okubo: Yeah, all you can do is trust in your son — and cook him a delicious dinner.