Language | WELL SAID

How to carefully express carelessness in Japanese

by Akemi Tanahashi and Hitomi Tashiro

Contributing Writers

Ukkari keitai o ie ni oki-wasurete-kita. (He carelessly forgot his cell phone at home.)

Situation 1: The office section chief, Mr. Okubo, comes into the staff room.

大久保: 三田さんは、まだ?

田町: たった今、連絡がありました。うっかり携帯を家に置き忘れてきたので、取りに戻ったそうです。

Ōkubo: Mita-san wa, mada?

Tamachi: Tatta ima, renraku ga arimashita. Ukkari keitai o ie ni oki-wasurete-kita node, tori ni modotta-sō desu.

Okubo: Mr. Mita, still (hasn’t arrived)?

Tamachi: He just got in touch with me. He carelessly forgot his cell phone at home and went back to get it.

The adverb うっかり (carelessly) and the term ふと (without intention) can be surprisingly useful in everyday situations. When うっかり is used with a verb or verb phrase, it tells you that a person did something absent-mindedly or by mistake, as in: うっかり約束(やくそく)を忘(わす)れてしまった。 (The appointment slipped my mind.)

Without an accompanying verb, it can be used as a suru-verb as in the following examples:

うっかりしていて、駅(えき)を乗(の)り過(す)ごしてしまった。 (I was daydreaming and traveled past my station.)

こんな世(よ)の中(なか)だから、うっかりしてはいられない。 (Since the world is how it is, I can’t be daydreaming.)

There are also some useful compound nouns using うっかり: うっかりミス (mistakes made because of carelessness), うっかり者(もの) (a person who makes lots of mistakes by being careless), うっかり失効(しっこう) (when you let something expire because you forget to renew it).

Situation 2: Ms. Aoyama talks with her senior colleague Ms. Gray about her love life at a coffee shop.

青山: 夜中にふと目が覚めると、「やっぱり彼と別れなければよかったかも…」と思ってしまうんです。

グレイ: 彼のことがまだ忘れられないのね。

Aoyama: Yonaka ni futo me ga sameru to, “Yappari kare to wakarenakereba yokatta kamo …” to omotte-shimau-n desu.

Gurei: Kare no koto ga mada wasurerarenai no ne.

Aoyama: When I wake suddenly in the night, I inevitably think, “Just as I thought, I should have probably never split up with him …”

Gray: Sounds like you still haven’t forgotten him yet.

The adverb ふと also expresses an unintentional or unconscious action, but ふと does not have the connotation of being careless. It modifies an action verb and expresses that a person does something suddenly, unexpectedly or without a reason or purpose, as in Ms. Aoyama’s ふと目(め)が覚(さ)める (to wake suddenly, not knowing why). ふとした is the noun-modifying form that means something happens by chance, as in ふとした出来心 (できごころ, on impulse) or ふとしたきっかけ (an incidental opportunity).

Bonus Dialogue: Mr. Mita asks his colleague Mr. Sere why he has not married his girlfriend Yuri yet. Mr. Sere answers.

セレ: 国際(こくさい)結婚(けっこん)は難(むずか)しいんだ。いつか帰国(きこく)して母(はは)の面倒(めんどう)を見(み)るなんてうっかり言(い)っちゃうと、ゆりは「じゃあ、私(わたし)の親(おや)は誰(だれ)が見るの?」…って言うんだよ。ゆりは一人(ひとり)っ子(こ)だから。

三田(みた): それでも、セレくんがうらやましい。ぼくにも、 どこかにいい人(ひと)いないかなあ。

セレくんは、彼女(かのじょ)とどこで知(し)り合(あ)ったの?

セレ: ふとしたきっかけでね。

三田: もったいぶらないで、教(おし)えてよ。

セレ: もったいぶっている訳(わけ)じゃないけど…、笑(わら)わないでよ。

三田: 笑う訳ないだろ。早(はや)く教えて。

セレ: 歩(ある)いているとき、うっかりハンカチを落(お)としちゃったんだけど、近(ちか)くを歩いていたゆりが拾(ひろ)ってくれたんだ。

三田: 近くにかわいい子がいたから、わざとハンカチを落としたのか! ハハハ、何(なん)て古典的(こてんてき)なやり方(かた)だ!

セレ: ちがうよ、ほんとにうっかり落としたんだよ。だから、言いたくなかったのに…。

Sere: International marriages can be difficult. If I inadvertently say I’ll return to my home country someday and look after my mother, Yuri says, “Then who will look after my parents?” Because Yuri is an only child.

Mita: Even so, I envy you. I wonder if I can find a good lady for me somewhere. Where did you meet her?

Sere: It was by chance.

Mita: Come on, don’t keep me in suspense. Tell me.

Sere: I’m not trying to keep you in suspense, but … Please don’t laugh.

Mita: Why would I laugh? Come on, tell me now.

Sere: When I was walking, I inadvertently dropped my handkerchief and Yuri, who happened to be walking nearby, picked it up.

Mita: Because there was a charming lady nearby, you dropped a handkerchief on purpose! Ha ha ha, what a classic tactic!

Sere: No, I genuinely just carelessly dropped it. This is why I didn’t want to tell you….