Japan is experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 infections — the dreaded 第4派 (dai yon-pa, fourth wave) — and the country’s vaccine rollout has been criticized for being too slow. With the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics almost two months away, a lot of people may be thinking, 今年、オリンピックを開催できるわけがない (kotoshi, Orinpikku o kaisai dekiru wake ga nai, there is no way that the Olympics can be held this year).

And yet, there is little evidence to suggest a change in course. You can almost hear the collective bewilderment of critics: いったいどういうわけ? (Ittai dō iu wake?, What’s going on?)

Just as confusing as this current state of affairs is the myriad ways in which the term わけ (wake) can be used in Japanese. In English, わけ can be directly translated as “reason” or “cause,” as in, ここに来たわけは言えません (koko ni kita wake wa iemasen, I cannot tell you the reason why I came here). However, わけ is used in various grammatical structures, each with different nuances.

The most basic of these structures is わけだ (wake da), which comes at the end of a sentence. The speaker uses わけだ — or any of its conjugations: わけです (wake desu), わけで (wake de) and so on — to indicate a conclusion based on what they have heard or read.

昨日、恵子ちゃんは三時間しか寝ていないのか。どうりで眠いわけだ (Kinō, Keiko-chan wa san-jikan shika nete-inai no ka. Dōri de nemui wake da, Yesterday, little Keiko slept only three hours? It’s no wonder she is sleepy).

The important thing in the above statement is that the speaker establishes the context in the first sentence and follows up with わけだ to express their conclusion that it’s “no wonder” or “that’s why” Keiko is sleepy.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, professor Koichi Nakano wrote that “collusion among the elites” is why the Olympics are still on. To paraphrase him using the わけ structure: エリート同士が共謀している。どうりでオリンピックの開催が進められるわけだ (Erīto dōshi ga kyōbō shite-iru. Dōri de Orinpikku no kaisai ga susumerareru wake da, The elite are colluding. No wonder [preparations] to hold the Olympics are still proceeding).

わけだ can also come before a follow-up statement to present an established fact or truth, or it can be used to emphasize a fact or truth the listener might not know. In that case, its English equivalents are phrases such as “as you know,” “the fact is that” or “the truth of the matter is.”

ワクチン接種が加速されているわけだが、まだまだ感染の収束は見えない (Wakuchin sesshu ga kasoku sarete-iru wake da ga, mada-mada kansen no shūsoku wa mienai, As you know, vaccine inoculations have been sped up, but there is still no end in sight to the infections).

The fact that vaccine inoculations are making progress is necessary for the follow-up statement about the continued rise in infections to have impact.

And then there’s わけではない (wake dewa nai), which is used to deny what is implied in a previous or subsequent statement, but in a way that doesn’t come across as too direct. Its English equivalents are phrases like “it doesn’t mean that” or “it’s not the case that.”

サッカーが嫌いで部活をやめたわけではない (sakkā ga kirai de bukatsu o yameta wake dewa nai, I didn’t necessarily quit the [soccer] club because I dislike soccer). Here, someone who has recently quit the soccer club is saying that the reason they quit isn’t because they dislike the sport, as someone might assume.

The phrase わけでもない (wake demo nai) essentially has the same meaning as わけではない, but the nuance differs slightly due to the use of the も particle: サッカーが嫌いで部活をやめたわけでもない (sakkā ga kirai de bukatsu o yameta wake demo nai, I did not quit the club because I dislike soccer, either) indicates that the speaker’s dislike of soccer is not the only reason why they quit the club, implying that there are likely several other reasons for quitting.

In contrast, わけはない (wake wa nai) and わけがない (wake ga nai) are phrases that clearly express the speaker’s belief that something isn’t possible. Think of the English versions as being “there’s no way that,” “it’s impossible for” or “cannot.” There’s also a slightly different nuance depending on which particle you use, は (wa) or が (ga). The former is used to highlight what is already known, while the latter refers to new information that has been obtained by the speaker.

At the top of this piece, I introduced the sentence: 今年、オリンピックを開催できるわけがない. The new information was the recent 第4派 and the slow rollout of vaccinations. Based on this, we assumed someone would surmise that there is no way that the Olympics can be held.

Finally, わけにはいかない (wake ni wa ikanai) conveys the idea that the speaker cannot do something due to an external circumstance. In English, we may use phrases such as “cannot help but to” or “have no other choice but to” instead.

感染拡大がこのまま進めば、緊急事態宣言を解除するわけにはいかない (Kansen kakudai ga kono mama susumeba, kinkyū jitai sengen o kaijo suru wake ni wa ikanai, If the infection rate continues to increase, then there will be no choice but to keep the state of emergency declaration in place).

Again, changing the は particle to も (mo) alters the nuance and suggests that there is more than one external circumstance: これから運転しなければなりませんから、お酒を飲むわけにもいきません (Korekara unten shinakereba narimasen kara, o-sake o nomu wake ni mo ikimasen, I have to drive after this, so [that’s the reason] I cannot drink). In this response, the speaker can’t drink because they have to drive, but the use of も suggests there may be other reasons they must abstain.

Japan recently extended and expanded its 三度目の緊急事態宣言 (san-dome no kinkyū jitai sengen, third state of emergency declaration) in several prefectures, but citizens have continued to be vocal in expressing their disapproval about holding the Olympics this summer: 国民の80%以上がオリンピックの中止または延期を望んでいるわけだが、まだ開催の準備が進められている (Kokumin no hachijuppāsento ijō ga Orinpikku no chūshi mata wa enki o nozonde-iru wake da ga, mada kaisai no junbi ga susumerarete-iru, The fact is that over 80% of the public want the Olympics to be canceled or postponed, but preparations to hold [the games] are still proceeding anyway).

In the meantime, the next time someone tells you that using わけ is difficult, you may be able to tell them, そんなに難しいわけでもないよ (sonna ni muzukashii wake demo nai yo, it’s not really that difficult).

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