Unfinished Sentences in Japanese: Why They are Used

If you have been learning Japanese for a while you have probably noticed that unfinished sentences are used quite often. It might seem odd to just leave a sentence unfinished, as this is not common in English, but in Japanese unfinished sentences serve an important role in smooth communication. They are a reflection of Japanese culture.

Unfinished sentences are used in Japanese as a way of showing empathy to the listener, to seek consensus, as a politeness strategy, and when the rest can be understood from context. The pause at the end of an unfinished sentence opens a space that encourages the listener to continue the topic.

One of the main reasons for why unfinished sentences come about in Japanese is the relationship of the language to the underlying culture. Two key concepts in Japanese culture that are reflected in the language are 和 (wa) and 思いやり (omoiyari). Wa can be translated to English as harmony. Omoiyari can be translated as thoughtfulness, consideration, or empathy.

In Japanese society there is an expectation that you will strive to maintain harmony and always take care to be considerate and show empathy towards others as you go about your daily business and interactions. Unfinished sentences, used in cases such as expressing an opinion and making or refusing a request, are manifestations of the effort to maintain harmony and show empathy.

Unfinished Sentences in Japanese to Show Empathy and to Seek Consensus

Many researchers have studied the phenomenon of unfinished sentences in Japanese and their implications when used in discourse. The following quote is a good summary of how unfinished sentences translate to empathy towards the listener [1].

…a speaker’s unfinished sentence is an empathic action to the listener and an offer of possibility. This possibility includes potential alternative views, or interpretations other than those of the speaker.

Yoko Hasegawa

Particularly when expressing an opinion, you can leave your sentence unfinished with けど (kedo), which will help make the opinion less definitive and provide an opportunity to the listener to offer a different opinion. For example, let’s say you’re living in a big city in Japan and one of your Japanese friends invites you to come with them to visit their hometown out in the countryside. They might say the following when you arrive,

Welcome to the countryside! There’s nothing here but… 

In the above example [2], by ending their sentence with kedo, your friend has given you an opportunity to respond with your own opinion. Furthermore, you’re not in the awkward position of having to completely disagree with them. You can start by first mildly agreeing with then and then smoothly transition to your differing opinion. You could say something like,

Well, there are no tall buildings, but there is certainly a lot of nature, which is quite refreshing.

Doesn’t this seem like a harmonious and empathic exchange between your friend and you? All just by leaving a sentence unfinished with kedo. Note that kedo is actually a really common ending to unfinished sentences in Japanese. I have written in detail about the many ways kedo is used at the end of unfinished sentences here.

In English, it would probably seem odd if someone said “There is nothing here but…” you’d probably ask them, “But what? What’s the rest of your thought?” If the sentence just ends in “but…” it would feel as though something is missing, but in Japanese it’s the opposite. By un-finishing the sentence with kedo, something gets added to it. The following quote from a thesis by Anne Becker [3] sums it up well,

…an unfinished sentence, rather than being ambiguous, fulfils a linguistic and cultural function of empathy. The space, or ma in Japanese, holds promise and potential, rather than emptiness, which tends to be more an Anglo-centric view.  

Anne Becker

In addition to being a show of empathy, an unfinished sentence is also a tool for preserving harmony. A nice quote from Takie Sugiyama Lebra can help sum up this idea, In Japanese, the speaker’s tendency to leave sentences unfinished is a way of allowing the listener to finish the sentence. This also allows the speaker to check that he or she and the listener are in accord [4].

Another word for accord is consensus.  In the above example, even though you and your friend had differing views of the place in the countryside that you are visiting, you were smoothly able to come to an overall consensus opinion about it which could be summarize as “Although there is nothing here, it is refreshing to be in a place with a lot of nature.”

Unfinished Sentences in Japanese as a Politeness Strategy

Unfinished sentences are also used as a politeness strategy in Japanese, particularly when making a request. For example, I was attending a short training course offered by a company in Japan. There was no public transportation to get there so I had to take a taxi. At the end of the day, when returning to my hotel, a representative from the company called a taxi for me and said the following,

Hello, my name is Yamada of Marumaru Company. I would like to call for a taxi but… 

Again, we have an example of an unfinished sentence ending in “but…”. By un-finishing the sentence with “but” it makes the request sound less imposing to the listener and also opens that space for them to respond in any number of ways. Perhaps the taxi company was really busy at that moment and they couldn’t send a taxi right away. They might have said something like the following,

I am terribly sorry but, at the moment we have no free taxis, so it will take a bit of time but…

Above, the taxi company is now un-finishing their response with “but…”. They are being apologetic about the fact that they can’t dispatch a taxi right away and leaving a space for the caller to respond. Perhaps a taxi is need urgently, so the caller might choose to call another taxi company, or if there is no particular hurry they might ask “How long will it take?”.

Getting back to the original request to call for a taxi, if the taxi company could immediately dispatch, they could proceed with asking questions like “What is the pick-up address?”, “How many passengers?”, “How much luggage?”, “Is a special type of car needed?” The unfinished sentence when requesting the taxi gives space to the person receiving the call at the taxi company to ask their questions in the order they want.

Unfinished Sentences in Japanese When the Rest Can be Understood from Context

Another reason unfinished sentences come about in Japanese is because it can be considered unrefined to make an explicit expression [4]. This seems paradoxical, because on one hand you are trying to be polite and considerate to the listener, but at the same time you are making them work to understand your unsaid meaning. It’s almost as if the speaker is saying, I am trying to be polite by using an unfinished sentence, but please don’t make me have to do something so crass as to have to finish it so that you understand.

To reconcile this, we can look to some unique features of the Japanese culture and the language itself. In terms of Japanese culture, it has been proposed that the listener actually plays a more important role than the speaker [5]. In terms of the Japanese language itself, it has been proposed that Japanese people often already know what is coming at the end of a speaker’s sentence, so it can be left unsaid [6].

In Japanese culture, the listener plays a greater role in successful communication than the speaker… “the listener must know what the speaker really means, regardless of what the speaker literally says, however ambiguous or indirect he or she may be.”

P.M. Clancy

Japanese native speakers often know what’s coming at the end of the speaker’s utterance… in Japanese language, the end of the sentence is relatively less important, compared to English sentences, and native speakers of Japanese predict the remainder of the utterance.

Osamu Mizutani

From the first quote above, we can see that empathy actually goes both ways. Not just the speaker, but the listener as well is responsible for showing empathy to the other person. The speaker’s unfinished sentence is an effort to not be overly imposing with the listener and to give them space to respond, and in turn the listener makes an effort to understand the speaker’s meaning and work towards coming to consensus with them. This form two-way empathy is of course an effort to preserve harmony.

The second quote above hints at a somewhat unique linguistic feature of the Japanese language which makes it possible for unfinished sentences to be used, the ability to predict the rest. Two key purposes of unfinished sentences are to show empathy and to be polite, and thanks to the structure of the language itself, the meaning is still understood. Language and culture are inseparable, and unfinished sentences are an instance where cultural norms are reflected in the language.

Looking at the structure of Japanese sentences from a bit more of a technical standpoint, we can see that it is really particles and connectives that make unfinished sentences possible. The example sentences used in this article end in けど (kedo) and が (ga). These are connectives and I have written more about them here. Another common connective at the end of unfinished sentences is から (kara), which I have written about here.

Finally, we have the particles. For example, you’ll often see in advertisements sentences ending in the particles に (ni) and へ (he) which I have written about here, and the also the particle を (wo) which I have written about here.


[1] Hasegawa, Y. (2012). The Routledge Course in Japanese Translation. NY: Routledge. (As cited in Becker, 2018.)

[2] This example sentence was adapted from a similar example presented in Becker, 2018. The original example is from the book A Wild Sheep Chase, by the famous Japanese author, Murakami Haruki.

[3] Becker, Anne. (2018). Linguistic and Cultural Analysis of Empathy: Strategies for Japanese-English Translation. Curtin University.

[4] Lebra, T. S. (1976). Japanese Patterns of Behaviour. University of Hawaii Press. (As cited in Becker, 2018.)

[5] Clancy, P. (1986). The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese. In: B.Schieffelin and E. Ochs, Eds., Language acquisition and socialization across cultures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (As cited in Becker, 2018.)

[6] Mizutani, O. (1985). Integrated spoken Japanese I. Inter-University Center for Japanee Language Studies. (As cited in Taguchi, 2008, as cited in Becker, 2018.)

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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