Becoming good with “ii”: Understanding the differences between good/bad and ii/warui

Good, Bad vs Ii, Warui

When learning and/or listening to Japanese, you’ve no doubt come across the terms ii (いい) and warui (わるい). While it may seem like they can be translated to being “good” and “bad” in English, JCMU Japanese language instructor Keiko Melville wants you to know that this isn’t always the case! Read Melville-sensei’s explanations below to discover the different nuances each of these words hold in their respective languages.


The words “good” and “bad” are used differently between English and Japanese speakers. English speakers use the word “bad” more loosely than Japanese Speakers. For example:

  • Ms. Tanaka is a bad person.

In English, this sentence does not necessarily indicate the specific meaning of “bad.” On the other hand in Japanese:

  • 田中さんは、悪い人だ。
    Tanaka-san wa, warui hito da.

While translating to be the same as the above English sentence, this Japanese version’s use of warui (わるい) indicates that the subject is criminal-like.

Is ii (いい) always good?

Does the Japanese word ii (いい) always indicate a positive meaning? Let’s consider the following conversations:

  • Host: Would you like some more coffee?
    コーヒーをもっといかがですか?
    Koohii o motto ikaga desu ka?

Guest 1: Sounds good.
いいですね。
Ii desu ne.

Guest 2: No thanks.
もう、いいです。
Mou, ii desu.

  • Doctor: How are you feeling today?
    今日は調子はどうですか。
    Kyou wa choushi wa dou desu ka.

Patient: Thank you, I feel good today.
ありがとうございます。今日は調子がいいです。
Arigatou gozaimasu. Kyou wa choushi ga ii desu.

  • Friend A: I do not understand why Tom is so popular.
    トムはどうしてそんなに人気(にんき)があるのかわからないよ。
    Tomu wa doushite sonna ni ninki ga aru no ka wakaranai yo.

Friend B: Well, because he is a smooth talker, don’t you think?
そうだね。トムは調子がいいからじゃないかな?
Sou da ne. Tomu wa choushi ga ii kara ja nai ka na.

At first glance, it may seem like ii (いい) always indicate a positive meaning. As you can see though, it has both positive and negative connotations depending on the situation. Let’s translate the next sentence into English.

  1. 兄はいい年をして両親からこずかいをもらっている。
    Ani wa ii toshi o shite ryoushin kara kozukai o moratte iru.
    (English answer at the end of the article)

Do you think this expression  “ii toshi o shite” (“いい年をして”) shows a positive connotation or a negative connotation?

So how are they used differently than “good” and “bad,” then?

When we make a universal moral judgment, we can use “good” and “bad” in English the same ways that ii (いい) and warui (わるい) are used in Japanese. For example:

  • 田中さんは人がいい
    Tanaka-san wa hito ga ii.
    Ms. Tanaka is a good person.
  • 田中さんは人が悪い
    Tanaka-san wa hito ga warui.
    Ms. Tanaka is a bad person.

However, in many other instances, they cannot be used as interchangeably. Consider how you would answer your friends after they ask for your opinion on a movie you just watched. In English, it would be okay to say “it was good” or “it was bad,” right? In Japanese, you can certainly say the following:

  • おもしろかったです。
    Omoshirokatta desu.
    It was interesting.
  • よかったです。
    Yokatta desu.
    It was good.

On the other hand, it is not natural to say the following:

  • わるかったです。
    Warukatta desu.
    It was evil.

Many students use warui (わるい) in the same way that they would use the English word “bad,” but as this example shows, this does not always work. When you consider using the word warui (わるい), please try to use a different expression or determine whether or not it is the correct word choice in context. Thus, the English words “good” and “bad” are not exactly the same as ii (いい) and warui (わるい).

I hope that this article gives you a chance to consider the diversity of meanings that these adjectives hold in both English and Japanese.

~

  1. “My big brother gets an allowance from my parents like a child.” The nuance of the sentence is closer to “My big brother is old enough to be independent of our parents, but he still gets an allowance from them,” so the use of ii (いい) here actually has a negative connotation.

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