Friday, January 11, 2019

-gatai ~がたい, ~難い

In Japanese, -gatai ~がたい, also written -gatai ~難い, is an auxiliary adjective that means something "hard to do" because you aren't willing to do it, or it's "hard to happen" because you don't believe it normally happen.

(not to be confused with gattai 合体, which means "to combine.")

Example of -gatai ~がたい used in Japanese, from manga Made in Abyss, メイドインアビス
Manga: Made in Abyss, Meido in Abisu メイドインアビス


As an auxiliary adjective, -gatai ~がたい is attached to the masu stem of verbs, also called their "connective form," ren'youkei 連用形.
  • suru する
    To do.
  • shimasu します
    To do. (polite form.)
  • shi
  • shigataiがたい
    Hard to do.


The word -gatai ~がたい can be conjugated just liked any i-adjective.
  • -gatai ~がたい
    Hard [to do].
  • -gatakatta ~がたかった
    Was hard [to do].
  • -gatakunai ~がたくない
    Not hard [to do].
  • -gatakunakatta ~がたくなかった
    Was not hard [to do].

Although it's grammatically valid to inflect it to negative (is not, was not), in practice those inflections are rarely used, as -gatai is mostly used to say something is difficult to do, not to say something isn't difficult to do.


When -gatai is written with kanji it becomes -gatai ~難い, written with the kanji for the word "difficult," muzukashii 難しい.

Confusingly, -nikui ~にくい, another auxiliary adjective that also means something is "hard to do," can also be written with kanji as -nikui ~難い. That is, -gatai and -nikui are written the same way when they're written with kanji, they're homographs.

Katai 難い

The word katai 難い, an adjective meaning "difficult," is where the auxiliary adjective -gatai ~難い comes from.

The ka か becomes ga が due to a change in pronunciation called rendaku 連濁, which adds a "diacritic," dakuten 濁点, to the suffix.

To make matters more confusing, katai 難い, "difficult," is homonym with katai 固い, "solid." And to make them even more confusing, in English there's word that's synonymous with both "difficult" and "solid," the word "hard."

~がたい vs. ~にくい

The word -gatai is very similar to -nikui ~にくい, which also means something is hard to do, but there are some differences.

Note that, regardless of the differences, most of the time people will say -nikui rather than -gatai anyway because -gatai is more used in writing, in some set phrases, and by characters in manga who speak in a more solemn, literary way, while -nikui is more used in normal speech.

Resisting to Do It

One difference between -gatai and -nikui ~にくい is that -nikui is something that's difficult to achieve or to happen due its nature, while -gatai expresses that something is hard to do because you find resistance doing it.

For example:
  • iu 言う
    To say.
  • iinikui 言いにくい
    Hard to say, because of the nature of what's being said.
    Anyone would find this hard to say.
  • iigatai 言いがたい
    Hard to say, because I'd rather not say it.
    Maybe I'm not so sure about it, so I'd like to refrain from making a comment.

This means that -nikui is more objective, difficult for anyone, while -gatai is subjective, difficult for you.

Furthermore, -nikui means that, while complicated to do, it's possible to achieve, while -gatai means that, because of reasons, you think it's probably not gonna happen.

I'd Rather Not

You'll see that -gatai is often used with verbs where the difficulty isn't that the process is complicated or that the execution in practice is troublesome (-nikui), the difficulty is merely your willingness to do it. (-gatai).
  • shinjiru 信じる
    To believe.
  • shinjigatai 信じがたい
    Hard to believe.
    I'd rather not believe it.
  • yurusu 許す
    To forgive.
  • yurushigatai 許しがたい
    Hard to forgive.
    I'd rather not forgive it.
  • yurushigatai koui 許しがたい行為
    An act [that's] hard to forgive.
    Unforgivable act.
  • mitomeru 認める
    To acknowledge.
  • mitomegatai 認めがたい
    Hard to acknowledge.
    I'd rather not acknowledge it.
    I'll never admit it!

Psychological Verbs

It's also used with verbs related to the mind, in which the difficulty is entirely psychological.
  • wasureru 忘れる
    To forget.
  • wasuregatai 忘れがたい
    Hard to forget.
    I'd rather not forget it.
  • kangaeru 考える
    To think.
  • kangaegatai 考えがたい
    Hard to think.
    I'd rather not think it's so.
  • rikai suru 理解する
    To comprehend.
  • rikai shigatai 理解しがたい
    Hard to comprehend.
    To me, it makes no sense. I can't comprehend it.
  • taeru 耐える
    To endure. To tolerate. To bear.
  • taegatai 耐えがたい
    Hard to endure.
    Intolerable. Unbearable.
  • taegatai kutsujoku 耐えがたい屈辱
    An humiliation [that's] hard to endure.
    An unbearable humiliation.

Note that, although -gatai is generally translated as if something "can't" happen, it doesn't literally mean it "can't" happen, just that you believe it's so difficult to happen it probably won't happen.

That is, it's different from a negative potential conjugation of a verb:
  • shinjirarenai 信じられない
    Can't believe [it].

Although, in practice, the example above has pretty much the same meaning as shinjigatai.

Probably Not Gonna Happen

Another case is that -gatai implies something is difficult to occur, that it's rare for it to occur.
  • aru 有る
    To have.
  • arigatai 有り難い
    Hard to have. Hard to come by.
    • arigatou 有難う
      "Thanks" comes from the adjective above.
  • eru 得る
    To acquire.
  • egatai 得がたい
    Hard to acquire.

Note that, while -nikui can also mean something is hard to happen, its meaning is slightly different. For example:
  • kowarenikui 壊れにくい
    Hard to break. Rarely breaks.
    Something that's hard to break because of how it's built, but, like all things, will eventually break, just not as easily as other, more breakable things.
  • kowaregatai 壊れがたい
    Hard to break. Probably won't break.
    Something you believe to be hard to break because you think it's absolutely unbreakable, or maybe you believe it would take a lot to break it, anyway, you don't think it's going to break easily, anytime soon or ever.

~がたい vs. ~づらい

The difference between -gatai and -dzurai ~づらい is that, while both are subjective ways to say something is difficult, -dzurai means something is hard to do because it causes distress, whereas -gatai means something is hard to do because you don't want to do it.

For example:
  • hanashinikui 話しにくい
    Hard to talk.
    Because I don't have the time to talk. Anyone in my position would have difficulty talking.
  • hanashidzurai 話しづらい
    Hard to talk.
    Because it's a subject that makes me uncomfortable.
  • hanashigatai 話しがたい
    Hard to talk.
    Because it's a subject I'd rather not talk about.
    Because it's someone that I believe I probably won't be able to talk with.

Doshitagai 度し難い

In the manga and anime Made in Abyss, the word doshigatai 度し難い is a catch-phrase used by Reg, one of the characters. This word isn't really common in real-life Japanese as it is in the manga, but since it contains the suffix -gatai, I feel this article is the best place to explain what doshigatai means:

度し難い quote from manga Made in Abyss, メイドインアビス
Manga: Made in Abyss, Meido in Abisu メイドインアビス

Further Reading


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  1. Great post! Also wanted to say thanks for the blog in general, it's well written with smooth prose and an enjoyable mix of humor and useful content.