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How should I choose between [知]{し}る and わかる?

I often get puzzled when I ask a question and the other person says 分からない or 分からん, when they seem to understand but they don't have the answer. In which case I would expect them to say 知らない. Am I mistaken, or is this a nuance of Japanese?

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    “when they seem to understand” … the answer? I do not think that it is common for someone to understand an answer and not to have the answer at the same time. Dec 28 '11 at 14:35
  • @TsuyoshiIto : I think he is saying that they understood the question.
    – fefe
    Dec 28 '11 at 15:00
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    It's subtle: If you want to be polite try to use わからない when possible because 知らない implies that you don't care. For example if you're asked "Have you seen my keys?" then it's nicer to say わからない. See for example here for a more detailed explanation. Hope this helps. Dec 28 '11 at 15:47
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    The answer here might help: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/1659/…
    – Questioner
    Dec 28 '11 at 16:01
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    @fefe: I see. jjg: わからない does not mean 質問がわからない. It means 答えがわからない. わからない and 知らない do not correspond well to “I do not understand” and “I do not know” in English. Dec 28 '11 at 23:37

Maybe you are bothered too much with the translations "know" and "understand". I feel that these translation are not that bad, but they may only be reflecting some shades of the meanings, and do not match precisely. The distinction is like this:

  • 知る: To objectively come to know (have in mind) an established fact. (知っている is 'to know'.) Does not require thinking (computation); it is just about memory.
  • 分かる: To subjectively grasp/accept the mechanism/reasoning/meaning behind something, or being able to handle/analyze/conclude something through thinking. As the kanji indicates, this verb is related to 分ける, which means 'to divide', which leads to 'analyzing'.

In case of a question given, if it is something you need to think of or if it is a question that you have heard for the first time (which is the majority of cases), then 分かる/分からない is appropriate. If it is something that you either simply know or not, then 知っている/知らない is appropriate (Be aware that it is not 知る/知らない).

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    I think it's important the fact that we use "を" for 知る and "が" for わかる. this can mean that 知る is a kind of "ACTION of understanding" and わかる a "STATE of understanding" (知りたい: I want to know; 分かりたい: I want to understand). my teacher also said that sometimes when they say "知らない", they mean that they DON'T KNOW AND DON'T WANT TO KNOW (don't make a effort to know)! so we can say that 知らない in some cases is stronger than わからない. Jan 2 '12 at 14:26

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