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I was reading 羅生門 by 芥川龍之介, and in the last part this sentence show up.

下人は、饑死をするか盗人になるかに、迷わなかったばかりではない。

I don't quite understand the last verb + ばかり + ではない: the double negation in Japanese means an affirmation (right?), but even with this I don't understand.

I think 羅生門 is quite popular, but for the sake of context, I post the whole paragraph.

下人は、太刀を鞘におさめて、その太刀の柄を左の手でおさえながら、冷然として、この話を聞いていた。勿論、右の手では、赤く頬に膿を持った大きなにきびを気にしながら、聞いているのである。しかし、これを聞いている中に、下人の心には、ある勇気が生まれて来た。それは、さっき門の下で、この男には欠けていた勇気である。そうして、またさっきこの門の上へ上って、この老婆を捕えた時の勇気とは、全然、反対な方向に動こうとする勇気である。下人は、饑死をするか盗人になるかに、迷わなかったばかりではない。 その時のこの男の心もちから云えば、饑死などと云う事は、ほとんど、考える事さえ出来ないほど、意識の外に追い出されていた。

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    Although the sentence does contain two negatives, because of the inclusion of ばかり before ではない they don't actually create a double negation. Do the linked question and naruto's answer to it help you? japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/38674/… If not, I think maybe you should edit your question to make it clearer what the problem is, and include a provisional translation of the last two sentences in the paragraph you've quoted to show how you're currently understanding them. And by the way, thanks for including the context! That's always a good idea.
    – Nanigashi
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 23:38
  • Ohh I see now. It's actually similar to だけでなく. Usually I don't study grammar point like this, because in context I can more or less guess the meaning, but this case the negative verb throw me off. Thanks! Commented May 18, 2023 at 11:29
  • @Nanigashi Can I ask a totally not related question? In the sentence "勿論、右の手では、赤く頬に膿を持った大きなにきびを気にしながら、聞いているのである" what is the reading of the kanji 頬? ほお or ほほ? I think there isn't furigana in the original text. Commented May 18, 2023 at 11:33
  • Sorry, but since both readings of 頬 are acceptable, I don't know which one is likelier to have been intended here. (Also, I should remind you that we aren't really supposed to ask questions in comments.)
    – Nanigashi
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 12:24

1 Answer 1

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It's similar to the "not only ... but also ..." construction in English. (In fact, it might have started as a translation of that.) It might look tricky when the first part stands as a sentence, but usually the second part is explicitly written in the next sentence, or otherwise implied somehow.

  • ばかり = only
  • ではない = not
  • ばかりではない = not only ...
  • なかったばかりではない = not only had [he] no ...

The gist of the last two sentences is:

Not only did he have no hesitation [on the choice] between starving himself to death and robbing someone, but [furthermore] starving was entirely out of the question in his mind.

I combined the two because it seems to make more sense in English that way. However, I don't think this difference is crucial. I think you can say something similar in two sentences in English, too. You can replace ばかりではない with ばかりでなく and combine the two sentences - the difference between the construction before and after the change is minimal, and both are normal.

the double negation in Japanese means an affirmation

In this case, the outer negation is applied to the "only" part and not to the verb - it means "not only" = "there is more". So there is only one negation applied to the verb (迷わなかった) and it is negative.

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  • Is this a case of a inverted, or at least not normal, sentece order? Like you point out the original in japanese is break in two sentences, while your E glish translation (and in Italian too) it makes more sense in a single sentence Commented May 18, 2023 at 11:38
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    I can think of saying something similar in two sentences in English: "The thing was not just .... In fact, ..." But perhaps "not only... but also..." pattern is more straightforward in English. Commented May 18, 2023 at 12:29
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    The Japanese construction is not abnormal, by the way. I'll edit my answer about it. Commented May 18, 2023 at 12:31
  • Great answer, but when "not only" comes at the beginning of the clause, we have to invert the word order of what follows. In this case, that yields the rather archaic-sounding "not only had he no hesitation," which might be OK in this case since the source text is so old. But usually we'd change it to "Not only did he have no hesitation," or better, "not only did he not hesitate," "not only did he not waver," etc. Also, in this case it's just "starving" or "starving to death," not "starving himself."
    – Nanigashi
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 12:36
  • Thanks a lot, I believe I fixed them now. Commented May 20, 2023 at 1:50

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