Are Japanese Unable to Say “No”?

I have a friend staying in Japan on a Fulbright Scholarship.   I’ll call him “Bill”. He loves it there to the point where he says he doesn’t want to come back.  He commented however, that if there is one thing about the culture that really bugs him, it’s that the Japanese don’t know how to say “no”.

How could this be a bad thing?” you may ask.  Well, Bill’s Fulbright has to do with architecture and there was an interesting house for him to look at.  A friend of his happened to know the owners and said it should be no problem for Bill to take a look at it.  But Bill’s friend later came back to him and said the owners “are busy for the entire year.”  Busy for an entire year?  Nobody is busy for an entire year.  Not even the President.  Bill was incensed.  Why couldn’t they just have said “No”?

So I have pondered this question and I have decided that this is definitely not a unique trait to the Japanese. While I have been told “no” many times in the business, it is very rare to hear “no” from friends and acquaintances, whether they are Asian or not.

I have never heard anyone say, “No, I’m not going to your lame-ass party because I don’t want to.”  Usually, there’s a standard “I’d love to but I’ll be out of town,” or simply “We have other plans,” and no questions are asked.  Those are all “no”s without saying “no”.

When my husband (who is not Japanese) agreed with Bill that not being able to say “no” is a strange trait, I pointed out to him the time he used me to get out of going to a musical (he hates musicals). 
“Iris has a screening thing to go to tonight,” I heard him say over the cell.
“Oh, what’s the screening for?” came the inevitable question. 
He turned to me and asked, “What screening are we going to, Iris?” 
Of course, we didn’t have a screening to go to, so I just looked at him with my “You’re on your own, buddy,” stare.
“Yeah, that movie that’s playing now,” was his lame answer. 
So there was a prime example of his saying “no” without saying “no”.

So why do the Japanese have a reputation for not being able to say “no,” when pretty much everybody uses false excuses sometimes?  In a book entitled “Intercultural Encounters with Japan” there’s a description of  “Sixteen ways to avoid saying no in Japan,” which includes everything from ignoring the question to giving a vague “yes,” when the answer is “no”.

My conclusion is that Japanese just aren’t as good at coming up with excuses on the fly, and thus the reputation.  “We’re busy for the entire year,” just makes their disguised “no”s too transparent.  I know people who would be able to come up with solid excuses without skipping a beat: “We just had a bathroom flood and we’re waiting for the mold spore tests to come back, but it’s not looking good.” or “My mother-in-law is staying with us indefinitely and unfortunately, her dementia makes it difficult for us to control her tendencies to run around the house naked.”  …OK, so my excuses are just as lame, and yeah, I have a hard time saying “no”.

15 thoughts on “Are Japanese Unable to Say “No”?

  1. Why does the word no even exist? Vague yes, funny want to see how exactly that one works.

  2. Same thing with Filipinos, I guess. We can’t say “no” to anyone. The reason for this is that we do not want to disappoint people by saying “no”. One of my college profs once told us that whenever his French friends ask him something and he says “yes (oui)”, they would ask him again, ” yes yes? (oui oui?) or yes no? (oui non?)”.

    Another classic example: The sentence “I’ll try” is the same as saying NO in Filipino society. If you ask your friend if she can come to your party and she says “I’ll try”, that means NO she can’t. Everybody knows it means NO yet we still prefer to use I’LL TRY.

  3. You know something that’s funny about Korea, is that when they want to suggest something, they ask it in the negative as to give the questionee a chance to say no.

    It makes sense some of the time, “Aren’t you hungry?” (or more accurately, “are you not hungry?”) so you could come back, “No of course I am, lets eat.” It seems a little more rude however when they ask, “Aren’t you full?”

    That said however, they are really bad at declining the sorts of requests your talking about (“Hey buddy, can i borrow your weed whacker?”) when a simple no would just make things easier

  4. Its all about being nice and not wanting to hurt feelings. You can’t really say, “I don’t want to go to your lame ass party” because its a little mean. Saying “no” is vague and mean. So some flimsy excuse will have to do to spare somebody’s feelings.

  5. Damn, I usually just say no or the equivalent of “I don’t want to go to your lame ass party.” I guess I need to be more stealth about saying no then which means I’ll be saying more of the “I’m busy for the entire year” excuse.

  6. It’s all about cultural norms. In Japan, it’s like “We humbly request that you keep off the grass. We sincerely apologize for our audacity in making such a request.” In China, it’s like “Don’t Step On Motherfucking Grass.” I’ve never been to Korea, but it’s probably like “Don’t Step on the Grass. I know you want to, you grass-stepping cretin. I can see it in your eyes. If you do I’ll come find you.”

  7. To Mac Lu

    Koreans would be more like
    “What the fuck you stepping on, Bastard dog? How old are you? 89? Im 90yrs, so show some ffin respect!! Dont even Look at the Grass, you Mutherfucka!!”

  8. “…busy for the entire year.”
    Hahahhahaha…..I’ll have to remember that one. TOTALLY stealing it. Thanks! :-D

    Hmmmm…..my mom (Asian, but not Japanese) never hears the word “no” even if it is said directly.
    Mom: Are you still hungry?
    Answer: No, I’m full, thanks.
    Mom: Here, have another (insert mega-sized food item).

    NEXT time =
    Mom: Are you still hungry?
    Answer: I’m busy for the entire year.
    Mom: Here, have another and take some extra home too.

    ~sigh~

  9. I’m gonna try asking some Japanese girls “Aren’t you horny?”, “Don’t you want to do the waist shake with me?” and “Won’t you help me test these kimonos?” If I get anything other than a “hai” I’m gonna go kamikaze in their crotch. lol

  10. Saying stuff like they are busy for the entire year IS the Japanese way of saying no. Tell your friend to learn a little bit about the culture there. Actually saying “no” would be considered overly rude and offensive there. They are just trying to be respectful.

  11. Saying no is too blunt and rude. They dont want to hurt people’s feelings…They say no, but just in a passive way. Such as, “do you want to hang out?”
    Yes is “yes!”
    No is, “a little…”
    But the people asking (who know the language) will know that yes=yes; a little=no.

    In China, it’s like “Don’t Step On Motherfucking Grass.” <—–LOL. This is so true! Chinese are very blunt and rude haha. GTFO my lawn! XD

  12. If you offer refreshments to Japanese, they always say “no.” A sincere offer is given three times. If they still say “no,” they really mean it.

    Here in Charlotte, if a repairman doesn’t want your job because it’s too small for him to bother with, he simply doesn’t show up for the appointment he made with you. After you’ve taken time off from work and fought traffic for a half hour to meet him at the house (for the second time), you wish you were in New York, where he would have just said, “What are you crazy, Lady? I can’t make any money doing a small job like this!”

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