When talking about Japan and its people, it is often said that compared to people from other countries, Japanese tend to view themselves as belonging to a shy nation. Manners and politeness are of great importance within Japanese society, and thus a straightforward NO in Japanese is hardly spoken.
Even if Japanese people would like to say “no” in their mind, they are often afraid that the person they’re speaking with might feel bad if they say so. So, typically they may pretend to go along with what someone has said to them. Instead, a “no” is communicated by gracefully avoiding a direct answer.
Japanese Culture and Avoiding the Word NO
This curious trait of Japanese people avoiding a straightforward "no" is directly connected to the roots of the Japanese language itself – and the people that are speaking it, of course.
Let’s look at an example: if a friend invited you over to dinner or a party and you want to decline, the conversation will look somewhat like this in English:
Q: You are not coming tonight, right?
A: No, I’m not coming.
Naturally, the question is answered with the word “no.”
Let’s compare the same conversation as it would happen between two Japanese people:
Q: Konya korarenai no desu yo ne? - You cannot come tonight, right?
A: Hai, watashi wa kyou ikenai no desu. - That’s right, I cannot come today.
As you can see, in Japanese the question is not answered with a no but with a yes (“hai”), even though the answer clearly is a refusal. This example already illustrates how deeply the culture of not saying no is rooted in the Japanese consciousness.
While this example conversation might seem rather mundane, it becomes evident that there is a different mindset to saying no to something between Japan and other countries, particularly with the English-speaking world.
In the English language, refusing something directly with the word “no” doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, and is generally done without thinking twice about it – the circumstances and the topic of the conversation aside:
-“I don’t think that will work.”
-“I think this is a bad idea.”
This, of course, doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t considerate about their conversational partner and simply shut them down with a brisk NO whenever possible.
However, even in delicate situations, a well-phrased direct no is perfectly acceptable as opposed to the Japanese language, where a straightforward refusal does have negative connotations. Of course, certain situations do require a flat-out NO but in regular conversations, a refusal is done by carefully rounded expressions that make using words that seem too harsh unnecessary.
Even when an actual NO is required, it is generally followed by an apologetic expression or a phrase that nonetheless signals interest, to soften the impact of a NO.
How to Say NO in Japanese
Even when talking to friends, Japanese people generally do not say NO directly, leading conversations to look somewhat like this:
Q: “I’ll have a party with some of my friends this Friday night. Would you like to join us?”
A1: “Sorry. I’ve got plans on Friday. I will try to make it next time!”
In Japanese: ごめんなさい。金曜日はちょっと予定があって厳しそう。また誘ってください。(Gomennasai. kinyoubi wa chotto yotei ga atte kibishisou. Mata sasotte kudasai.)
A2: “Thanks for the invitation! I will think about it.”
In Japanese: お誘いありがとうございます。検討させてください。(Osasoi arigatou gozaimasu. Kentou sasete kudasai.)
A3: “I have been busy lately. I’ll have to pass on that this time.”
In Japanese: ちょっと最近忙しくて。今回は見送らせてください。(Chotto saikin isogashikute. Konkai wa miokurasete kudasai.)
Japanese people in particular often tend to feign interest in a person or subject they’re not actually interested in, in an effort to protect their conversational partner’s feelings.
While this might seem like a malicious act in other cultures, it is perfectly acceptable in Japan and deemed as an act of respect towards those around you. But what is the best way to reply when you actually find yourself in need of properly saying no?
You might want to do it the authentically Japanese way and soften the blow of the NO with an apology, or a phrase that nonetheless shows your interest in the subject and speaker. This certain kind of mindfulness towards others is a very important part of Japanese communication. Here are some examples:
・すごく楽しそうなのだけど… It sounds really fun, but...
・行きたいのはやまやまだけど… I would really like to go/come/join, but...
・本当に申し訳ないのだけど… I am so sorry, but...
・ごめんなさい、次回は必ず… I’m sorry, but next time for sure!
By the way – these sentences can be ended with a けど (but), as it implies that a direct NO ultimately follows but is never actually spoken.
It goes without saying that this polite mindfulness is waived in certain situations. If you find yourself being approached by a suspicious person in a train or on the street, for example, or generally find yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable, do put yourself first and don’t be concerned without another person’s feelings.
Indeed, it is rare to hear a flat-out NO from a Japanese person. Rather, refusals are communicated via a gentle vagueness. Manners, etiquette, and respect towards one another play key roles in Japanese society, so being mindful of a situation and one’s conversational partner is important. When in Japan, why not try to be a part of this mindfulness yourself and make the NO a word for certain situations only?
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