While saying "No" in Asia is generally different from other countries in western Europe, I made the experience that - depending on how well you know people and in which environment you are - it is much more difficult to find out what the actual situation is in Japan than let's say in China, Singapore etc. I experienced the biggest differences to the Japanese behavior in Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India and Vietnam.
And before people slam my answer (as before) as not being applicable for the weekend tourist trying to buy a train ticket, please remember that regular business travel to a country is STILL travel and ON topic here. I further consider extended explanations as important to better understand the cultural detail while maybe not all parts of the explanation are 100% usable during every days tourism in Japan.
Saying "No" in general
There are varying levels of issues here depending on your relationship to people (are you a tourist, a customer, a friend, a boss etc) where in general, as a foreigner, you might be treated with more politeness and therefore will have more issues detecting the "No". Confusingly, there might be exceptions when Japanese people tend to be more direct and/or forgiving with foreigners in a sort of "He is a foreigner, he does not know better" way (Henna Gai Jin). In general I have to say that your presence will be much more appreciated if you can avoid relying on the fact that you, as a foreigner, are seemingly less required to stick to Japanese customs.
Please be aware that the more formal the environment is, the less you will hear a "no". In any formal conversation, a "No" is actually highly impolite. I have a Japanese-Japanese-English dictionary which actually tells people what to say (in Ja and Eng) in different situations in an office environment depending on what they think (in Ja). And in none of the sentences where "What you think" is along the lines of "we cannot do that" being actually translated as "No". The typical answers of decline are "We have to study the situation" or other evasive answers. Even the "Shikata ga nai" ("We cannot help it") is extremely rare and normally used only when all are victims to a common adverse situation. Saying "No" is something that you will hear only from people who feel superior towards you (teachers, bosses, home-stay parents parents etc), in most direct but still relatively polite form being "Ya" ("No") and much, much more seldom in the often too direct forms of "Damé" (Don't do that), "Muri" (Impossible) etc. Many Japanese people chuckle when they hear foreigners using one-word statements as above, but also positive ones such as "Mochiron" (Of course!) since that's not something heard very often.
Situations where people want to decline but may not:
First of all, we have to be aware that there are several types of "No" in any language: Here the 4 most important ones:
- Not being able to do something immediately (as in "We do not have this product") where it becomes quickly apparent and the person by any means cannot simply say "Here you go".
- Not being able to do something but it could be done later (as in "Are you able to finish this until tomorrow?") where the person can confirm now and live with the issue later
- Being able to do something but actually not wanting to do so (i.e. accepting to do something to be polite)
- Being forced to commit to something because there is a feeling that it is very important for you
How to avoid the situation in the first place:
In that context, there are several behaviors that make you get a better answer in the first place, since you offer the asked person a way out without them feeling obliged to say "yes" to something they actually do not want to say "yes" to:
1) Do not ask direct questions if possible. If you ask a question where the only answers can be "yes" or "no", you corner people. Rather ask them for possibilities or general statements. If you need to get to the station, instead of asking if someone can take you, ask them how to get there. If the other person wants to drive you, they will offer, otherwise recommend public transport.
2) Do not mention how much you love something. There is a high risk that people will try everything to get it for you. People might take a picture off their wall or take off their necktie and hand them to you if you start admiring something too much. If you want to make a compliment, rather praise their taste etc.
3) Discuss methods to get something done instead of asking people directly to do something. While this of course is more applicable in a business field, this behavior is the main reason for frustration between foreign companies working with their Japanese subsidiaries. This is a more widespread issue all over Asia, specially in Boss/Employee relationships. Once you know how difficult it is to get something done, you can make an assessment if you really want it done, instead of expecting the other person to you that something requires a lot of effort. Satisfying the boss is seen as more important than the own health in many cases, resulting in extreme cases in Karōshi.
How to detect the situation
There are several very clear vocal signs and body language from which you can deduce that someone is not able to fulfill whatever request:
- Scratching the head
- tilting the head
- audibly pulling in air through the teeth
- saying "Chotto..."
- saying "Sou desu neee..."
- saying "Maa, neee...."
- having long pauses in the answer
- any combination of the above
So here a couple of examples from my personal experience:
You stand in the street and look for the closes subway station. You ask someone directly and get some of the above reactions. You see the person thinking, and wait for an answer. The person will eventually send you in whatever direction to get rid of you. Best would be to recognize the signs quickly, bow, say thanks and move on.
You look at someone's property (a necktie for example) and mention how much you like the bird pattern, since birds are your most loved animals and the color is so nice. The risk (unless the person cannot give it away for other reasons) is that he will take it off and give it to you. Better would be to briefly mention it and say the person is always so well dressed.
You are in a meeting in Japan and you have a telco with the headquartes the next day. You think it would be great to have a report from the Japanese team and ask them if they can send it to you so you can use it for that telco. You will receive it the next day and only later hear from another coworker that the team stayed overnight in the office to make the report for you. It would be better to ask if the report is available and if not, how much time it would take to make it. Then you can evaluate if their workload will be warranted for the benefit of the report.