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I have come across a few situations when a Japanese person will extend themselves beyond what they probably should to help people. I am often worried when asking them to do something that they will not refuse for whatever reason. I am wondering if there is a way to ask them for help so that you can give them the opportunity to decline without them feeling bad or to gauge their response and if they don't really want to them to tell them not to worry about it.

I haven't had any particular experience with other cultures where this is a real problem, but on many occasions (both in Japan and outside of Japan) this has led to some awkward situations where I didn't realize that they were not really going to be quite as helpful as they suggested in their response.

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    Ask in a rude way, so they won't be shy to refuse :D – Nean Der Thal May 5 '13 at 22:49
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    @PersianCat I heard from a couple of people that this is actually a big problem with Japanese. They said that when you ask someone for directions, they would rather show you a wrong way instead of saying 'sorry, I don't know'. I'm curious if someone here can confirm these stories and find a solution how to deal with it. – Rabbit May 6 '13 at 0:44
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    @PersianCat ohh, didn't know about that! Then right, the question is too broad, unless there is some expert who knows specifically how to 'hack' Japanese ;) – Rabbit May 6 '13 at 0:52
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    I in fact do think that it is a travel problem. I am not so socially competent which I balance by reading other peoples emotions and reactions. I find that practically impossible for Japanese people, so I am pretty interested in the answer of this question because I meet Japanese people in my home country and would like to know what they really want to tell me. – Thorsten S. May 6 '13 at 12:28
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    @PersianCat While the question might be applicable to several countries in Asia, the answer is completely different for Japan than for any other Asian country I know. – uncovery May 10 '13 at 9:59
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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:

  1. 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".
  2. 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
  3. Being able to do something but actually not wanting to do so (i.e. accepting to do something to be polite)
  4. 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.

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    Thank you very much for the vocal signs and body language ! +1. – Thorsten S. May 6 '13 at 13:00
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    @AndrewGrimm Rather say nothing? – uncovery May 6 '13 at 23:19
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    This is a great answer! I lived and worked in Japan for many years and I agree with these examples and suggestions. Most importantly here is "try to not ask direct questions", the Japanese language itself is nicely built around the idea of describing a situation (eg. indirectly describing a situation) and giving space to see if the other party is capable/willing to assist. – MOK9 May 10 '13 at 7:35
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    People might take a picture of their wall Much as it made me chuckle, I think you mean "off their wall" (as in, they might remove their picture from their wall to give it to you). – starsplusplus Apr 14 '14 at 14:10
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    That explains why a gatekeeper at a museum once gave me a origami piece he was working on after pointing out how beautiful it was... – nbubis Nov 4 '14 at 14:04
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While this phenomenon exists, it's not as big a problem as you think, and it affects primarily relationships with people you already know. If you ask a complete stranger for directions, they will say "no" or direct you somewhere else if they can't help you, and if they go out of their way to help you they're doing it entirely voluntarily. Sure, you might get a "I'm not sure, but I think it's over there (vague wave of hand)" response if they don't know, or a display of teeth-sucking hesitation where they stand around repeating the name of the place for a while ("Anpanmanji Temple, sou ka, hmm, so you want to go to Anpanmanji, sore wa chotto ne..."), hoping you'll take the hint, but in both cases it'll be pretty obvious they don't actually know, so you can make your apologies and ask somebody else.

Where the yes-but-actually-no thing can happen, though, is with people you already know on some level, especially if they feel an obligation of some kind to you. For example, if you're invited to somebody's house or picked up while hitchhiking, you're now the guest of your host and he's responsible for your comfort and well-being. So if you happen to say off the cuff that you really like sushi, or that you're actually going to Town X 50km away, your host may well offer to go get some sushi (and throw away the dinner his wife spent the day preparing) or take you to that town (and miss the baseball game he was planning to catch).

The traditional Japanese cure for this is simple: refuse the first two offers.

  • Oh, you're going to Town X? I can take you there if you want.
  • No no, that's fine, just drop me off at Y and I'll go there tomorrow.
  • You sure? I can take you to X if you want, it's not far away.
  • No, please don't worry about it, you're already been much too kind.

If they repeat the offer for a third time, they're being serious and you're expected to accept the offer. If they don't, you've just avoided imposing an obligation on them.

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    Another nuanced technique is how determined you sound when you refuse the offers. If you sound unsure while refusing, the other party will sense that you actually want the offer. If you sound very determined in refusing then they will know you actually don't need (or is not willing to accept to be polite) the offer. Once they know this, they can judge how persistent they want to offer you. – Enno Shioji May 6 '13 at 10:14
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Japanese people don't really say "yes" when they mean "no". What they say is "it's very difficult" or "it's unlikely". The only time they will say "yes" is if they think you are not really asking them something.

For example if you invite someone to your house and they say "yes" without asking for details of the exact time and your address it is probably because they assumed you were not really inviting them to your house. It's like you are saying "you are welcome to visit me" but not actually setting up a gathering. So in this case it is simply a question of the way the Japanese language works, in that it tends not to differentiate between saying something would theoretically be okay at some indeterminate point in the future and actually arranging for that thing to happen.

The key is to understand what you are asking, then the answer will make sense.

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    You are correct, but the last sentence should maybe rather be: "The key is to know how others understand the meaning of your questions, then the answer will make sense". – uncovery May 27 '13 at 3:55
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I've found that a 'no' usually comes in a roundabout way - as an alternative plan or delay in answering, or occasionally a rub of the forehead followed by the phrase "ちょっとう..." ("chotto...", colloquially "well...").

In business settings 'yes' is usually used to indicate "I am listening". When you need a clear answer, leave the request open so time is allowed to discuss and come back to you - often times the answer is known, but if it's a 'no' you'll probably find out the next day via email.

Generally though the refusal to say 'no' is just a mechanism to avoid confrontation or an embarrassing situation, or to 'save face'. Instead, 'shape' the request so that neither can happen. If you can't do that and you're not friends, probably best not to ask.

As commenters have said though, if someone goes out of their way to help you they're probably just nice people - don't be too paranoid :). If it's someone you know and is a big ask, a small gift or token of your appreciation helps too (though expect it to be unnecessarily reciprocated!)

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There are other good answers already but I just want to focus on an error in the way the question is asked.

A Japanese person doesn't (generally) mean "no" when they say "yes", which is the premise of the question.

This mistakes what they are saying when they say "yes". They are saying "yes, I hear you, and I will process your question" or something similar to that.

It is only you who thought they meant "no" when they said "yes". Actually they didn't give you an answer yet: that is the important thing to realise.

It is actually similar in this respect to the side to side headshake of Indian culture.

When you hear "yes" you aren't faced with the question "did they mean 'yes' or did they mean 'no'?".

You are faced with the situation where you now know that you will need to do more in the relationship to find out what the answer is going to be. And, in all likelihood, whether you like it or not, you have probably just discovered that you won't be able to get the actual answer in this conversation: it isn't time yet.

There's a really fundamental cultural reason why it is this way: the importance of "politeness" in Japanese culture. It is simply impolite to say "no" directly, and impolite is bad.

(A trivial example of this is if a waiter asks you if you would like some more. The safe polite thing to say is "I am fine". This avoids saying "no".)

In doing business in Japan, I've found that one way to explore whether something is a good idea for a third person is to talk about the politeness of it. Instead of saying "Can we haggle?", I would ask "Would it be impolite to offer them a little less". Our Japanese agent will then easily be able to explain that yes it would be impolite, or to say that it will be OK.

This is a more difficult task in a face to face, one to one situation. In answer to your question "is a way to ask them for help so that you can give them the opportunity to decline without them feeling bad" I can only say that you need to find a way where giving the answer they are comfortable would not appear impolite on their part.

  • It's an interesting point that you make, although in my question I specifically mention the scenario when they agree to something which they probably should have said no to (which I find out in the end because they don't have the means or intention to). Language isn't necessarily the issue here because I talk to Japanese people who are fluent English speakers that also agree to do things when they feel like saying no would be wrong. – Michael Lai Jan 1 '17 at 11:22
  • It's definitely the case that language isn't the issue - IE whether a Japanese person says "Yes" or "Hai". I do think there's an underlying question here of what makes you think that they have agreed to the something. If they said "yes", they didn't agree yet. I've realised there's another aspect to this that your question touches on, which is not only "I didn't agree yet, when I said yes I was just acknowledging the question", but also, and perhaps even more so, the importance of "polite". I will add this to my answer. – GreenAsJade Jan 1 '17 at 22:28
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    @MichaelLai: "agree to something which they probably should have said no to" -- as a total outsider, the way I see this is that they are agreeing to undertake an obligation which you have unintentionally created. So for example even in Western culture, if your friend gets blind drunk then you pretty much feel you have to help them home (or at the very least to a taxi). In Japan, if someone mentions that they need help with anything, often you feel an obligation. If they truly didn't want to impose that, they wouldn't have got blind drunk (or wouldn't have mentioned the need). – Steve Jessop Jul 23 '17 at 14:45

protected by mindcorrosive May 27 '13 at 5:52

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