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”.