There are many ways to express “no” in Japanese culture, and saying the word “no” is not one of them
Doing business on an international scale requires understanding that communication styles differ around the globe. You not only have to read between the lines when communicating — you have to be able to adjust to each culture’s style, too. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the difference between American and Japanese cultures when it comes expressing the word “no.”
One of my clients, Andrew, recently experienced this firsthand.
Andrew is a marketing manager for a global pharmaceutical company. He works closely with colleagues in Japan and the U.S. At a recent coaching session, he expressed that he was frustrated and upset, and recounted this story as the reason why.
Andrew had recently asked his Japanese team member, Kenji, if he thought a proposal he had been developing would be accepted by their colleagues in Japan. Kenji replied, “It may be difficult.”
Andrew thought Kenji’s reply meant there would be challenges — something he expected. He thought it meant they would have to work harder. So they did. Andrew and his American colleagues worked on the proposal for several more weeks.
Eventually, Andrew learned Kenji never thought the proposal had a chance.
“Why didn’t he just come out and tell me ‘No I don’t think it will succeed,'” Andrew said. “We were just wasting our time!”
What happened here? Did Kenji try to trick him? Or did Andrew misinterpret his message?
The answer lies in two very nuanced, culturally different approaches to the word “no.”
Americans often avoid “no” because they believe saying it will hurt someone’s feelings. But, in the end, they believe it can be much more harmful to not tell someone the honest truth, and a straightforward no is the best option.
Japanese culture is quite different. They avoid a direct “no.” I asked my good friend Diana Rowland, Japan expert and author of the book “Japanese Business: Rules of Engagement,” to explain the Japanese resistance to “no.”
She said Japanese society is close-knit. Social harmony is always first priority. “No” can sound like rejection of the other person, which damages that harmony. Confrontation is considered rude, and keeping good relations with everyone is important.
A similar mentality also applies to the cultures of other Asian countries, such as China and the Philippines.
Instead, the people of these cultures may make a statement that means no, but sounds ambiguous. “It’s not impossible” might mean “I would rather avoid it.” “Let me think about it” could mean “The answer is no.”
This lack of directness applies to more than just “no.” Someone might say, “Do you have any plans to come to this area?” and mean “Can you come to my office?”
Agreement might also be delivered differently. You might hear “I get your point,” “I am listening,” “What is the next step?” and “Hai Hai” instead of “I agree completely.”
The bottom line? Effective communication with people of Asian cultures requires listening “between the lines.”
There is a classic Japanese saying: “Hear one, understand ten.” For each point expressed, the listener is expected to understand at least nine others by implication. Since the most important part of conversation is often unspoken, it becomes the responsibility of the listener to pick up on what has been implied.
When doing business in Asia, it’s important to use your inner “antennae” to stay on the same wavelength with others and read or detect their unspoken thoughts and intentions. You must be able to interpret subtle gestures and facial expressions.
In Japan, very little is random, so hold back, listen, watch, and get a trusted colleague to fill you in on the things you may be missing. Eventually, if you are patient enough and humble enough, you’ll start to see clues.
Then, you will be able to “hear one, understand ten.”