Please answer “Yes” or “No”: Why are Japanese so vague?

23 Sep

 Lilly (640x360)

If you’ve known a Japanese person, you’ve probably wanted to say it to him or her at least once: “‘Yes’ or ‘No’!”  Japanese vagueness can be frustrating, but I advice you not to demand a yes-or-no answer from us.  Why?  Because asking Japanese to answer questions by “yes” or “no” is like asking Americans not to answer them by “yes” or “no.”  It’s just not the way we communicate.  On the other hand, if you’re Japanese living in America, you must learn to answer questions clearly or you’ll make the same mistakes I’ve made.

In my first year in the U.S I struggled to communicate with Americans not only because of my poor English but also because of our different communication styles.  Either case it was frustrating, but the latter took me much longer to recognize.  Misunderstanding happened frequently, and I couldn’t figure out how they occurred.   During that time of great confusion, one question came to my mind:  Why are American men so clueless?

Mike was a nice guy whom I met through mutual friends.  He was interested in Japan and had been there a few times, so it was natural for us to become friends.  But a few months into our friendship Mike began asking me out.  I wasn’t interested in him, so when he called to ask me out, I’d say something like, “I think I’ll be busy this weekend…” or “I’m watching TV tomorrow, so I don’t think we can get together…”  I rarely had any plans on weekend nor did I like watching TV.  But I wanted to let him know in a “polite way” that I wasn’t interested in dating him.

Mike’s response was often shocking:  He’d say, “Okay, how about next weekend?” or “Do you want to watch TV at my house?”  On one hand he seemed optimistic.  On the other hand he seemed totally clueless.  I felt trapped, not knowing how to convey my message to him without being rude.

It was many years later that I realized what I had done wrong:  Instead of telling Mike clearly that I didn’t want to date him, I only tried to “indicate” my lack of interest.  Even though I was living in the U.S, I was still communicating in a Japanese style – making vague statements to convey thoughts and feelings.

You may wonder how Japanese get things done by communicating in such a manner.  Actually, it works just fine most of the time.  Unlike the U.S, Japan consists of people from similar background and culture, so people have an easier time understanding one another at least on a surface level.  And Japanese have been trained to get the nuances behind words since childhood, so it’s not so difficult for us to communicate in this manner.  Had I told a Japanese man what I told Mike, he’d  have understood my point and stopped asking me out.

Since the incident with Mike I’ve worked hard to express myself more clearly.  The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have an opinion.  In fact I had lots of them, but expressing them in a culturally appropriate manner took me a long time to master.  As for American men, I’ve learned that sensible and intuitive ones can understand my vague Japanese way that still comes out every now and then, but that straightforward communications always work the best with them.  Today I have no problem saying, “Thanks, but I’m not interested.”

If you’re frustrated with Japanese vagueness, you have my sympathy.  I, too, get irritated by how ambiguous Japanese are sometimes.  But don’t lose your patience or corner them by demanding a “yes” or “no” answer, because attitude is everything when it comes to communications.  If you listen carefully – I mean really listen – you’ll begin to understand what he or she is trying to say.  This is true in all communications regardless of our cultural backgrounds or native languages.


4 Responses to “Please answer “Yes” or “No”: Why are Japanese so vague?”

  1. hollywoodsam September 24, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    I would read this post but, I have to wash my hair this weekend. Totemo omoshiroi desu.

    • Yumi September 24, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

      Haha! Omoshiroi. Do you think that Australian men would understand vague Japanese women?

      • hollywoodsam September 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

        Probably not. Westerners think in a straight line. Yet as you know, Japanese, out of politeness, think in a round about way.

        • Yumi September 26, 2013 at 3:20 pm #


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