Two Major Differences

Throughout your time in Japan, you will most likely notice many things that are unique to Japanese culture. Bowing, not wearing shoes indoors, sitting on the floor, eating with chopsticks, and bathing rituals are some of the more obvious examples. Exposure to and experience with the Japanese language, itself, will give you even greater insight into these cultural differences.

Order of Delivery

It took Shoo Kamei forty years of being Japanese and a trip to Europe before he discovered why conversations in Japan take so long. While conducting business with European and American companies, he noticed that the conversations seemed to be over quickly. He also found that what was being said by both parties, even in his self-described “broken English,” was easily and clearly understood. After the meetings, he returned to his hotel where a Japanese tour guide was waiting to show him around. In conversing with the guide, Kamei-san realized a crucial communication difference.

When Japanese people speak, especially when they are saying “no” to something, they often give several ryuu (“reasons”) before delivering the ketsuron (“conclusion”). There are a few speculations as to why this is so.

One theory is that because Japan is crowded, people have to be extra careful in the way they communicate with each other. This means taking care to say things gently, so as to avoid conflict. Some people, like Kamei-san, feel that this practice goes too far:

Nihonjin wa ki o tsukaisugiru.

Japanese people are too careful.

Hanashi ga nagasugiru.

Conversations take too long.

Method of payment is often an issue in business dealings. In Japan there is a kind of late check called the tegata. This check is slow to turn into cash, sometimes taking as long as six months, and yet tegata is a commonly used payment method in Japan.

The suffix -sugiru can be added to verbs as well as adjectives to show that something has gone over the limit. In the two examples above, -sugiru is translated as “to exceed.” To combine this suffix with a verb, reduce the verb to its stem and then add -sugiru. Sugiru is a verb in itself, so it is conjugated, not the root:

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Yuuhan o tabesugita.

I ate too much dinner.

Karera wa itsumo nomisugiru.

They always drink too much.

Ima kangaesugite iru.

I'm thinking too much right now.

Likewise, when attaching -sugiru to an adjective like muzukashii (“difficult”), you must first identify the stem of the adjective:

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Muzukashisugi.

This is too difficult.

Sono denki wa akarusugiru.

That light is too bright.

Another explanation for the roundabout nature of Japanese responses involves the language itself. Verbs come at the end of a Japanese sentence. It makes sense, then, to put anything that might deliver a punch toward the end of a conversation, too.

Beautiful “No”s

Few people actually enjoy turning someone down. Finding a way to do it gently, yet firmly, is a challenge. Disguising a rebuff in a beautiful package of verbosity is one option. Be warned, though — Japanese legend has it that the negotiator who can deliver a beautiful “no” and smile the whole time is the fiercest of them all. The rejected party may not even realize it until later.

What is the difference between humble and honorific forms of speech?

Honorific forms of speech elevate the status of something or someone. Adding the prefixes o or go to any number of words is a way of paying respect, although the meaning isn't changed in any substantive way. (There are exceptions to this, especially with some verbs.) When speaking with a superior, or with someone you respect a great deal, it is necessary to use verbs that are particularly associated with humble forms of speech.

The following examples are all extremely eloquent refusals. Even dissecting the sentences and translating them word for word will not uncover a single straightforward “no.” Each example, however, demonstrates a way to kotowaru (“refuse,” “decline,” “reject”):

Naruhodo osshatte iru koto wa yoku wakarimasu ga shikashi watashidomo wa koo kangaete orimasu.

While I understand what you are saying, we are thinking this way about the matter.

Kangaete orimasu.

We will give it some thought.

Kentoo itashimasu.

We will consider it.

Naruhodo is another great Japanese word. It simply means, “I see,” or “I admit,” but it can constitute a response to a variety of situations, depending on the tone of voice. Aside from naruhodo, the first example is filled to the brim with other honorifics. Osshatte iru koto is a really fancy way to refer to what is being said. The word koto on the end changes the “-ing” form of the verb (osshatte iru) to a noun. Watashidomo is the business-appropriate “we” (as opposed to the watashi-tachi “we” you would use with family and friends). Orimasu, too, is the humble version of iru (the “to be” verb for animate things).

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