I’ve mentioned before that foreigners are exempt from most social etiquette and rules so it isn’t something you should necessarily worry about. It will be immensely appreciated if you make the effort to talk to your superiors in the correct way, brush off compliments or refuse to exert your opinions so much as it shows a willingness to conform, which, to be honest, is something you should do to a certain extent anyway, unless you want to be the eternal outsider.
What is much more of a necessity though is to grasp the meaning and interpret these social mores correctly or you’ll be in a world of pain and misunderstanding.

When learning the language you’ll find a lot of meaning is left to context and interpretation. This is how society seems to work too. You are never told in black and white terms to do or not do such and such, you will often not receive “yes” or “no” answers to your questions. Meaning, intent and desire are implied but never verbalized directly.

See for example this exchange:
A: “Can you do so and so by next week?”
B: “Hmm, well, I’m a bit busy.”
A: “Good luck!”

In the opening gambit person A isn’t really asking, he’s telling person B to do such and such by next week. This makes it very difficult to figure out when you are actually being asked for input and when you’re being told, but this is where context comes in. If you’re being asked in a pre-production meeting about the possibility of finishing something by a certain date it is obviously a question. If you’re being asked during a stressful meeting nearing a deadline, it is probably a demand.
In the second line B rudely ignores the order and implies a “no”answer. By stating he is busy he is basically telling A he is too busy to do what he is asked to do. This is as close to a “no” answer you’re likely to see in this situation.
To retort A tells him “good luck!” or in Japanese “ganbatte!” This word is the most powerful of all commands when spoken by your superior. Seemingly an innocuous remark, even supportive, it is the way your boss will tell you to “shut up and do it!” He’s not saying “well, see how far you get” or “give it a go”, he’s saying it must be done.

Another example:
A: “I found this and that to not work as best it could. Could you give it the once over?”
B: “Ok, I’ll think about it.”

What B means with his reply is “I won’t think about it.” Nine times out of ten the cocking of the head, the intake of breath, the pensive look and the line “I’ll think about it” mean the person sees this as unimportant or simply disagrees with you and to end conversation on the matter easily and quickly he’ll promise to take it into consideration. But he probably won’t. Whenever you receive this answer it is safe to assume this avenue of questioning is at an end and any further questioning will be seen as pushy.

In social situations you’ll come across these little foibles too. I have heard it said, though it may be apocryphal, that in the Kansai area “would you like to come in for a cup of tea” means “please don’t come in and sod off already” As you can imagine his could lead to some uncomfortable situations for those not in the know.

Though initially baffling and somewhat annoying I personally think this method of implied interaction makes for a much better working environment. Though when things get tough you may wish for some concrete actions to be taken on the whole people seem less aggressive and pushy. When superiors start talking in direct terms you know they’re upset about something and that usually doesn’t bode well.
It also explains why so many foreign companies have a hard time doing business with Japanese developers and publishers. The way important subjects are approached is vastly different and foreigners come across as too direct and aggressive, whereas the Japanese are seen as indecisive and slow.

Sure, as a foreigner you can easily pretend to not grasp these fundamentals of implication and act on conversations directly, e.g. asking if it is absolutely necessary for you to come into work on the weekend and interpreting anything less than a “yes” answer as a “stay at home for free” card, but that only gets you so far and will give you a reputation of being difficult or at the very least impossible to communicate with properly. If you want to get your own way there are better avenues to explore as deliberately misusing the language I don’t think is the best approach.

Alternatively you could easily answer back directly as it is rather expected. Foreigners are not seen to be able to understand the subtleties of Japanese interaction, so if you are asked and you answer directly no one will be shocked or put out. It will, however, cement the preconception that foreigners are brash and arrogant..
The very best thing you can do is to at least meet them half-way and interpret their interaction as correctly as you can and stay away from “straight talkin’” as much as possible. It will create a much nicer working relationship which can only benefit you in the end, especially if you plan to live in Japan for some years in which case the onus to adapt is entirely on you.

Personally I find myself halfway. I go along as much as I can in the roundabout way of doing things and try to interpret everything that is said to me with an eye on possible hidden meanings and implications. On the other hand sometimes I think it is necessary for things to be laid out and addressed directly in which case I won’t shy away from a slightly aggressive and direct approach. I do this sparingly, however, as it marks me as a trouble-maker and overuse breeds contempt. I am, after all, a Brit, not Japanese, and though I am far from patriotic I do intend to remain a Brit for the rest of my life, partly because becoming Japanese is impossible and partly because it’s undesirable.


  1. We have the same thing in the west (I'm thinking America, because I don't know if the same holds true for Canada, UK, etc.)

    Boss: Do you think you could get these reports finished by Monday?
    Worker: I don't know, I'm really swamped right now.
    Boss: I'm sure you'll pull through.

    In the first line, the boss appears to be asking if something is possible, but in reality he's giving an order. In the second line, the worker appears to be expressing doubt, but in reality he's saying 'no, I won't be able to' with certainty. In the third sentence, the boss appears to be praising the worker's abilities, but in reality, he's dismissing the worker's 'no' response and restating the order.

  2. we get the same thing for class assignments.

    Us: I don't think I can make something good by next week.
    Prof: Goodluck!


  3. Yeah, I agree. Which raises the question of why I feel such a culture-shock regarding this, when things don't really seem that different... Maybe it's the way the Japanese seem so submissive to authority, I'm not sure. Atleast back home somebody would bitch about having to do something, or loudly state their legal rights, or argue their way out of it - here it seems more to be a case of the most natural self-sacrifice when an order is issued. So obviously I feel some resentment towards the whole "ganbatte"-mantra, it seems to say "look happy, silently endure and dig in", but maybe I'm just bitter.

  4. I hear ya anon. My passive agressive refusal to kill myself won't really make much of a splash if my colleagues are working extra nights to pick up the "slack".

  5. why you don't leave all these Japanese childish crap and get a life ? read this mass of bullshit makes puck in me mouth so bad.