1. Don’t mind the pause
Coming from an English speaking background, something that really stuck out to me during Japanese business meetings and conversation, in general, was the (subjectively) long pauses. I believe Japanese people tend to be more comfortable with longer silences, often using them as a way to transition topics. Studies have shown that Japanese people are completely comfortable with uninterrupted silences of around 8 seconds, which to myself and other English speakers can seem unbearably long.
On the other hand, Japanese speakers of English often struggle with the opposite situation in which they can quickly become overwhelmed by the pace of conversation in English, leaving many feeling as though they were unable to get a word in. Japanese is a structured language with very different turn-taking norms compared to English; some pauses are meaningful in Japanese, so don’t feel the need to fill them. If you do, some people might even feel as though you interrupted them.
2. The many forms of “No”
Saying “no” in Japan is often not as easy as いいえ (iie, no). Japanese people tend to avoid directly saying no in an effort to keep the和 (wa, harmony). They instead tend to go the indirect route, kindly leading you down a road of vague ambiguity in the hope you will be able to read between the lines. But for some people new to Japan, it can be quite a challenge to find the hidden “no”. Here are some common phrases that you should look out for that might signal that you are being rejected, denied, refused or put on hold in a business situation.
- それはちょっと「難しいかも知れない」That might be a bit difficult
(sore wa chotto “muzukashii kamo shirenai”)
- 検討させていただきます We will consider it
(kentou sasete itadakimasu)
- 前向きに考えさせていただきます We will think over it positively
(maemuki ni kangae sasete itadakimasu)
- 関係者の意見を聞いてみます I’ll ask the opinions of those concerned
(kankeisha no iken wo kiite mimasu)
- こちらからご連絡いたします We will let you know
(kochira kara gorenraku itashimasu)
- この状況ではちょっと厳しいです It might be a bit hard in this situation
(kono joukyou dewa chotto kibishii desu)
At the end of the day, it’s all about whether you can 空気を読む (kuuki o yomu, read the atmosphere). Of course, certain situations do require a hard “no”. But in business and in the workplace refusal is a carefully crafted art form in which experienced Japanese business people are like Picasso whilst unprepared newcomers are like toddlers learning to finger paint. But do not despair: like any art form, practice makes perfect.
3. Learn Japanese (please)
Sorry to disappoint, but it needs to be said. If you have lived or plan to live in Japan longer than one year, you have to level up past survival Japanese. By not learning Japanese, you are not only making mundane everyday tasks, like going to the supermarket or simply reading a menu, into daunting ordeals, but you may also be missing out on opportunities to advance your career. Plus, if you learn Japanese, I guarantee you will come to find your free time outside of work to be, well… more free. Free to interact with your local community, free to make new friends and free to enjoy Japanese media without the crutch that is subtitling.
Freeing yourself from the “English bubble” in which so many complacently reside opens up a whole “new” Japan and is a surefire way to make your life here more rewarding. However, many people might say “Japanese is too hard” or “I don’t have time to study”. To these people, I say, you should take responsibility for your own learning. Living in Japan, you are surrounded by learning opportunities that those learning Japanese outside of Japan could only dream of. However, taking advantage of these opportunities falls on you! 頑張って！(ganbatte!, you can do it!)