Indirect vs Direct?

Japanese is a very indirect language. Even Japanese people will tell you that they have a hard time understanding each other’s true feelings because of their language and their culture. But they are comfortable in their indirectness because most Japanese people go out of their way not to step on anyone’s toes. The word that literally means “No” is rarely used. I have an excellent example of this in something that happened to me a little while ago.

On a Wednesday night at the grocery store some time ago, they were having a deal where you could purchase two packs of a deli item for a discount. It was a shredded daikon radish stir-fry thing, something I thought I would like. So I took advantage of the deal and bought two. I ate one pack on Wednesday night, and then decided that I just didn’t like it. The flavor was just not my taste. I did not want to eat the second one at all.

I went back to the grocery store the next evening and tried to return the unopened, still-within-the-expiration-date item. I went to the customer service counter and gave the lady my receipt and the item. I know this wasn’t Whole Foods where you can return anything, but I at least wanted to try. She apologized and went to call her supervisor to ask about the possible return. She was on the phone for 5 minutes.

She came back and asked me if there was anything wrong with the item. I explained to her that I just didn’t want it any more, that I didn’t like the first one. She then told me to wait a little more and went back to the phone.

Then some other customers came to buy some things at her counter and in all, I think I had waited 15-20 minutes.

She finally came back to me from the phone and launched into this huge speech. But then I picked up that she said it would be a “little difficult” to return the item. I knew there was no hope. I was never going to get my money back. I’ve learned that if a Japanese person says that something is “a little difficult,” it almost always means no.

So then I asked her, clearly, “So I cannot return it?”

To which she nodded her head a little bit and said, “It looks that way…”

After all that, she never said the word “No” to me. That’s all I wanted to hear! Anyways, I left and ended up giving the food to my friend. Lesson learned.


Yesterday I had another episode where I wondered how in the heck I could possibly make people understand me more without being incredibly direct. I was at one of my elementary schools and was waiting in the principal’s office. I was waiting there until it was time to leave (I was being picked up by someone from the Board of Education). The principal himself was off doing other things, so it was just me sitting at a round meeting table. It was around 11am, so the natural light from the sun coming through the large windows was quite enough to brighten the room. Plus, I wasn’t going to be there but 5 or 10 minutes.

One of the homeroom teachers came in to bring me some tea, the second cup of the morning. Not quite necessary, but oh well. I enjoy green tea in the morning.

This is how the conversation went (entirely in Japanese, so I am translating):

Teacher: Here’s your tea…
Me: Thank you very much!
Teacher: It’s a little dark in here, isn’t it? (She looks around for the light switch)
Me: I’m fine, I’m fine.
Teacher: (Continues to search for the switch) Really?
Me: It’s not dark, really. It’s okay. I don’t need the light. (Insisting) There is sunlight coming in.
Teacher: (Does not stop searching for the light switch) Really? Where is that switch…?
Me: Really. I am really fine.
Teacher: Oh, there’s the switch. (turns the light on) There you go.
Me: (Sigh…)

It’s like she wasn’t even listening to me when I was insisting that the sunlight was fine for me. What else can I say, besides “Please do not turn on the light”?

And then today I was at a different elementary school. Since I am a visiting teacher, I do not have my own desk. There is a desk designated for me to sit, but it is used for other things when I am not there. This morning I came in and noticed a stack of papers off to the side of the desk. These standard desks have quite a bit of space, so I hardly even noticed. There was plenty of space for my stuff.

One of the teachers came by and noticed the stack of paper and asked me, “Is this bothering you?” I said to her, “No, no, not at all. You can leave it like that, I don’t mind.” She went ahead and picked it up, “Here, I’ll move it for you.”

I wonder if they just think that whatever they want to do will be better for me or something… I don’t know. I don’t think there is any deep meaning to this. It just annoys me because I wonder if I am saying the wrong thing in Japanese and I want to be understood.


3 Comments to “Indirect vs Direct?”

  1. Oh dude I totally get that. Even in English sometimes I feel like I’m not getting my point across. I want to be understood but it’s as if there is a filter that allows people to only hear certain things. I guess that’s less lingual and more communication based, but it makes sense. It’s like watching anime and reading subs. Pretty sure that’s not really what they are saying but it makes sense in context.

  2. Hi Stacy-I am sure it is not your speech but just the
    Japanese way-something else to learn about these
    people. You really had a ball with Halloween. We never did half
    that when I was teaching. Did have a great mother who made
    tiny pumpkins filled with candy and a big one also filled with
    candy. You sure get to teach about some fun topics!
    Love Nana

  3. Hang in there. Even though you don’t want them to go out their way for you, it sounds like your co-workers are genuinely trying to help and take care of you–even if you don’t want them to. They probably think that your protests are just you being polite.

    Also, just wanted to let you know I had my last Halloween lesson yesterday. I had my first one on Wed 10/26. So I think I win ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: