Last week, my Japanese tutor and I discussed when to use the word “no” in Japanese. Shimizu-sensei’s answer was, in short, “never”.
In Japan, interpersonal sensitivity outweighs self-expression. Japanese tradition highly values order, reciprocity and balance in all aspects of life; delicacy in speech is one way through which harmony is achieved. The certainty evoked by explicitly positive and negative statements can set society’s equilibrium off balance. What if you and I are certain of opposite things? The finality of “yes” and “no” sounds quite harsh to Japanese ears, and telling someone “no” is even considered rude.
Linguists have identified over 15 ways the Japanese say no without saying no, or sometimes without saying anything at all. So what does one say, if “no” isn’t an option?
“Sumimasen.” “I’m sorry.”
In a poll of middle school girls I did during my first week in Japan, “I’m sorry” topped the list of important Japanese phrases a person should know. In Japan, you’re sorry for EVERYTHING and vocalize your remorse often.
“Kekkou desu.” “It’s good.”
When someone offers you something, saying the positive phrase “It’s good” implies the negative “No, thank you”. To accept the offer, you apologize.
“Sore wa chotto…” “That’s a little…”
This masterfully incomplete sentence lets hesitation, doubt or disapproval be expressed without ever putting any of these feelings into words. “Sore wa chotto…” is especially effective when combined with sucking in air through the teeth (see “How to Speak Without Speaking”). “Chotto” means “just a little”, and it can be used to soften just about any expression, especially those that would otherwise sound critical or contrary, such as…
“Chigau.” “It’s different.”
This is the closest Japanese comes to a word for “wrong”. My students’ English is never wrong; sometimes it’s just “chotto chigau”, “a little different” from what would be considered correct.
“Muri.” or my personal favorite, “Chotto muri.” “A little impossible.”
“Mackensie-sensei, would you like some raw squid?”
“I’m sorry. That’s a little impossible.”