The simple word wa is perhaps the most important in the Japanese language. It is so important to the nature of Japanese social interaction that it was the original name of the country.

Wa means “harmony,” and the maintenance of that harmony is absolutely paramount in all Japanese relations, because the essential nature of social interaction in Japan is focused on the group and the individual’s subordination to that group – whether family or business unit – above all else. Wa is quintessentially Japanese, and the Japanese people will go out of their way to ensure that harmony – which means group harmony – is maintained.

This is why a second word – iie, which translates as “no” – is so rarely heard in Japan. To use that word is considered rude and even dangerous to social interaction, and is avoided by most Japanese in all but the most basic, clearest circumstances. Even in what Westerners would consider a circumstance in which a simple yes or no would suffice, it is avoided.

Whereas saying no to someone in most countries is simply a statement of preference or fact, in Japan it is seen as veering perilously close to causing a disturbance in the harmony of the moment, and the Japanese will go to significant verbal lengths to avoid saying iie. The verbal gymnastics can get quite elaborate, to a degree that many non-Japanese would consider excessive, even comic. But to the Japanese, it is no laughing matter.

This is particularly important because the Japanese are acutely aware of social standing, and every Japanese will very quickly assess their relative social status to others in any given situation. A person of lower social status will try even harder to avoid saying no to anyone above them, a concept alien to most Westerners, who don’t focus on relative social status, at least not consciously. The Japanese do not have that luxury.

Thus, a question will be answered in a roundabout way that avoids using the word iie, such as giving an excuse, or redirecting the question or reframing it in order to not to give offense or angering the questioner. These phrasings are subtle, and they get the message across, but they manage to avoid the use of the dreaded iie.

For example, if one is asked if one likes something or agrees to an idea, rather than saying no, the person you asked might ask for a little more time to consider the question. Or if someone asks if something is possible, the answer will never be a direct “no”; instead, one will be told that what is being asked “would be difficult” or that it “may not work out well,” or even simply “I don’t know,” all of which can confidently be read as NO.

Even an answer in which a direct no would be sufficient, a yes (hai) is likely to be substituted: “Yes, it is difficult for me to do that.” The meaning is obvious, but the word “no” is scrupulously avoided and social harmony preserved.

One situation in which the response must be finessed is when one is extended an invitation to a party, especially an after-work gathering in which there will be a considerable amount of drinking – a typical invitation for anyone working in Japan, or even visiting for any length of time – and one is, say, not drinking. In a work situation, these invitations are difficult, even impossible, to refuse.

Probably the best approach – and one that won’t be unfamiliar even to Westerners who are comfortable with using the word “no” – is to make an apology or an excuse: “I’d love to, but my mother-in-law will be visiting.” “That sounds awesome, but I have to do homework.” Or even “I’m sorry, that’s my night to wash my hair” – virtually any excuse is acceptable, as long as it avoids the using the word no.

Now, some of these are niceties that any civilized person would observe. A curt “no” is rarely dispensed to someone about whom one cares, and most “no” answers are usually couched, to some degree, in softening tones or even phrases that will spare feelings or not offend. Social invitations are rarely shut down with a simple “no,” but are often accompanied by an excuse. This is just being polite.

But in Japan, as in many things, scrupulous attention is given to even the smallest details in conversation, and as in all things regarding interactions with foreigners, leeway is given to people who aren’t Japanese. But knowing of the Japanese aversion to direct statements using the word “no” is one of those little tricks that will smooth social interactions, and give just a touch more insight into the sensitive, finely-tuned Japanese mindset.

By David Watts Barton