Learners of Japanese learn at a very early stage that Japanese はい and いいえ mean “yes” and “no” respectively. I teach these two phrases in Lesson 2 of the Beginner’s Course. But once again, learning Japanese words without considering the situations in which they can and cannot be used is a waste of your time. はい and いいえ are no exception.
People who are not familiar with Japanese culture, even advanced learners who can speak perfect Japanese, always complain that the Japanese people do not keep their promises. They say that when they were discussing something, their Japanese listeners kept nodding their heads and said はい(yes). They happily thought that the Japanese agreed with their suggestions but it turned out that the opposite was true.
Simply speaking, their Japanese listeners were innocent. They have such complaints because they don’t know about a very important element in Japanese conversations. This element is called 相槌(あいづち), which means “brief response”. In a Japanese conversation, it is very unnatural for someone to talk for a while without getting any response from their listeners. When a Japanese is on the listening side during a conversation, he must say はい(yes), なるほど(indeed), そうですか(really?) or other similar phrases to show people that they are listening. All Japanese know that these phrases do not mean a ‘yes’ or imply any agreement. On the other hand, in many non-Japanese cultures, it is impolite to interrupt when people are talking and we are taught to keep our mouth shut until people have finished their sentences. So naturally we have the tendency to keep our mouth shut even when we are in a Japanese conversation. If both sides of the conversation are foreigners, e.g. to practice spoken Japanese, it is okay. But when you are talking to a native Japanese, if you keep silent while he is talking, he will be unhappy and the situation will become embarrassing because it is very likely that he thinks you are not listening. 相槌, though meaningless, is a very important element in Japanese conversations. If you don’t know about it, you will misunderstand your Japanese friends. And if you don’t use it, your Japanese friends will surely misunderstand you as well.
One more thing you must know about Japanese “yes” and “no” is that Japanese RARELY say “no” directly when they are turning down offers. For example:
A: 今週の土曜日、一緒に映画を見ましょう。(Let’s see a film together this Saturday)
B: いきたいですが、土曜日はちょっと…(I want to go, but this Saturday is a little bit…)
In B’s dialogue, surprisingly, the most important part is “…”, which implies that B is turning down A. Every Japanese understands that “…” is a rejection. If you think that “I want to go” is the key phrase and ask your Japanese friend what’s wrong with Saturday or suggest Sunday as an alternative, you are being impolite. On the other hand, when you want to turn down an offer from a Japanese, you shouldn’t directly say “だめ” (no), because “…” in Japanese shows people your consideration of their feeling.
In business world, when you hear a Japanese say 前向きに考えます(We open our mind to it), 努力してみます (We’ll try our best), 考えておきます(We will think about it), 検討させていただきます(Please let us study it) or other similar phrases, he is rejecting you politely, trying not to hurt your feeling with a direct rejection. You should NOT call him next week and ask him about the progress of his study, because he will never do any study. It applies sometimes even when a Japanese is speaking in English. So how to tell when a Japanese really means to say ‘yes’? A good rule of thumb is whether he goes into details to elaborate his ‘yes’ or just say ‘yes’ without adding anything.
Maybe you don’t like the ambiguity of the Japanese language. But Japanese people consider ambiguity as the beauty of their language. As long as both the speaking and the listening sides can get the true meaning between the lines, the superficial meaning should be as unclear as possible, especially when we are criticizing or rejecting people, ie. something that will hurt other people’s feeling. As a learner, you shouldn’t just learn how to express your ideas in Japanese. You should also build up a Japanese mindset and use Japanese the Japanese way.