The Japanese are famed for their unique culture of politeness that is not seen in other nations. While non-Japanese people might find this admirable, those who come in close contact with Japanese people in one way or the other could find it frustrating.
In general, Japanese people avoid using words that are direct, especially when declining a request or an invitation of some sort. Often, they beat about the bush to get their point across. Instead of saying “No, I can’t do this”, they’d say something like “Sorry, but that’s a little…” and stop right there, expecting you to catch on. Another common tactic is “Hmm… this seems a little difficult indeed…”, while frowning and pretending to think deeply about the issue (when they’re actually thinking “C’mon, get it already!”). Alternatively, they might go off on a long-winded grandmother’s tale of why they are unable to comply with the request by saying something like “I have a meeting in five minutes, which can take anything from one to five hours. After that, I need to sort out some important documents that must be done today…”
In short, they’d say anything except the word “no”. This is because a flat refusal can sound downright rude. It’s part of the Japanese culture of politeness that frowns upon upsetting others. Unfortunately, this can get grating for non-Japanese, as you’re expected to have some sort of ESP and understand exactly what they’re trying to convey to you. In particular, those who only have a few Japanese vocabulary and expressions under their belts and rely on catching keywords will feel like throttling someone, as they do not hear either a firm “dame” (no). Japanese people in any kind of work that involves some sort of customer service are notoriously guilty of not being direct.
While the practice of beating about the bush is at worst annoying, there’s an aspect of Japanese politeness that can seriously cause a non-Japanese to think poorly of Japanese people.
If a Japanese person has a bad opinion about you, he/she would not say it to your face, maintaining (as far as possible) a nice disposition and sugary sweet politeness, maybe with a smile or two. Direct confrontations are avoided, as far as possible.
However, it is common for Japanese people to talk about what they really feel about someone else behind his/her back. In any other society, this might be taken as a cowardly, backstabbing act. In Japan though, this is the norm. However, the Japanese may not truly have the intention to stab people in the back. It is highly likely that the actual reason for this “backstabbing act” might either be to avoid upsetting the other party, thereby bringing about an awkward situation, or to avoid being viewed being rude.
Of course, Japanese people who have no reservations about being frank and blunt do exist. That said, most of the time, Japanese peoples’ “polite mode” goes on autopilot. Since it’s a cultural thing, how much the politeness they display comes from the heart is questionable. Hence, when talking to a Japanese person, you never know what the other party actually thinks of you, unless the both of you are close friends.
There are two main groups of Japanese who do not wear the mask of politeness in their everyday lives. The first group is children. Children have not been completely brainwashed into adhering wholeheartedly to this culture of politeness, so they usually say whatever that’s on their minds. The next group is at the other end of the spectrum, the elderly. For some reason – perhaps because they’ve retired or are about to - elderly Japanese people are a lot more inclined to speak their minds.
While this article has focused on the negativity of Japanese politeness, this aspect of Japanese culture is not necessarily all bad. Both reflecting your heart’s true emotions on your face and wearing a mask of politeness to maintain harmony have their own positive and negative points. Which do you prefer?