Leaving space for others on an escalator
Japan has been described as the world's most polite society. In situations that involve two people with opposing interests, Japanese tend to put emphasis on the interest of the other person, while often Americans and Westerners emphasize their own interests. Even the scariest-looking, mohawked punks in Japan apologize profusely if they accidentally bump into you on the street.

The Japanese concept of politeness is summed up by the term "intolerant of unhappiness." When Japanese mothers are asked about their expectations for their son or daughter, the mothers often say things like "I want my child to grow up so as not to be a bother to other people." [Source: New York Times]

The origins of Japanese politeness is rooted in Shinto respect for nature, Confucian codes of conduct and Japanese rules for a stable society. During the Edo period, a caste-system-like set of rules was developed that regulated all aspects of people's lives and was defined by social-economic level and occupation. As a result people became obedient and passive and used to having their lives defined by rules.

Going hand and hand with Japanese ideas about politeness are ideas about trust and promises. Kimiko Manes, author of “Culture Shock in Mind”, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Samurai were expected to be holders of a “pure mind”and held the idea of “trust”in high regard.. An action was promised to another was carried out even if it was life-threatening...During the Edo period....with the rise of commerce, the merchant class adapted a similar ethical stance. Merchants of the era put their lives at stake so that debts could be repaid and promises carried out. Merchants who could not follow through would be shunned and could not survive, the idea of trust became exceedingly important.” When Japanese say something and make a promise it is considered etched in stone. Sometimes when I discuss a matter with my Japanese wife casual suggestions are treated like they are definite promises.

The Dutch scholar F Coulmas in a piece called "Poison to Your Soul" (1981) makes the point that both thanking and apologizing are linked to the notion of indebtedness, through gratitude and regret respectively. He notes that in Japanese culture, the concept of gifts and favors focuses on the trouble they have caused the benefactor rather than the aspects which are pleasing to the recipient. So leaving a dinner in a Japanese home we might say, O-jama itashimashita 'I have intruded on you.' The response, Iie, iie, do itashimashite 'No, no, don't mention it' is a responder for both apologies and thanks. It is noted that in Japan the smallest favor makes the receiver a debtor. Social relations create mutual responsibilities and debts. Both thanks and apologies stress obligations and interpersonal commitment. In fact, gratitude is equated with a feeling of guilt. The Japanese language has a large range of routine formulae for exhibiting sensitivity to mutual obligations, responsibilities, and moral indebtedness. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

Politeness and Language in Japan

Department store elevators girls tell shoppers: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for favoring us by paying an honorable visit to our store. I will stop at the floor your honorable self is kind enough to use, and then I will go to the top floor." [Source: New York Times]

The Japanese probably say "thank you," “excuse me”and “I’m sorry”more than any people. Not only do they offer thanks for all kinds of situations they also say thanks many times in regard to one thing. Japanese are also constantly saying things like the equivalent of “thanks so much for your effort”for doing mundane things like offering them a tissue or “it was a feast”when you give them some tea and cookies. The goal is maintaining social harmony by ensuring recognition and appreciation for good deeds. The custom of gift giving also rooted in this desire.

The singer and songwriter Bonnie Pink, who writes songs in both English and Japanese told the Daily Yomiuri, “When I use Japanese, I get too serious sometimes, so with English there is more room for me to play around and be honest in a way. If I wrote truly and honestly in Japanese, it’s too direct for Japanese ears.”

Some say Japanese politeness is rooted in the Japanese language. There are countless ways to excuse oneself and say "I'm sorry" and elaborate verbal rituals that have been devised to avoid coming off as too direct or rude. There are also numerous honorifics (polite ways of addressing people). Many Japanese begin written correspondence, for example, with the honorific “hankei”, which literally means "your enlightened worship." Sentences that offer a suggestion are often left hanging to leave open a polite refusal from the person being talked to.

A Cornell-trained Japanese-language teacher wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “People say Japanese is indirect and more polite than English. I disagree — all people everywhere have a need to be indirect and polite in communications. Every language has polite ways of saying things; it’s just that each language achieve this universal goal differently.”

Laura King wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Japanese language is full of ritual apologies, uttered so often as to become almost meaningless: I am about to make a nuisance of myself — please excuse me! Some of this is a matter of mere formality. But at a time of crisis, such politesse can be the glue that holds the country together...Some resent the stifling conformity that can accompany social mores such as these. Even in modern-day Japan, speaking one's mind or making an overt demand can lead to ostracization. Young people, in particular, sometimes feel shackled by rigid conventions of behavior that can seem as arcane as a Kabuki drama....But in a country where people with a case of the sniffles wear surgical masks in public to avoid infecting anyone, most people seemed determined not to let their anxieties show. That particularly included those attending to customers. [Source: Laura King, Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2011]

Politeness, Rank and Language in Japan

Developed during the feudal period, “keigo” (the Japanese language of respect) stresses respect for the person being talked to and emphasizes the humility of the person doing the speaking. Sometimes even things like lunch and tea have an "honorable" thrown in front of them to soften them up. The younger generation doesn't use traditional polite Japanese as much as their elders did.

Employees talking to their superiors will generally use honorific language and humble language when referring to themselves. But when talking about the same superiors outside the office they will use humble language. By the same token a person may call a close friend by his or her name without attaching the polite “ -san “ but will use it when talking about the friend to the friend parents.

Over time Japan has become less formal. Parents and teachers no longer expect their children to use honorific language. Some companies have even issued orders to their employees to stop addressing one another by their titles but to simply add the suffix -san to their names.

The study “Apologies: Toward Communicative Competence” — published in The Bulletin of Nihon Fukushi Daigaku, Nihon Fukushi Universityin 1998 by F. Nonoyama — focuses on politeness rules in Japanese as applied to persons of a higher social position, persons with power, older persons, to men if a woman, in formal settings, and to someone with whom you do not have a close relationship. Nonoyama generalizes that older Japanese and those who have not lived in the U.S. tend to transfer their own sociocultural rules when they apologize in English. A study was conducted with 70 native English speakers in the US and 234 Japanese speakers, 70 responding in Japanese and 164 in English. Age, gender, position of power, and social distance were varied in four versions of a questionnaire. The research appears to find that his Japanese respondents do not make excuses to a person with higher status, yet the findings here ran counter to that. On bumping into a female, the native English speakers (E1) expressed an apology, while both the Japanese speakers (J1) and the Japanese using English (E2) did not, but rather confirmed damage ("Are you OK?" "Are you hurt?") Not a gender difference here -- females likely to express an apology (89 percent) than males (52 percent). So E2 was more like J1 than E1. An exception: a difficult job to do, J1 utilized expression of apology, while E2 hedged as did Asia .

Child-Rearing Values, Education and Polite Behavior

In Japan it is generally regarded as impolite and bad taste to boast about yourself or members of your family. It is okay to say that someone else’s child is cute but not your own. However one can praise one’s own child if the statement is prefaced by the remark “oyabaka dakedo “ (“I’m a doting parent but...”) or say good things about one’s spouse if prefaced by the remark “ haigushabaka dakedo “ (“I’m a foolish spouse but...”). One way for a person to compliment themself or a family member is first to make a self deprecating remark about a fault and then have the person one is talking to say “oh, no that not true”and have the original speaker agree. [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri]

Recalling her school years Sawa Kurotani, a Japan-born professor of anthropology at Redlands University wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “When I look back, I am struck by how overwhelmingly negative most of the feedback was — not just in terms of athletic, but also in academic, artistic and social realms — that I receive in my childhood and teenage years in Japan. From kindergarten to high school, all I remember is criticisms on everything I didn’t do: “Miss Kurotani, you are terrible at writing kanji.” (Forget the fact I could read all of them). “You didn’t paint within the lines.” (It looks fine to me). “Why can’t you work with other kids in the group?”(But I already finished my part.).”

“I do not believe that I happened to be an unusually poor student or that these experiences are unique to me. Rather, I realize now that the Japanese educational institution is centered on finding and correcting shortcomings of students. Implicit in this notion is that there is a right answer to a correct way to do things, and any diversion from it must be corrected.”

Complexity of Saying Thanks in Japanese

On an article “Expressing gratitude in American English”in Interlanguage Pragmatics (1995). M Eisenstein and J. Bodman point out that expressing gratitude is a complex act, potentially involving both positive as well as negative feelings on the part of the giver and receiver. They note that thanks is a face-threatening act in which the speaker acknowledges a debt to the hearer thus threatening the speaker's negative face. Thus the very nature of thanking, which can engender feelings of warmth and solidarity among interlocutors stands as well to threaten negative face (a desire to be unimpeded in one's actions). They report on four studies that they conducted on expressions of gratitude. In the first they audiotaped or wrote field notes on 50 situations in which expressions of gratitude occurred. They then prepared 14 vignettes which they had 56 native speakers (NSs) of American English write written responses to. These natives were found to draw from a finite pool of conventionalized expressions and ideas. In the second study, the same questionnaire was administered to 67 nonnative speakers (NNSs) from five countries in advanced-level ESL classes. Twenty-five of them also provided L1 responses, so that they could check on transfer from the L1. In their report of the findings, they focused on the seven situations that were problematic. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

The Japanese respondents were found to have a low percentage of acceptable responses. One explanation given was the lack of cultural congruity and the fact that this written DCT did not allow for nonverbal cues and prosodic features which could soften the response. In addition, they might have wanted to apologize instead, since that would be acceptable in Japanese given the indebtedness implied in an expression of gratitude in Japanese culture. In a third study, the questionnaire was administered orally to 10 NSs. They found the results almost identical to the written DCT results for NSs. In a fourth study, they set up role plays 34 by NS pairs, 40 by NNS pairs, and 24 by NS with NNS pairs. They found that the role plays contained the same words and semantic formulas as in the written data, confirming that the written data were representative of oral language use as well. NNS role plays were 50 percent shorter than those of natives, most likely because they lacked the words. Also, they lacked the warm and sincere tone conveyed by NSs. NNSs sometimes lacked the expression of reciprocity that NSs gave or did not convey it in an appropriate manner. They conclude that expressing gratitude involves a complex series of interactions and encodes cultural values and customs.

Using the same study group M. Eisenstein and J. W. Bodman — in the 1986 article “'I very appreciate': Expressions of gratitude by native and non-native speakers of American English” — published in Applied Linguistics — found American native English speakers consistently use of expressions of gratitude within specifically defined contexts, often in the form of speech act sets. For example, the thanks was accompanied by other functions such as complimenting, reassuring, expressing surprise and delight, expressing a lack of necessity or obligation. The speech act sets ranged from two to five functions. Shorter thanking episodes sometimes reflected greater social distance between the interlocutors. Longer episodes would come under conditions of social disequilibrium when the perceived need for thanking was great. Advanced nonnative English speakers had considerable difficulty adequately expressing gratitude in the target language. They found limitations at the sociopragmatic level that were severe because they created the potential for serious misunderstandings. Other problems arose at the pragmalinguistic level: divergence at the lexical and syntactic levels and inability to approximate native idioms and routines. They had the most difficulty with a situation involving a lunch treat. Almost all native speakers stated in general terms an invitation to reciprocate ("Thank you very much. Next time it's on me.") NNSs rarely said this, though some indicated in interviews afterwards that they intended to do this but felt it unnecessary and inappropriate to mention it. When this was omitted, native speakers felt the responses were incomplete or lacking the appropriate level of gratitude. The researchers were struck by the fact that the Japanese respondents had the lowest percentage of acceptable and native-like/perfect responses. The researchers speculated that they either could not find the words, were perhaps not comfortable socializing in the US, or had not had opportunities to express gratitude.

In “Nihonjin jyakunensouno kansya to wabi no aisatsuno hyougenno anketo cyousa to sono kousatsu”[“A study of the expressions of gratitude and apology in Japanese young generation: In comparison with those in older generation] published in Kokugogaku Kenkyuu [The Japanese Language Review] (1994), Y Kim used a questionnaire to survey 20 native speakers of Japanese in their 20 s to 30 s (younger generation) in comparison with another 20 in their 50 s to 60 s (older generation) regarding their use of apologizing and thanking expressions. The frequency of the expressions and intensifiers (adverbials such as doumo, taihen, hontouni, makotoni) were analyzed in terms of: the semantic categories (apology, or thanks, although sometimes combined), magnitude of thanks and apology, and status of the interlocutors. Among the younger speakers, the prototypical expressions of thanks were variants of arigatou, whereas typical apology expressions (variants of gomen, sumanai, and moushiwake nai) were sometimes used for thanks as well. The larger the magnitude of thanks/apology was and the older the hearer was than the speaker, the more intensifiers were likely to be used and apologetic expressions were preferred (rather than pure expressions of thanks like variants of arigatou).

The article “The multiple functions of sumimasen”in Issues in Applied Linguistics (1994) Ki Kimura “describes the functions of sumimasen, expressing both apology and thanks in everyday Japanese conversation. A database consisting of 10 hours of daily conversation was used, yielding a total of 44 tokens of sumimasen (41 uttered by women, 3 by men). The database had been collected in 1984 and consisted of audiotaped conversation between a housewife in Tokyo and people she interacted with for a week. Five functions of sumimasen were found: request marker, attention-getter, closing marker, regret marker, and gratitude marker. As a gratitude marker, "the speaker, recognizing that s/he is the cause of some trouble for the addressee, attempts to redress the threat to the addressee's face by producing sumimasen. If sumimasen is not uttered by the speaker, the addressee may feel that s/he has lost face through the imposition." The study also relates sumimasen to at least ten other strategies for expressing apology and to eight other ways to express gratitude in Japanese (e.g., arigatou 'thank you,' osore irimasu 'thank you so much,' and kyoushuku desu 'thank you so much.').

The paper Kansha to wabino teishiki hyougen: Bogowashano shiyou jitttaino cyousa karano bunseki [A study of Japanese formulaic thanks and apologies: A data analysis of the use by Japanese native speakers]. Nihongo Kyouiku [Journal of Japanese Language Teaching] (1995 by H. Ogawa investigates formulaic expressions of gratitude, which includes not only the variants of arigatou but also those that can also convey apology (such as sumimasen).” Utilizing a questionnaire containing 19 thanking and 9 apologizing situations, this study surveyed native speakers in their 20's to 80's to reveal their usage of formulaic expressions of thanks and apology.” The informants were 221 females and 51 males of similar educational backgrounds who spoke the standard variety of Japanese.” The variables manipulated in the survey were high/low status, in-group/out-group, and closeness/distance.” The findings suggest that the use of sumimasen is not suitable for all thanking situations.” Whereas in this study the younger generation of speakers used sumimasen to express slight thanks or apology to someone older and/or in out-group (soto such as strangers), the older generation used it to friends or those younger than themselves.” Younger speakers used more formal apology expressions (such as moushiwake arimasen) with someone older (and higher in status) for a major infraction, since sumimasen was used to express relatively slight thanks and minor apology.

Japanese Requests

Differences between the Chinese and Japanese Request Expressions published in the Journal of Hokkaido University of Education (1992) by T. Baba and L. C. Lian “is a contrastive analysis of Chinese and Japanese performance of requests. The author gives some examples of downgraders in both languages and upgraders in Chinese. With regard to the politeness strategies, Japanese has some linguistic features that do not exist in Chinese (e.g., the perspective difference (kureru vs. morau), politeness/formality level markers, sentence final particles, and gendered particles), while Chinese often depends on lexical choices such as certain terms of address. In both languages, the choice request forms were usually influenced by closeness between the interlocutors. While the status difference seemed to override age difference in Japanese in determining the politeness level, the opposite was the case with Chinese interactions. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

The paper Kaiwa hattenno kouzouto syuufukuno sutorateji: Nichi dokugo taishono shitenkara mita “irai”to “kotowari”ni okeru intarakusyon [Conversational structures and strategies for remedial work: Interaction of “requests”and “refusals”from contrastive analysis of Japanese and German] (2000) — published in the Bulletin of Tokyo Gakugei University Section II Humanities by A. Hayashi — compares a request-refusal interaction in German and Japanese role-played by 34 native Japanese speakers and 26 native German speakers in terms of 1) the request-refusal adjacency pair, 2) response strategies to refusals, and 3) explanation of reasons and hearer’s understanding. Some of the differences between the two languages are: 1) In Japanese, the refuser often used backchanneling and hedging expressions, which prepared the requester for the upcoming refusal. This tendency did not exist in German, where there were twice as many refusal expressions found in the interactions than in Japanese. 2) Japanese speakers sometimes expressed empathy for the requester before actually refusing. 3) In German, the requester suggests an alternative repeatedly and if each alternative is rejected and the requester explains the reasons. 4) In German, accepting the legitimacy of the reasons implies compliance with the request, while in Japanese, showing understanding for the reasons can be a stage before a refusal.

The study “Cultural differences of preference and deviations from expectations in requesting: A study of Japanese and French learners of Japanese in contact situations” — published in the Journal of Japanese Language Teaching in 2000 by Y. Izaki — examines sociolinguistic differences in request behavior in French and Japanese, focusing on supportive move strategies (pre-request moves). Native speakers of Japanese and French role-played three request dialogues, and their performance was compared to that of seven French speakers learning Japanese (three beginners, three intermediates, and one advanced learner). Japanese speakers always used the precommital strategy (e.g., Jitsuwa onegai shitai kotoga arimashite “In fact, I have a favor to ask of you”) before making a request. The request can be preceded by another optional pre-request move that provides or asks for relevant information. In French, no precommital strategy appeared in the data; instead a pre-request move and a response to the pre-request are present in all request interactions. Sometimes since the pre-request move functions as a requestive hint, the speaker has no need to make an actual request. French speakers also often use conditional clauses suggesting that the hearer takes an action, which is in French normally considered as requests or negotiations. The author states that there are sociocultural differences in determining distance, power, and the degree of imposition of the request, and this results in differential politeness levels between the two languages.

The paper Iraino shikata: Kokken Okazaki cyousano deta kara [How to make a request: From Okazaki national survey results]” — published in in Nihongogaku [Japanese Linguistics] in 1995 by T. Kumagai — analyzes strategies (moves) of the orally elicited requests obtained from 400 native speakers of Japanese in terms of achievement of the goal and consideration for the hearer. The informants were to ask a doctor to immediately come to see their very sick neighbor. The functions involved in the requests include: making a request to come, providing information, expressing apologies, addressing the doctor, and offering to give directions. Request strategies include: prompting the hearer’s action, repeating the request, emphasizing the urgency, and prompting the action by making an offer, along with others to show consideration for the hearer (e.g., apology, hedging, and mitigating expressions). The researcher provides the results of correlational analysis between the number/contents of the moves used and the ages of the informants.

The paper “Requestive hints in Japanese and English” — published in the Journal of Pragmatics in 1999 by C. Rinnert and H. Kobayashi — is an analysis of elicited questionnaire judgments and naturally occurring data on Japanese and English requests revealed an apparent contradiction between the perception of decontextualized hints (except for the very formal Japanese hints) as relatively impolite and the high frequency of actual use of hints in a university office setting. It was found that Japanese hints are generally more opaque than English hints. There is a trade off between pragmatic clarity on the one hand and avoiding coerciveness on the other. The researchers found that "off-record" requestive hints may differ from "on-record" hint-like request formulations. They concluded that the use of requestive hint formulations builds solidarity in different ways in the two cultures. The researchers used a questionnaire with 10 English requests varying in terms of formality levels and degree of directness. The authors describe in detail how they presented the Japanese request material. The sample consisted of 145 Japanese subjects (92 university students, 14 teachers, and 30 university office workers or older students) and 95 native English-speaking subjects (40 teachers mainly from North America teaching in Japan and 55 U students in the US).

The findings were as follows: Japanese perceptions of linguistic politeness depend heavily on the formality level of the utterance (morphologically encoded honorifics and verb endings). The perception of politeness of hints, however, appears to be affected not only by the form itself, but also by the social information it carries (the speaker's relationship to the hearer). The informal hint, sono hon mou sunda”'Are you through with the book yet?' was rated much closer to the informal direct request than the informal conventional indirect requests ("desire" and "willingness"), due at least in part to the plain form da-ending, which evokes a close relationship between speaker and hearer in the raters' mind. The very formal hint, Sono hon mou o-sumini narimashita ka”'Were you [possibly] to the point of having finished with that book?' gained the highest ratings in terms of perceived politeness because it was marked with the polite honorifics o and nari-, while the feature of indirectness remained intact. The use of such honorifics is usually associated with people socially higher or psychologically distant. Also, leaving the interpretation of the utterance up to the hearer is very often viewed as polite by Japanese speakers especially when speaking to someone of higher status. English perceptions of politeness were not affected as much by formality level.

Naturally occurring requestive hints were also collected in Japanese (n=78) and in English (n=67). Here the finding was that Japanese hints generally tended to be more opaque than English hints, particularly in terms of the illocutionary scale. In office situations in Japan where a person of higher status could risk losing face if a person of a lower status reject their request, the use of highly indirect requests (i.e., requestive hints) functions to avoid coerciveness more than the use of conventionally indirect requests. Information-seeking questions give the speaker the possibility of denying it was a request (e.g., "Are there any batteries?"). Also in Japanese they found utterances with the component (reference to some component of the requested act) + zero illocutionary force (no statement of illocutionary intent), (e.g., o-bento 'box lunch' used as a request to order a box lunch). There is no need to request it because it is understood from context. Saying more would create a negative impression of verbosity, directness, or aggressiveness. Such preference for implicitness could account for the high level of ellipsis in the Japanese data they collected. In the English data, the component (reference to some component of the requested act) + a grounder (giving a reason why the request is necessary) was most frequently employed (e.g., If she comes around I need to talk to her). This can be interpreted as solidarity building between the speaker where the speaker does not impose the request on the hearer.

In the paper “Irai hyougenno taisyou kenkyuu: Eigono irai hyougen [Contrastive anlysis of requests: English and Japanese requests]” — published in Nihongogaku in 1995 M. Sasaki — says Japanese tend to adjust their language based on status of the interlocutors and claims that in Japanese, requests are often considered to be difficult to refuse. The hearer normally attempts to avoid refusing, and the speaker uses negative politeness to minimize the imposition. Sasaki argues that in English it is easier to refuse to comply with a request.

Refusals in Japanese

In the article “A comparative study of refusal assertion in the United States and Japan” — published in the Ryudai Review of Language and Literature in 1993 — M. Kanemotoinvestigates five popular publications regarding refusals in American English and Japanese to examine the refusal strategies recommended by the writers from the two cultures and underlying values behind such refusal strategies. The three formal characteristics in Japanese refusals were: 1) avoiding a clear refusal, 2) mentioning a third party as a reason for the refusal, and 3) using a fictitious reason for the refusal. The author contends that in Japanese culture, refusal means not only a “no”to a request but also to personal relationships and that fictitious reasons and other strategies were employed as a social lubricant to reduce the impact of the refusal assertion. Two characteristics of recommended refusals in American English were that the clear and constructive refusal must be articulated and that reasons for a refusal do not necessarily have to be offered. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

In the article “Kotowari” no houryaku: Taijin kankei chouseito komunikeishon (Strategies of refusals: Interpersonal adjustments and communication)” — published in Gengo [Language] in 1990 — T. Moriyama analyzes the speech act of refusals in terms of benefits and imposition, strategies, and reasons behind using particular strategies. The author administered a questionnaire to 51 male and 40 female Japanese college students, eliciting the refusal strategies that they would use in one refusal situation. The refusal strategies fell into four categories: 1) direct refusal, 2) telling a white lie, saying tsugouga tsukanai “I have a prior engagement that cannot be changed,” 3) postponing response, saying kangaete oku “I’ ll think about it,” and 4) making an indefinite response by smiling. The response strategies were also analyzed in terms of closeness, social status, age, and gender of the interlocutors. The direct refusal (Type 1 above) was found to be often directed to close friends (approximately 70 percent) as the respondents probably perceived no need to conceal true feelings in such a relationship. Telling a white lie (Type 2 above) was perhaps used in consideration for the hearer, behaving as if the hearer’s intentions were more important than the speaker’s or as if the refusal was beyond the speaker’s control. The postponement (Type 3) by a close friend was interpreted as cause for hope by 60 percent of the participants while only about 30 percent did so if uttered by someone not very close. The postponing strategy was seldom used with someone of higher status, since it presupposed the importance of the speaker’s intention rather than the hearer’s. With regard to the second refusal in response to the friend’s repeated request, males were likely to make a direct refusal while females tended to tell a white lie.

In the chapter “Ambiguity in Declining Requests and Apologizing — published in the 1974 book “Intercultural encounters with Japan: Communication Contact and Conflict, edited by J. C. Condon and M. Saito — M. Shigeta compared responses by Japanese and Americans at International Christian University in Tokyo in six situations, 2 apologies, 2 requests, and 2 refusals — in each case, once to a higher status person and once to a person of equal status. While the Japanese were concerned about relative status, the Americans paid more attention to the personal relations or closeness with the person. The Japanese were more ambiguous in their responses. While this is a very short report with no details, the study constitutes a pioneering effort, some seven years before the appearance of what were considered the “initial”empirical studies.

In the chapter “Sixteen Ways to Avoid Saying "No" in Japan” — published in the 1974 book “Intercultural encounters with Japan: Communication- Contact and Conflict, edited by J. C. Condon and M. Saito by K. Ueda — is about not wanting to say no to a boss so as not to hurt the superior's feelings and not to endanger own position at work. A "no" may suggest the junior person is selfish and unfriendly, so this person may have not choice but to accept. The flat "no," ie, is avoided in speaking. A vague "no" is preferred or an expression that could be either yes or no. Silence is also used. Other possibilities: a counter question, a tangential response, leaving the scene, lying, criticizing the question, refusing to answer the question, giving a conditional "no," using "yes, but...," delaying the answer, declining but without giving a direct "no" but rather an expression involving both apology and regret, expressing "I will accept" (to a superior) but with some excuse which warns of likely failure to carry out the request, an apology. An empirical study found that lying was the preferred approach. Younger respondents preferred apologies. The older generation preferred tangential responses and delayed answers. Men used a flat "no" more than women which women avoided.

Academic Analysis of Apologies in Japanese

Research on Japanese refusals by A. Hayashi, published in the Bulletin of Tokyo Gakugei University Section II Humanities in 1999, found that private reasons were rarely offered in a refusal (in the case of a cancellation of an appointment). The speaker tended to convey the idea of the refusals first, then provide the reasons gradually as the information was requested by the hearer. Also, the speaker often prepared the hearer for the upcoming special reasons by the use of jitsuwa “actually.” The research also showed that apologies often signaled an upcoming request and were used to close the conversation. In the study 57 native Japanese-speaking university students created an imaginary dialogue between themselves and an unacquainted professor. Their task was to request the professor for a change of an appointment on the telephone and the participants were free to come up with their own reasons. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

In a study published in Nihongo Kyouiku [Journal of Japanese Language Teaching] in 1989, T. Nakata, compareed English and Japanese apologies and thanks collected in movie and TV drama scenarios (400 apologies and 400 thanks in English and Japanese each). Major differences between the two languages: 1) Japanese were more likely to thank for voluntary assistance offered by the hearer; 2) Japanese more often apologized for someone close to themselves than English speakers; 3) Japanese thanking expressions included versatile expressions like sumimasen that can be used both for apologies and thanks.

In a 1992 article in the Bulletin of the English Literature Department, Teikyo University, Tokyo, K. Yanagiya, raises the question of whether routine (not "heartfelt") apologies really express regret. When might they be considered insincere, infelicitous? Or are they not apologies at all but simply share the forms? This is considered exacerbated with Japanese where apologies are not so much an expression of regret as an expression of sumanasa, mooshiwakenasa and oime -- the feelings of inexcusableness and indebtedness. Her point is that speech acts are not clear-cut entities but rather overlap or fade into each other. The features of the core, prototypical cases may be said to be universal. Even though it may seem like dominance, social distance, and severity of offense are universal in defining the character of a situation, the formality of the occasion in Japanese may change the forms of the utterances even when other factors are kept constant. The author also points out that in Japanese apologies are frequently nonverbal -- just hanging down one's head without saying a word, possibly with tears in the eyes.

Yanagiya makes the case that Japanese society which is group oriented, genuinely values apologizing to show that one is indeed indebted, "By showing that one subscribes to the same conventional norms which presupposes role and rank relationship, and thereby proving that one shares the same sense of values and is content with it, one can alleviate the threat towards the other's (weighted) face." Hence, in Japan apologizing generally isn't done so as a strategy for recovering balance among status-equals. She points out that "apologies" and "thanks" overlap in a continuum: yorokobi 'pleasure,' arigatasa 'gratitude,' oime 'indebtedness,' kyooshuku 'embarrassment,' mooshiwakenasa 'inexusableness,' jiseki 'guilt,' and ikan 'regret.' Kinodokuna koto-o shita and variants can be used for both "apology" and "sympathy" (the hearer's misfortune) or consideration (omoiyari). She notes that not everyone can say sumimasen. It is not used towards a child nor from a child to others. To a child we say arigatou and gomenne. With elders, arigatou gozaimashita and moushiwake gozaimasendeshita are appropriate. So with children, persons of higher status, and intimate friends, expressions of gratitude and regret are used. With non-intimate persons of same rank, expressions of indebtedness are used. So the paper is essentially non-empirical, and rather based on native speaker intuitions.

Sorry to Have Made You Apologize

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Applied linguist Naomi Sugimoto asked 200 American and 181 Japanese students to fill in questionnaires related to 12 scenarios in which someone had caused harm or inconvenience to another person. One of the questions asked about each situation was whether the offender should do or say something. Results indicated that the Japanese respondents favored actions or words more frequently than their American counterparts. In three of the situations, the percentage of Japanese responding affirmatively was at least 10 percentage points higher than the corresponding figure among American respondents. Across all situations the Japanese respondents indicated something needed to be said or done about 5 percent more often. In one scenario where inconvenience was caused by a meeting cancellation, 82 percent of the Japanese students said something should be said or done, but only 63 percent of the Americans did. [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, April 16, 2012]

Moreover, the phrasing of apologies also varied. Sixty-three percent of apologies formulated by the Americans were "unelaborated"--such as "Sorry about that"--but only 39 percent of the Japanese apologies used minimal forms. The Japanese respondents also made "requests of forgiveness" for 21 percent of all situations compared to 7 percent for American students. In a scenario about breaking a friend's portable music player, 32 percent of the Japanese students asked for forgiveness but only 3 percent of the Americans did.

Public policy researcher Yoshiko Takahashi has investigated the importance of apologies in restorative justice. She asked 117 American and 198 Japanese students to imagine that a 17-year-old recidivist had stolen 500 dollars from their home. How important would an apology from the perpetrator be for them? Sixty-nine percent of the Americans agreed or strongly agreed that an apology would be important. On the other hand, 95 percent of the Japanese respondents felt this way.

Moreover, 49 percent of the Japanese students considered an apology a "very important" part of the resolution process compared to 18 percent of the Americans. Other response options bore out the notion that apologies were much more vital for the Japanese respondents. Fifty-six percent of the American students said an apology would be "nice, but would not change their feelings," compared to 37 percent of the Japanese. Sixteen percent of the American students said an apology was "not necessary" as opposed to 3 percent of their Japanese counterparts. Apologies cannot rectify all damages, but they undoubtedly serve an important function, perhaps more so in Japan than in the United States. When in doubt, sorry on!

I’m Sorry in Japanese as a Form of Thanks

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “In most cases, the expression of appreciation does not go unappreciated, although in cross-cultural situations it can sometimes be hard to recognize. An example of this is the use of apology formulas to express gratitude in Japanese — the “Sorry for kindness”pattern, as applied linguist Rsaki Ide aptly phrases it. Use of an apology to indicate gratitude marks a shift of perspective from “You have done something pleasing to me”to “I have caused you to do something pleasing for me, which has been troublesome for you,” an emphatic reallocation.” [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, May 19, 2009]

“Gratitude and apology overlap in Japanese in a way that seems unusual in English. But what can make it trickier is that they only partially coincide. The language researcher Tesuo Kumatoridani examined the use of the mechanism determining the use of “ sumimasen “ — which can serve as an expression if both apology and gratitude among other things — and “ arigato”, which is used only in gratitude. Kumatoridani notes that the two words are not fully interchangable and posited some interesting rules governing their use.

The Kumatoridani article “Alternation and co-occurrence in Japanese thanks” — published in the Journal of Pragmatics in 1999 — deals with how thanks and apologies are not as distinctly different as might be thought. In the article he compares the usage and functions of two Japanese apologizing and thanking expressions, sumimasen and arigatou, based on: 1) 140 collected interchanges including naturally occurring gratitude and apology exchanges; 2) findings from the questionnaire give to 189 native speakers of Japanese; and 3) the intuitions of the author as a native speaker. Thanks in Japanese can be conveyed by apologizing: Shouyu o totte moraemasen ka. 'Please pass me the soy sauce.' Hai douzo. 'Here you go.' Doumo sumimasen. '(lit.) I'm very sorry.' Although sumimasen can replace the gratitude expression arigatou, the two are not completely interchangeable. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

Kumatoridani first accounts for the applicability of alternation, and discusses the more formal and thus polite nature of sumimasen as an expression of gratitude. The apology form is in empathy to the hearer (such as when this person is of higher status). The use of sumimasen as a gratitude expression occurs as a result of a shift in the focus ( empathy operation ) from the speaker s to the hearer s perspective. This shift is considered a conventionalized strategic device to repair the politeness imbalance between the interlocutors. However, the use of sumimasen tends to be appropriate only in expressing acceptance of the offer combined with gratitude and not refusal, whereas arigatou can be used for both acceptance and refusal of the offer. Use of sumimasen is also inappropriate in response to affective speech acts such as congratulations, condolences, compliments, and encouragement. Finally, the author explains the sequential preference in using the two expressions in a single event (sumimasen first, and then arigatou). While sumimasen functions to repair imbalance locally, arigatou has a dual function, both to repair imbalance and to close a conversation.

“Sorry for your kindness': Japanese interactional ritual in public discourse” — published in the Journal of Pragmatics in 1998 by R. Ide — examines the social and metapragmatic functions of sumimasen (lit., 'there is no end' or 'it is not enough'), a conventional expression of apology in Japanese that is also used to express the feeling of thanks. In the study he first describes seven pragmatic functions of sumimasen based on 51 instances of sumimasen recorded through ethnographic participant/non-participant observations of discourse in an ophthalmology clinic in Tokyo. The professionals were two female doctors, a female nurse, and a female receptionist. 58 patients participated, males and females of many ages. The seven functions: 1) sincere apology; 2) quasi-thanks and apology; 3) request marker; 4) attention-getter; 5) leave-taking devise; 6) affirmative and confirmational response; 7) reciprocal exchange of acknowledgment (as a ritualized formulas to facilitate public face-to-face communication). These seven functions are presented not as mutual exclusive but rather overlapping concepts, ranging from remedial, remedial and supportive, to supportive in discourse.

The paper also demonstrates the exchange of sumimasen as a metapragmatic ritual activity, an anticipated and habitual behavior in public discourse in Japanese society. The author also reframes the multiple functions of sumimasen in accordance with the folk notion of aisatsu, which constitutes the ground rules of appropriate and smooth Japanese public interaction. The author notes that historically arigato 'thank you' was a form of excuse, derived from ari 'exist, have' plus gatashi 'difficult,' literally meaning, 'it is hard to accept/have.' Shitsurei shimasu 'I intrude' is a similar expression when leaving or entering one's space in public.

Academic Analysis of I’m Sorry and Thanks in Japanese

The article "Wabi" igaide tsukawareru wabi hyogen: Sono tayoukatno jittaito uchi, soto, yosono kankei [Formulaic apologies in non-apologetic situations: A data analysis and its relation with the concept of uchi-soto-yoso] published in Nihongo Kyouiku [Journal of Japanese Language Teaching] (1994) by K. Miyake “is a questionnaire study reporting the occasions in which apologies like sumimasen are likely to be used (as well as non-apologetic occasions in which apologies are used) and the effects of social variables on such occasions. English and Japanese questionnaires were given to 101 British and 122 Japanese participants respectively. The questionnaire presented 36 situations that elicited expressions of gratitude and/or apologies. Closeness and status of the interlocutors, and severity of the offense/indebtedness (benefits and losses) were manipulated in those situations. The participants first wrote down the responses they were likely to give (most like in speaking, although this is not specified in the article) and indicated on a 5-point scale what their feelings would be (strong gratitude/slight gratitude/neutral feeling neither gratitude nor apology/slight apology/strong apology/others). The paper reports only the idiomatic expressions found in the data, excluding additional expressions. [Source: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), the University of Minnesota]

Major findings: 1) the language forms for apology expressions (e.g., sumimasen) in Japanese are used not just to express apology but also gratitude; the Japanese form for apology can co-occur with the form for thanking (arigatou) where both are intended as part of an apology (thanking apologetically), and as a way of phatic communication (like greetings); 2) Japanese speakers tend to feel apologetic in more situations than British English speakers; 3) Japanese speakers tend to feel the more apologetic when their feeling of indebtedness is greater. However, apologies are often employed when the hearer is relatively older in age and in a soto outside relationship (e.g., an academic advisor), as opposed to uchi inside and yoso somewhere else.

The article “Oreito owabi: Kankei syufukuno sisutemu toshite [Gratutude and apologies: A system of repair]” — published in Kokubungaku: Kaishakuto kyouzaino kenkyu [Department of Education: Interpretation and Material development] (1999) by T. Moriyama is an essay on gratitude and apology expressions in Japanese as a repair strategy in interpersonal communication. The motive for both gratitude and apologies is caused by a psychological imbalance (or a sense of indebtedness) between the speaker and the hearer. Expressions of gratitude and apologies both attempt to adjust that imbalance. An expression of gratitude repairs the sense of imbalance accompanied by a certain benefit on the part of the speaker offered by the hearer. Apologies also repair the offense caused by the speaker.

Decline of Good Manners in Japan

Many apanese complain that good manner are on the way out. They point to people who talk loudly on cell phones and neck in subway cars; drivers who park where they want, even on sidewalks; pedestrians who don’t watch where they are going; and smokers who light up whoever they feel like.

Teachers complain children refuse to sit still, listen or stop talking; coming-of-age ceremonies feature drunk young people who heckle speakers giving speeches; and lawmakers who throw water in the face of other lawmakers. Ttrain and airline companies have reported an increase of aggressive and inappropriate behavior.

Japanese blame the decline of manners and a host of societal ills such lack of discipline schools, problem teenagers and broken families on American values, individualism, absent fathers, school stress, lose of Confucian values, economic problems, lack of respect, lack of religion, lack of nation bride,

In a survey on bad manners, 60 percent of the respondents pointed their finger at middle school students and high school students as being poorly behaved; 55 percent blamed young women; and 51 percent blamed young men. Many old people find the younger generation to have such bad manners they call them "space aliens."

In a study in 2003, 90 percent of Japanese said they felt that manners were declining. Ask what kind of things bothered them the most 68 percent of respondents said the improper disposal of cigarette butts and litter, 58 percent said noisy children who were not disciplined by their parents; 43 percent said the use of cell of phones on trains, 40 percent said pet owners who don’t clean the feces of their dogs; and 37 percent said people who improperly or illegally parked their cars or bicycles.

Japanese Become More Selfish

In an international survey conducted in 2006 and 2007 Japan ranked second lowest of 18 countries among people who said it was important to help one another.

In a psychological test conducted by Yoshimasa Nakazato at Toyo University students were judged on the basis of how many shared their winnings with losers after winning a game, In the mid-1980s, 80 percent of winning students gave away some of their chips to the losers. After the late 1980s the rate suddenly dropped to the 40 percent level.

In the past few years Britons who have served as hosts for Japanese students studying abroad by their universities complain the students get up when they feel like it, eat meals alone, never try to have a conversation with their hosts, and don’t even say “good morning.” One student who participated in such a program told his professor, “I am paying the cost of my living expenses to the host family. So why do I have to do what they expect?”

Tatsuru Uchida, a professor at Kobe college and author a book called these young people “Karya Shiko” (“Downwardly Mobile Youth”) and their attitude is at last partly derived from being treated as consumers from a very early age. The students with the British host families, he said, “probably feel that they are paying for the accommodation...And they might argue that their contracts don’t say anything about being friendly to their host fairies...Consumption to satisfy one’s desires is a very personal behavior. If you become extremely consumeristic you may cease to see yourself as part of a group.”

Makoto Kurozumi, a professor at Tokyo University who specialized in the history of Japanese thought, believes that compassion is in declining an importance as an aspect of the Japanese character as the traditional animist relationship with nature has broken down in today’s computerized and mechanized society.

Novelist Toshiko Marks told the Daily Yomiuri: “Japan has reached unprecedented plenty without finding social norms as suitable for such wealth.

Prof Teruasa Noakansiho of Kyoto University told the Daily Yomiuri: the baby boomer generation “is responsible for rejecting the value system of our parents — who were always careful about how they were seen by others — as “obsolete”and thus making our society fall part.”

Efforts to Improve Manners

The government has responded to the wave of bad manners by calling for a return of disciple to the classroom. Parents have responded by sending their children to charm school. The media has responding with ad campaign that shows a salaryman-insect displaying offensive behavior and the slogan "There is an increase in bugs disguised as humans."

Train and subway companies have banned cell phone use and necking and instruct their employees on how to politely ask people to obey the rules.

There have even been calls for a return of “bushido”, the code of the samurai.

Image Sources: Visualizing Culture, MIT Education and Ray Kinnane

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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