Never ask a direct question… but remember to use only 5 words

May 17th, 2013By Category: Culture

airport sign

Never –my cultural guidebook told me– ask a direct question to a Japanese person. Saying ‘no’ in such an instance is akin to losing face and they may return a positive answer without actually meaning they agree.

It was undoubtedly supposed to be helpful advice for foreigners, but it just didn’t mix well with a language barrier and a vitally important, life-changing question.

I needed to know whether I was being offered a job.

The email I was currently staring at was from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, the biggest city on Japan’s northern island. I had been contacted a month previously to ask if I would be interested in applying for a faculty position through a new scheme sponsored by the Japanese Government to encourage women in science and technology fields. In addition to the funding’s gender requirement, the Department of Physics were hoping to hire a foreigner who would be able to help students practice their English. Due to further restrictions on the funding, said candidate also needed to be prepared to move around the world within three months; it was now March. They wanted their chosen hire to begin in June.

It was more than slightly crazy.

In short, it was a job made for me.

Bending down, I lifted my cat from the floor and deposited her on the desk. “What do you think?” I asked her. “Are they saying I’ve got the job? Or the selection process it still ongoing?

While my corespondent’s English was good, it wasn’t fluent, leaving this key point ambiguous. My cat looked briefly at the computer screen and then back at me.


Which I think translated to: “Is this going to involve that evil demon-ridden cat carrier?

You betcha,” I told her and pulled my keyboard towards me. There was no way around this. The only way to ensure my question would be understood was to use short sentences. Short sentences have to be direct. Hoping that I wasn’t about to destroy any chance I might have of stepping onto Japanese soil again, I wrote:

Do I have the job?

I sandwiched this between a couple of extra paragraphs in the same way a child might hope to get away with stuffing a chocolate bar between bread for his dinner. Then I hit send.

So followed a tense twelve hours while the sun set on Ontario, Canada and rose over Sapporo. Such a time period is long enough for pretty much any thought to manifest itself in my brain, no matter how ridiculous. I kept re-reading my cultural guidebook: “…they may return a positive answer without actually meaning they agree.” Did that mean I might believe I had the job and move across the world only to find I was as employable as Vernon Dursley at Hogwarts? I wondered if I should send my details out to a few Japanese maid cafes as a back-up plan.

It was fortunate that the person I was talking to at Hokkaido was both very kind and understood the fact that –when it came to cultural differences– it was safest to assume I was a close relation to a nethanderal:

Yes, you have the job.

The following paragraphs contained far too much effort with regards to details for it to be likely that this was actually a negative response.  I stood up. It was time to pack. We were past the first hurdle; what other misunderstandings could possible occur after this?

Author of this article

Elizabeth Tasker

Elizabeth is a science researcher living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth keeps her own blog about day to day exploits in the hope that writing them down will result in them one day making sense.

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