Alive and well, and living in Tokyo ...

Reports from Essien Leroy, Our Man in Tokyo ...
July / August 2000

Day One in Tokyo

Alive and well
and living in Tokyo


Climbing Mount Fuji
or How to kill a weekend

Of crime and Punishment

Tales of Two Cities

Japanese Inventions

Keeping up with the Jones

Essien's Reaction to the Web Site

Out of Body Experience

It all depends

The Girls of Summer

An old Chinese saying

It all depends

As I have come to realize that I don't know who is reading these Post any more, I am going to ask everyone to drop me a line at to let me know who you are. Not to mention I know that many people have forwarded them on to friends. So if you read this send me an email. I will be living Tokyo at the end of the month and all will come to an end.


"No" means nothing in Japanese This came as a shock to me. In my travels a standard word in all the languages I speak, and speak badly is the word NO. When someone offers you something you don't want you shake your head and say NO. Even in France where the word is NON, but they get the point. In Japan if you shake your head and say NO, they look at you like what are you saying. This usually forces the traveler to say NO again is a slightly different tone. The usual reaction is that everyone understands English if you speak slow and loud, that is not true. When you say, "No thank you" and they don't understand saying it slower and louder is of no use. I learned this a long time ago in Haiti. Say it once if they don't understand say it twice in a steady conversational tone. Still no reaction, try alternate vocabulary once then give up and use hand signals. Take note children that was important.

The problem is that you really can't say NO in Japanese. There is no word for it. And you can't say YES either. So, you may ask how do they say YES and NO. I mean you can't go through life without saying yes or no, it's not possible. Well, it is possible and it is done here everyday here. Like a lot of the things I have found here not only is it possible but it is done daily. My father would often say no before I started the question and ground me for asking, although the question was not even spoken. It took me year to realize he did not actually have ESP but realized if I waited till after dinner to ask a question the chances were 99.9% that the answer would be NO and I should be grounded for what ever it was. He just played the odds, and got it right 99.9% of the time so without argument I went up to my room. How would he have done in Japan. In the west the question, "Dad can I borrow your BMW to go to a movie with the homeboys", need an answer. You look up and say, "Son, not only no, but hell no", and go on with life. Here you would sit him down and give him a two hour speech on responsibility, never actually saying no. At the end he has miss the movie and is too depress to go out anymore. This pretty much guaranty that he will never ask you again. In the west we like the word No. No is our favorite word next to Yes, as in Yes' I'd like to supersize that for 99 cents more. NO, stop, police! We need NO!

You just don't need NO here and the reason why is that Japanese just will not commit positively to anything. Everything is a gray area, no black, no white. If you ask for a raise and they may say, "Lets look into it", that is a NO, but, "I think we can accommodate" is a YES. That is how it works here In the west, No is very important to us so I found it inconceivable to live without it. At a restaurant not too long ago the waiter trying to be nice offered me a sea food salad with my meal veggie meal. I quickly said, "No thank you". He continued to look at me, so I said NO. He looked even more puzzled, so I grabbed my dictionary and looked up NO. The dictionary had it as iie, so I said that. That got me no farther then the NO. I finally did some hand waving and between us we came to the conclusion that it was nix on the salad. That night I asked a workmate why iie did not do the trick. He said you should say, "maybe later" and he know to leave the subject alone unless you bring it up. I didn't want it later or ever, but you can't say no in Japanese the language simply does not allow it. But how do you know when they really mean no? Well you don't know, it all depends! Regardless of what the dictionary say, iie is not NO nor is Hai YES. So you may ask what is all that bowing and hai'ing that they do, are not saying yes? No, they are saying, "I am listening please continue". No matter what you say they want you to know that they are listening to you. You could be completely wrong and they know it but they encourage you to have your say about the subject. After a ten minute speech and a lot of Hai's, your boss may say. "Why don't you have a second look and see if you can come up with anything else". That is the Japanese no to a suggestion. But it leave you wondering did he not like it at all or did he want more option. What is it? Well you don't know, it all depends! In the west we look for ways to be more negative then NO. NO just doesn't cut it most of the time. In the west he would look at you half way through your speech and say, "What are you sh*ting me. That is the worst idiot ideal I have ever heard and one more like that and your fired from your next job". That leave no ambiguity as to his opinion, and life goes on.

That is the problem with learning a new language, you have to learn the attitude and nuances of the speakers to speak correctly. The books don't tell you the entire story. The first thing I wanted to say was thank you. I was told by several people to say "Aregato". But after a week I wondered why I was the only one saying "Aregato". First of all the correct phrase is, Aregato gosaimasu, and the U is almost silent, almost. But like everyone else the Japanese don't speak the language by the book. It's true that the final U is silent but listening to them you find that several other random letters seem to also be silent. All along they have been saying Aregato Gosaimasu but who could tell. It took me weeks to figure this out. and another week to get the rhythm and synchronize bowing that complete the thank you. It starts like this: first one complete bow, then 1/4 way into the second you say Aregato Gosaimaaaaaaass as if it was one slurred out word letting the S last an extra long time till you complete the bow, then you take a step back and give one last bow for good measure before departing. It's quite a scene, I assure you. I have a three bow limit but I've seen other bob up and down like a weeble before finally coming to a stop several seconds later. As a customer in a shop you take a 30 to 45 degree bow and the shop keeper if you bought something will go close to 90 degrees. You shouldn't go to 90 because then you force her to go even deeper and that is just not right to have some old lady bowing past 90. Major surgery may have to follow to straighten her back and that is just plain mean. Teenager just yell out gosaimas, letting the "mas" last over 5 seconds, in that you know what I mean manner. Or just Domo, to mean Domo aregato gosaimasu, Domo meaning, very much in this sentence. But to say I am very sorry, they say Domo, and other situations where you want to express great regret, gratitude or maybe disgust you can say Domo. And if they say it to you how do you know? Well you don't know, it all depends!

In Japan for the impoverished, Jim Rickman says don't bother memorizing "Thank You" in Japanese because everyone in Japan says thanks you in English anyway. No one in Japan says anything English, ever. I don't know where he got that from. At times thank you is a whole paragraph. One thing is for sure in Japan, you need a phrase book because no one speaks English and if they say they do you will not understand their accent and they will not understand yours. So you are back to square one. Some time and in certain neighborhoods you can get English speaking waiter or a translated menu. But not always and you almost never know until you sit down. How do you know if you can get an English waiter or an English menu? Well you don't know, it all depends!