Thursday, March 5, 2009


For those of you who aren’t able to read Japanese, the character in the title of this post is pronounced “neh” and the squiggly line afterwards extends the sound to make it more like “neeeh”. 

It seems to me that a significant part of the Japanese character is reflected in this… character. It’s frequently added to the end of sentences in order to solicit or confirm agreement. You can take any sentence and add “neh” to the end of it and you will be asking the listener to agree with you. If the listener agrees then they will usually respond with an emphatic “neh”.

Agreeing with each other is something that Japanese people do very well. At least in Tokyo. My colleague from Osaka tells me that western Japan is very different and I haven’t spent enough time there to comment. However, I can describe some of my own experiences here in Tokyo.

When propositioned for agreement by someone telling me something and sticking “neh” on the end, I often think that what the person has said to me is exaggerated, not quite correct, or isn’t my opinion at all. For example, someone might say to me, “It’s really cold, isn’t it?”. They forget that I’m from Scotland and that to me, it’s pretty warm for February. My default reaction used to be to tell the truth and say, “Well, actually…”. The typical result of a minor disagreement such as this can be quite extraordinary. The person talking to me will look deflated, like the wind has been taken out of their sails. They were in the flow of conversation and suddenly they are lost, unsure of the next course to take. If we are in a group, then there’s a slight feeling of unease that slowly spreads as the volume of conversation goes down and the general reply to my, “Well, actually…” is “Oh. You don’t think so. I see.”

The result of experiences like this has taught me to only disagree in non-trivial circumstances, where agreement will have consequences that I definitely don’t want. For example, “These chicken feet are delicious aren’t they? More?”.

The Japanese urge for collective consensus can lead to some exasperating situations as well. At work, I frequently find myself in meetings where discussion goes round and round in circles, with no agreement in sight. Managers are unwilling to exert authority and make hard choices. I have become famous (or perhaps notorious?) in the company for saying things like, “What exactly are we doing here?”, “What are we trying to decide?”, “Why don’t you make the decision here boss, we’ve heard everyone’s opinion.” Internal meetings can drag on for hours if I don’t say anything.

You may be thinking that this post is a rant about how Japanese people have to agree with each other. It’s not. This is because I can feel the warm fuzziness that comes when someone agrees with me. When talking with someone I respect, I put forward an opinion, explain it and attach the “neh” at the end, asking for agreement. When this person gives a large nod and says, “Neeeeh!”, it feels like, “Yes! You’re totally right! I think in exactly the same way!”. This sympathy and unity of opinion warms the heart.

Although the time taken to reach decisions can sometimes try my patience, the care and effort taken to reach consensus usually means that they turn out to be good ones. They are usually the product of a great deal of research into all available options and their respective merits. The result is actions that are well thought out.

All interesting stuff. ね~

blog comments powered by Disqus