Lying to Survive

Monkeys “I never saw it, it wasn’t me!” These are often words uttered by children in the face of being caught doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. This is commonly known in the West as lying, and something that should have been beaten out of us by the time we leave primary school. Likewise, if you saw someone else committing the crime, it is the proper and “right” thing to do to tell the truth of what you saw. At no stage is your position in this transaction question, as you would be doing the right thing.

This is one example of the cultural differences between Japan and the West described in “The Japanese Negotiator – Subtlety and Strategy Beyond Western Logic”, written by Robert M March. This book gives practical insights and pragmatic advice on negotiation with Japanese people and groups, and covers a range of topics including negotiations amongst Japanese themselves, Japanese negotiation strategies with foreigners, the likely roots of conflict, Japanese attitudes to contracts, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, and the human element in all negotiations.

The first time I consciously became aware of the above example, I was living in Kyoto on the eastern side of Yoshida-yama, and living next to me was an American guy. Due to our close proximity and common interests, we had gotten to know each other quite well. We had the same landlady, who was unfortunately a complete battleaxe. She was constantly harassing us about paying rent, and maintaining the property etc.

One day, my friend from downstairs said in passing that he would be going home for over a month for summer holidays. Very early one morning in the subsequent weeks, the landlady arrived banging on the door- where is the guy downstairs, and what’s the story with his rent? I promptly replied that I really didn’t know they guy at all (it’s not so common in Japan for people to know their neighbours), hadn’t seen him for a long time, and didn’t know where he was.

Is this lying? Some would say yes, as I was not telling the truth about what I knew. However, I had no interest to involve myself in their problematic relationship, and did not want it to be my problem, and thus in Japan, this was an acceptable answer. Therefore, even though she knew that I was not telling the truth, it was an appropriate answer, she knew not to try to involve me, and my relationship with her remained unaffected.

In “The Japanese Negotiator”, March explains in detail the virtues of silence in Japan, and how keeping your mouth shut is often the best way to stay out of trouble. The above example would be defined as an “avoidance strategy”, one of the most popular and comfortable ways of ensuring one doesn’t get involved in an unwanted problem. An historical symbol highlighting this are Japan’s famous Three Wise Monkeys – See no Evil, Speak no Evil, Hear no Evil. These three monkeys, Mizaru (見猿), covering his eyes, Kikazaru (聞か猿), covering his ears, and Iwazaru (言わ猿), covering his mouth, sit at the Tosho-gu Shrine in the tourist area of Nikko near Tokyo.


Thus, by keeping my mouth shut regarding my friends situation, I maintained my relationship with both him and her, and avoided a problem for me, all good results. Was this still the “wrong” thing to do?

9 thoughts on “Lying to Survive”

  1. Well, let me impart another short anecdote highlighting the use of this in private life. This is an example which is not as strong as the above, and would be closer to something common in the West.

    When I had just arrived in Japan, and was living in Kyoto with a host family, I had met a nice young girl at school, who I wanted to take out. As this was in the days before cell-phones, I had to use the family phone (after this particular incident I took to biking to the local payphone, but anyway), so I rang and said lets go for “遊び” (hang out) the next day.

    She responded with complete conviction that she had “shukudai” to do. I knew this word- homework. Oh, I said, of course, school is tough and she has exams soon, shukudai, no problem.

    I hung up the phone looked around at my host Mum who had been listening from the kitchen, who flashed me an unmistakable look of sympathy. I had been flamed, big time. Shukudai is apparently, for high school students, the standard “lie” for I dont really want to hang out with you, but dont take it personally as we still need to maintain out friendly relationship at school.

    Not that I’m still upset about this, but it highlights another point that Japanese often have set phrases (決まり文句)for dealing with uncomfortable situations. Shukudai (宿題)was the appropriate one for her in that situation, and my “don’t know anything about it”(知らん顔), was the correct one with my landlady.

    Has anyone else had the “shukudai” line before??

  2. Nice article. It’s always fun delving into the philosophy of Japanese people, and deciphering how they tick. Your last comment made me think about how many annoying people there are in Japan, that I don’t want to hang around with, and the lines (lies?) I use to tell them that, in a round about sort of way (after all, we never tell them directly right?). There are a few golden phrases in Japanese that are short and sweet, the literal words don’t convey anything, and rarely contain any real information, and yet there is a world of meaning in them.

    I never had the “shukudai” one Gold, for which the smart answer would have obviously been「じゃ、一緒に宿題しようっか?」 🙂 , but how cool are some of the other little gems out there when you just need to palm someone off, and make sure you don’t have to spend another precious second of your time with them (especially useful with ugly Japanese girls, and most Japanese men).
    1. ごめん、ちょっと用事があるので。。
    This basically conveys no information at all, and yet it says so much. (「用事」 can be replaced with 「所用」 to be a little more formal). The English translation being, “Sorry, I have something on..” (This would be a major blow if told to you in English wouldn’t it!? Almost like a, “Sorry, I have to wash my hair now…”)

    2. 都合(つごう)
    “Tsugo” is a word that has so many usages in all sorts of situations, where you just don’t want to (or don’t feel like) saying any reason why you are refusing the other person’s invitation to do whatever it is that they invited you to do.. 「都合がつかない」「都合が悪い」”It is not suitable for me” are the most used. In English however, if someone said “It is not suitable for me”, the obvious response would be, “Why not?”. But in Japan, you can throw a “tsugo” at someone, and they will NEVER question why it is not suitable for you, and furthermore, just accept the fact that you can’t do whatever it is that they are asking you.. How cool is that! In another use, shops often write on their door, 「都合により、閉店致しました」, that means, “we have shut up shop, because of circumstances“.. Wtf!? In English, this would draw suspicious rumours of the store being busted as a back stage for a drug running operation or something, but in Japan, after reading this on a shopfront, most people will just give a non-questioning sigh, with a 「あ〜ぁ、閉店したんだー。。」

    The thing that really made me realise I had been in Japan too long though, was when I first went back home, and tried to use some of these now ingrained thought patterns in an English environment.. In English, the words just seem to come out sideways, with a certain grating bite about them and while usually having the desired effect (of refusal) they tend to offend the other party. Whereas they are so smooth and completely acceptable when said in Japanese. Amazing.

  3. This is because the Japanese value honor. Being a rat is a complete lack of honor. True lying isn’t great. Being a snitch is much worse. I’m not even Japanese, but as a kid it was never the right thing being a tattle tale. If I told on one of my siblings, or friends, I would be the one punished, but worse. This is the way it should be. Honor is the most important thing a person has. This is one of the characteristics I respect so highly about the Japanese. Sure at times they seem underhanded from the outside, but put in the proper context, and you see they are doing the right thing.

  4. I think that it is good part of Japan. It avoids smalltalk that westerners so often do. Japanese people can avoid talking with people when it is wasting time by using this type of lie. Dont you think so?

  5. Kenji, I do agree that it is a good part of Japan. Its something that is used often to avoid a lot of unnecessary trouble.

    However, I was following a discussion the other day however, about “mates”. And what being mates is, and whether in fact Japanese can be “mates”.

    As far as I see, the basic key to being a good mate, is to have honour with respect to our mates, and always look after your mates wherever possible. But looking at the replies, it seems that the honour of mates from a western perspective doesnt translate into this Japanese type of honour.

    The short script was:

    K: Do Japanese guys have REAL mates? I don’t know how the rest of you feel but the type of mates Japanese guys have is nothing like back home. Mates are heaps important and you would do almost anything for them whereas in Japan the guys here seem to see friendship as something that lasts only as long as it suits them. I think it has something to do with them being spoilt by their mothers’ the whole time.

    P: I’d have to agree. Back in Australia you’d expect to make a lot of good long lasting friendships. 5 years study in Japan has left me with a lot of good long lasting mates but not one of them is Japanese… a reflection on me perhaps.

    R: I have a few mates who are Japanese, but I guess what you are saying holds true for me too.

    Y: I wonder if it is our (=gaijin) fault? Maybe we just don’t know how to go about it the right way? There is definitely something very interesting about the method that mates would chose to hang out in Japan vs. other countries too. It’s more than just a sitting on the floor thing vs. standing up thing, it is an eating vs. a drinking thing too. And that isn’t even mentioning the topics of conversation. Maybe it’s our fault for bringing up topics like politics?

    So I can’t quite work it out. Why doesn’t this particular honour that Japanese value so highly hold true for friendships also?

  6. What is K, P, R and Y?

    Anyway, I don’t think “mate” has anything to do with the article above. I think you just don’t know how friendship in Japan works!

  7. Possibly. However K, P, R, and Y, which are initials of foreigners living in Japan, have all been in Japan many years, speak great Japanese, and no doubt have many Japanese friends and colleagues (and spouses in some instances!).

    I think many of them understand the idea of friendship in Japan very well. The point was though, that friendship here is different from overseas. That the idea of “friends” is different in different cultures.

    Reminds me of that weird thing Bulgarians do- the only country in the world that shakes its head for a yes, and nods it for a no. Perhaps nothing is completely the same everywhere.

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