In Japan, it's all about the subtle nuances. The Japanese don't like confrontation, don't like to say no, and don't like to be overly direct in speech: even words like 'you' are avoided where a more formal means of address such as "Mr. (your name here)" is appropriate. In relaying the following story I'm hoping to help foreigners understand the interplay of a carefully chosen word, subtles changes in facial expression, and even just-so cues in body language. I figure this has broad ramifications in developing personal and business relationships and even simply exploring the country as a tourist.
We were on a long day hike in the mountains west of Tokyo, where the city's reservoir is found. It was a pleasant time of year with blossoms hanging from the trees and swallows darting above. Our trail made its way through the outskirts of a small village and my friends and I came upon a fellow splitting logs into kindling. He was seated rather majestically as he worked with a small hatchet, enjoying the Springtime warmth and his private wood stock.
I asked him, in my usual tentative Japanese, "may I take your photo1?".
To my astonishment, he leapt to his feet, yelled "don't2!" and brandished his hatchet in the air angrily. He then stormed off, vanishing into his home.
Amazed, I turned to the otherstwo Japanese women and a foreigner who is fluent in Japanese. I asked if I'd said anything to anger the man. The others solemnly shook their heads. We decided to go. I took the photo at the top of this page to demonstrate the hole that the fellow left in what might have been an interesting scene.
So remember, it's the little things that make a difference when dealing with the Japanese.
1: "写真 を とても いい ですか？" "Shashin o tohtemo ii desuka?"
2: "だめ！" dahmeh!