On Japanese Probability

“I think the students might be busy after school, so perhaps they won’t come to our meeting. I’m not sure. But if that’s the case, we’ll have to cancel the meeting for today.”

In English, this sentence means nobody really knows what’s going on after school yet, but there’s a chance they might cancel the meeting.

In Japanese, it means that the teacher has spoken directly to the students, found out that they have another appointment from exactly 3:55 to 4:35 p.m., has verified the appointment and has already rescheduled the meeting.

If we actually didn’t know whether the students were busy after school, I’d find that out through the same sentence.

The Trouble with Words
First, I recognize that I’m primarily responsible for any bad communication I experience in Japan. I didn’t have to move to a country where I was an illiterate and inept speaker, and the people speaking English are doing a fine job.

This is a cultural issue, not a translation issue.

Part of the problem with sharing the world with people is that eventually, you have to come to a consensus about it. Language usually gets the job done, but when you’re about as eloquent as a trained raven you realize words are an unstable indicator of reality.

Trimming the Hedges
The first order of business in writing, according to culture warriors Strunk and White,  is to “omit needless words.” I sort of think words that kind of imply uncertainty are probably the best to get rid of, maybe?

Editors call them “weasel words,” because they give the author room to “weasel out” of an argument. In my work as a copy editor I’d excise them without mercy – words like “Perhaps,” “Maybe,” “Probably,” “It seems,” “I think” and, in college newspapers or my blog, “sort of” and “kind of.”

There are two places for these words in journalism: When you have reason to speculate, and when you are trying to write like David Foster Wallace. In news, if the facts are ambiguous, we don’t publish them until they’re verified. No one reads a newspaper to find out what “probably” happened. No one is “sort of” guilty of first-degree murder.

But because of Strunk and White’s edict to “use vigorous language,” good English writing is soaking with certainty. We teach assertion and self-confidence before we even teach how to formulate a compelling argument. The American ideal is to believe in yourself, and then you can do anything.

Which, believe me, is great.

In Japan, it’s precisely the opposite.

The Japanese language loves ambiguity. Declarative sentences aren’t confident, they’re arrogant. People knock down bold assertions until they reach a consensus, and if you’re outside of that consensus you’ll be ridiculed for your boldness.

And to save face – and, I suspect, because of the Buddhist idea of transience – nothing is spoken of as a permanent, factual thing.

So, Buddhist or not, I never hear simple declarative sentences in Japan.

What they say, instead, is “tabun,” which literally translates as “maybe” and expresses humble uncertainty over what Americans might call “verified facts.”

Most of the conversations I have with co-workers start with the words “probably,” “maybe,” or “perhaps.” The threshold of uncertainty is pretty low. Americans may need a 60 percent chance or less to declare something “probable” rather than “certain,” while in Japan the threshold hovers around 96 percent.

So “probably” becomes anything between “definitely” and “never.”

Saving Face
An enormous part of Japan’s politeness is “saving face.” You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and you don’t want your feelings to get hurt. This defines an overwhelming extent of Japanese life.

You need to leave everyone – including yourself – some room to back away from possible conflict. So you hedge your statements. There’s wiggle room: “Oh, I said it would probably happen.”

Because firm refusals or orders are taboo, Japanese culture can seem totally passive-aggressive. People drop a lot of hints.

“Ah, perhaps your co-workers are very busy, and will have extra work if you leave early today, ne?”

Trapped in Ambiguity
As a foreigner, I’ve been quietly frustrated by this back-door approach, which oftentimes feels like entrapment. People rarely come out and ask for exactly what they want. Instead, they build up to their full request incrementally.

For the Japanese speaker, it’s a way of feeling things out, giving you lots of room to back out or adjust the plan, or to imply the negative news without bringing it up directly. When someone asks if you’re free on Tuesday, you can infer whether you’re going to stick around for an extra 15 minutes or start working six extra hours a week for the rest of your career.

For the English speakers unaccustomed to this indirect style – that is, those who haven’t yet become psychic – it feels like we’re slowly being pulled into a trap.

A Japanese teacher might ask, “Perhaps you have this Tuesday night free?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Maybe you can stay after school to meet with some students for a contest?”
“Oh, sure,” I’ll say.
“Maybe a half hour tomorrow?”
“Ah, OK, I can do that.”
“But maybe there are three students,” and the escalation begins – “So probably it will take an hour and a half. Sorry about that!”
“Oh, uhm, sure,” I’ll say, a little flustered. “An hour and a half tomorrow is fine.”
“The contest is next month, so if you are free on Tuesday, perhaps they will want to meet with you each Tuesday. Is that alright?”
“Uhm, OK, so… you want me to meet with the students every Tuesday for an hour and half, for the entire month?”
“Oh, thank you so much, that will be very helpful.”

I try to be generous in these situations and remember that I wasn’t deliberately suckered into something. I was just being asked for a favor backwards.

It’s not enough to declare that the word “probably” means “certainly” when spoken in Japan,  because “probably” also occasionally means “probably.”

Once, I was told that the bus for a field trip would “probably” leave at 9:30 a.m. I was wise to this game, so I kept my eye on the clock.

At 9:15 a.m., a co-worker came up to chat, telling me I’d probably have a lot of free time today because of the field trip.

“Oh, I’m going on the field trip,” I said, with foolish certainty.
“Ah. Perhaps you are going by car?”
“No, I’m taking the bus,” I said. “I should probably get going?”
“Perhaps,” the co-worker said. “But, I think, perhaps, the bus has already left?”
“I think it leaves at 9:30?” I said.
“Ah, maybe. But, I think perhaps it has already left?”

Sure enough, it probably had.

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21 Responses to On Japanese Probability

  1. Frank says:

    Isn’t that really confusing? I would ask a co-worker not to do that and be to the point. Or is that seen as rude?

    • owwls says:

      Yes, it’s confusing, but it’s a cultural habit. It’s not like one or two people do it. It’s the entire country.

    • Fred says:

      I’m American and currently studying at a language school in Kyoto. My teachers (I’ve got 6 Japanese natives) say that being to the point is “a little bit rude’ (which means it’s pretty rude), but some people (who have experience with foreigners) are prepared for it and understand it (like they are). But the majority of Japanese people have little experience interacting with foreigners, so when they speak to you, they still *think* like Japanese, and it translates in their English conversations. The same can be said for when foreigners speak Japanese– they *think* like foreigners, so sometimes they still manage to be rude without realizing it.

  2. I’m sorry if it disturbed you from all the way over here, but I really had to laugh out loud at you ending an English sentence with “ne?”

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  4. Joanna says:

    This is a great post, and so true to my own experiences as an ALT!

    I’d love to feature this on the Ishikawa JET Blog (http://ishikawajetblog.wordpress.com) if you’re comfortable with it.

  5. Pingback: On Japanese Probability « Ishikawa JET

  6. Sarah says:


    And I’m working on the physic part. I wonder if I can take physic classes. Maybe? Perhaps on Wednesdays? But it’s very expensive I think . . . Probably.

  7. Kaori says:

    Great post and so very true. When you’re a part of that culture it’s all a given and you don’t notice it as much, but yes, we ALL do it! I find that when I’m only using Japanese it doesn’t bother me as much but when I have to translate documents into English, the uncertainty of the sentences really bother me. Especially how they use the kanji 等, which is usually translated to “etc.,” in everything. Apparently being specific is not a requirement and leaving things vague is quite acceptable here in Japan. Takes some getting used to :-)

  8. Jeffrey says:

    I think this is maybe true.
    The context and the audience are crucial. Japanese make non-face losing declarative sentences all the time. If you actually had the conversation with which you begin your post, the “fault” really lies with the Japanese speaker who should know, particularly if he/she has worked with Westerners for any length of time and particularly if this conversation occurred at a language school, that a declarative answer to this question was in order.

    And, if one allows to be backed into ambiguous conversations like this, this is when you play the “gaijin card” and be really direct to a point just short of rudeness. This is how one isn’t “surprised” then that he has been backed into a commitment he was unaware of or is otherwise stymied by ambiguity.

    I’ve always felt that it’s just fine if the Japanese want to bump around in a fog for much longer than necessary to arrive at a “consensus.” But as a foreigner, and regardless of having a command of the language and even a Japanese partner, you’re still not Japanese and are therefore cut a mile of slack when it comes to what is expected of other Japanese.

  9. odorunara says:

    I have the opposite problem. I try my damnedest to do the build-up trap when I want to get an interview with someone for work-related reasons and they’re just like, “Whahhhhh.” Clearly I need to work on this, or lose my accent.

    But yeah. What they don’t teach you in Japanese class!

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  16. Hi Eryk,
    We just discovered your blog when we were trying to figure out how to say “maybe” for an evite for a saki tasting we are having. My husband is Japanese and we have been laughing about the truth of some of your insights. I hear him do some of these things when he is talking to his parents asking them for a favor. Also, he says that he deals with these things at work with all of the older Japanese patients after taking over his dad’s dental practice. We have really enjoyed reading your blog! Thanks!

  17. Ernest V. says:

    This article made me laugh twice, but probably also explains the culture better than I have seen before.

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