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Sexual consent in Japanese: Making it crystal clear that no means no

by Misha Cade

Contributing Writer

イヤよイヤよも好きのうち (Iya yo iya yo mo suki no uchi): This is what my Japanese friends said when I told them my boyfriend had sexually assaulted me.

The phrase directly translates to “Saying no is also an expression of fondness,” because in Japan, a woman’s “no” is often interpreted as meaning “yes” — it’s just that she’s too 恥ずかしい (hazukashii, timid) to express her true feelings.

In this sort of environment, where “no” can mean “yes” and vice versa, debate about sexual consent (性的同意, seiteki dōi) has had difficulty thriving. While the Harvey Weinstein case and the #MeToo movement took the West by storm last October, it barely caused a ripple in Japan — sex sells here, but frank talk about its dark side is less common.

Male chauvinism is highly romanticized here, to the point that it can even be considered かっこいい (kakkoii, cool). Take 壁ドン (kabe-don) — the act of passionately pinning a woman against a wall with your hand. It’s wildly popular among young Japanese girls, and when it appears in manga or anime, the girl on the receiving end of this show of masculinity is apt to feel ドキドキ (dokidoki, onomatopoeia for a beating heart). With this cultural backdrop, a man may read a woman’s rejection as a cue to assert his dominance.

Ultimately, my friends at the time responded the way they did because they didn’t think rape between lovers was possible. There is a common misconception that dating someone gives you a fast pass into the bedroom, when in reality, the vast majority of sexual assault victims know the perpetrator.

Rape is about power. It’s about taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable, so even though victims of sexual violence (性被害, sei-higai) are most often women, the problem is not rooted in gender (性, sei). Whether it be between a man and a woman, or between those of the same sex (同性関係, dōsei kankei), anyone can become a victim. To avoid falling victim yourself, here’s what you should know about how to say “no” in Japanese — and make it clear you mean it.

To let someone know you don’t like what they are doing, use the verb やめる (yameru, to stop). やめて (yamete, stop) is the most common, straightforward imperative, and it can be used in pretty much any situation.

The problem is, yamete is used almost as a byword for “continue” in Japanese porn, so in reality, just saying yamete might give people the wrong idea, even if you use the right tone. To make things crystal clear, you can add extra emphasis to the verb by inserting a variety of suffixes. Yo at the end will reinforce the command, as in: やめてよ (Yamete yo, Stop it, won’t you?), 触らないでよ (Sawaranai-de yo, Don’t you dare touch me) and 来ないでよ (Konai-de yo, Don’t come any closer).

To strike a more disciplinary tone, -nasai should do the trick: やめなさい (Yame-nasai, Stop it right now), 帰りなさい (Kaeri-nasai, Go home) or 行きなさい (Iki-nasai, Leave!), for example. Although this form can commonly be heard by a mother scolding her child, it can pack a punch between adults too.

Prefixes could be useful if your command isn’t taken seriously. 本当に (hontō ni, really) before a verb strikes a serious tone and leaves no room for misinterpretation. When you aren’t happy with someone’s advances, you can say 本当にやめて (Hontō ni yamete, “Seriously, stop it”), 本当にイヤだ (Hontō ni iya da, I seriously don’t like it) or 本当にやりたくない (Hontō ni yaritakunai, I really don’t want to).

But let’s be real: If simply saying no always worked, Japan wouldn’t be a society where, according to a recent Twitter survey, some 65 percent of people experience sexual harassment as minors. It is also the responsibility of the more dominant party to make sure their partner is consenting. Asking for consent doesn’t have to ruin the mood; it can even be part of the fun. Ask questions: A simple 大丈夫? (Daijōbu?, Are you OK?) can make a big difference. Double-checking for reassurance with Hontō ni? (Are you sure?) wouldn’t hurt, either.

Adding a questioning ii at the end of a verb is a gentle way of making sure your partner is comfortable, as in 触ってもいい? (Sawatte mo ii?, Can I touch it/you?), キス してもいい? (Kisu shite mo ii?, Can I kiss you?) or 入れてもいい? (Irete mo ii?, Can I put it in?).

Alternatively, have your partner initiate by asking them what they want using the suffix –tai: 何したい? (Nani shitai?, What do you want to do?), やりたい? (Yaritai?, Do you want to do it?), 帰りたい? (Kaeritai?, Do you want to go home?). Placing hoshii with a rising tone at the end of a verb is a way to ask your partner what they desire. For something more general, you can ask 何してほしい? (Nani shite hoshii?, What do you want me to do?), and for something specific, try 帰ってほしい? (Kaette hoshii?, Do you want me to go home?), 触ってほしい? (Sawatte hoshii?, Do you want me to touch it/you?) or やめてほしい ? (Yamete hoshii?, Do you want me to stop?).

Never hesitate to protect yourself. Ask your partner ゴムある? (Gomu aru?) to make sure they use a condom. If they make excuses and try to carry on, stay strong and say ゴムなしでやらない (Gomu nashi de yaranai, I won’t do it without protection). Uncertainty or hesitation is not proper consent, even if you don’t explicitly say “no.” Silence does not mean “yes.”

Sure, initially saying “no” when your boss pays for dinner is the polite thing to do, but when it comes to sex, there’s no need to be polite: “No” should mean “no” — no exceptions.