Whenever I think of Kyoto, I think of this one story about a Japanese businessman whose client complimented him on his watch. Sounds nice, right? Nope. The anecdote went viral on Twitter with one netizen remarking, “京都の嫌味以上に相手に通じないものはない” (Kyōto no iyami ijō ni aite ni tsūjinai mono wa nai, There’s nothing as obtuse as a Kyoto complaint.)

You see, the customer was not interested in the businessman’s watch. He had, apparently, thought the meeting was going on too long and was trying to get the businessman to look at the time, indirectly trying to pressure him to wrap things up. So, in Kyoto, いい時計していますな (ii tokei shite-imasu na, that’s a nice watch you’ve got there) can be a way to bring a meeting to a close.

While Kyoto is especially famous for its elliptical passive-aggressiveness, Japanese culture is notably high-context and requires a lot of implicit information and nuanced communication. English, on the other hand, is part of a low-context culture in which complaints are often stated outright. While work and life abroad can be difficult, complaining in Japanese like you would in English can come off as downright rude.

It’s worth noting that Japan’s お客様は神様 (o-kyakusama wa kamisama, the customer is god) mindset means being a customer here isn’t too different from most English-speaking countries, where the customer is king — and both deities and royalty have no problem voicing their opinions. You can 文句を言う (monku o iu, complain) when your food is late at a restaurant: すみません、注文した料理、まだなんですが (Sumimasen, chūmon shita ryōri, mada nan desu ga, Excuse me, the food I ordered, [hasn’t come] yet). Or, when it comes out cold: すみません、スープが冷たいんですが (Sumimasen, sūpu ga tsumetai-n desu ga, Excuse me, the soup is cold but … [can you fix it?]).

Interpersonal and business relationships are where things get trickier. Whether it’s to 文句を言う or 違う意見を言う (chigau iken o iu, to say a different opinion), there are three main approaches to making a complaint more indirect and thus, more effective: softening, disarming and rephrasing.

Softening is the most common, most casual and easiest way to complain in Japanese. Simply take your complaint and stick something gentler in front of it: ちょっと (chotto) or 少し (sukoshi), which both mean “a little,” work wonders, as do 多分 (tabun, maybe) or もしかすると (moshi ka suru to, perhaps), or 悪いけど (warui kedo) or すみませんけど (sumimasen kedo), which can both mean “I’m sorry, but….” So if the neighbor’s kid is playing her drums at 11 p.m., you may want to yell “ドラムがうるさいよ!” (Doramu ga urusai yo!, The drums are too [damn] loud!) out the window, but a knock on the door with a softer “すみませんけど、ちょっとうるさいです” (Sumimasen kedo, chotto urusai desu, I’m sorry but, it’s a little loud) is more likely to get results.

You will also have noticed the addition of “が” onto the end of some of these sentences, often spoken like a nasal “nga.” This is another easy way to soften what you’re saying when speaking.

Disarming is also quite common, and useful in casual and business situations. In disarming, the negative feedback or complaint is preceded by a positive statement or acknowledgment of the other person’s perspective. Suggesting to a colleague that today’s meeting was too long becomes something like this: “月曜日のミーティングは普通にとてもいいと思いますけど、今日はちょっと長かったですね” (Getsuyōbi no mītingu wa futsū ni totemo ii to omoimasu kedo, kyō wa chotto nagakatta desu ne, I think our Monday meetings are normally very good, but today was a little long). Similar to the drums situation, the ちょっと長かったですね does more work than its counterpart in English does in making it clear that you thought that the meeting was longer than necessary. Saying 今日のミーティングは長すぎました (kyō no mītingu wa nagasugimashita, today’s meeting was too long) isn’t going to get you fired, but it’s much too direct and won’t leave a great impression with your colleagues.

Finally, rephrasing is a slightly more complex choice that is also effective. This is the way Kyotoites express their disapproval, by placing their complaints in another statement to make it more polite. As is par for the course in Japanese, your complaint is likely to shine through even if stated indirectly. For example, a friend is 20 minutes late — again. Instead of delivering a stern “今日も遅かった” (kyō mo osokatta, you’re late again today), a more Japanese way of putting it would be, “今日の予約はギリギリ間に合うかな” (kyō no yoyaku wa giri-giri ma ni au kana, I think we will just be on time for our reservation today) or “帰りが遅くなりそうだからちょっと今彼氏に連絡する” (kaeri ga osokunarisō da kara chotto ima kareshi ni renraku suru, looks like I might be going back late, so I’m just going to tell my boyfriend now). Your friend should get the picture.

What could be considered passive-aggressive in English is just the art of speaking in Japanese. Now if you’ll excuse me, I see you’re looking at my watch.

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