Navigating the tricky world of permission when speaking Japanese

Ask away: You don’t need to beg to ask permission in Japanese, but mastering polite language and a few key expressions can be helpful. | GETTY IMAGES

Humorist Dave Barry, in his 1992 book “Dave Barry Does Japan,” wrote that as his family traveled the country, “nobody ever told us we couldn’t do anything, although it turned out that there were numerous things we couldn’t do.”

He summarized some key English phrases used by Japanese people he encountered and the equivalent meanings ” in American.” According to Barry, “I see” and “yes” in fact mean “no,” while “that is difficult” means “that is completely impossible.” Barry adds that “we will study your proposal” means “we will feed your proposal to a goat.”

Barry was, of course, exaggerating for effect — but just a bit. His wider point carries weight, as 許可を求める (kyoka o motomeru, asking permission) in Japan can be a challenge thanks to a host of vocabulary, varying degrees of polite language and the need to 意味を解釈する (imi o kaishaku suru, interpret the meaning) behind certain phrases or even 気まずい間 (kimazui ma, awkward pauses).

I have a wealth of experience with such pauses from my wife, who manages the family budget with the help of an old-school 家計簿 (kakeibo, household budget book). Rather than ask directly, I tend to sound her out when thinking about 大きな買い物 (ōkina kaimono, large purchases). I might say something like このパソコンはかなり遅いです (kono pasokon wa kanari osoi desu, this computer is pretty slow) to set things up before trying 新しいものを買いたいのですが (atarashii mono o kaitai no desu ga, I’d like to buy a new one, but …).

With this comment, I may be setting myself up to 冷たい視線を投げられる (tsumetai shisen o nagerareru, receive a cold glare) or 質問攻めにされる (shitsumon-zeme ni sareru, face an interrogation), but the most likely scenario is that I would be advised to do some research before making a 衝動買い (shōdō-gai, impulse buy).

Even when the stakes are lower, getting permission from family members comes up quite a lot — and in my case, the subject is often food or drink. Sometimes it may just be about whether it’s OK to eat the last donut — the 遠慮のかたまり (enryo no katamari, the last piece of something that people are reluctant to take) — with a simple 食べていい?(tabete ii? can I eat this?). Or it could be about whether now is the right time to open the good bottle of wine: 高いの開けましょうか?(takai no akemashō ka, shall we open the expensive one?)

You probably will end up asking for permission more often at work, such as when you 休みの希望をだす (yasumi no kibō o dasu, request time off). You could start by asking your boss for a moment with お忙しいところすみません (o-isogashii tokoro sumimasen, sorry to disturb you when you’re busy) before the main request: 来週の金曜日お休みを頂けませんか (Raishū no kin’yōbi o-yasumi o itadakemasen ka, Would it be OK to take next Friday off?). Even though it’s your right to make use of your 有給休暇 (yūkyū kyūka, paid leave), it’s probably best to 理由を言う (riyū o iu, give a reason).

The next step may be asking colleagues to 穴埋めをする (anaume o suru, pick up the slack) in your absence. You may well have to explain your situation all over again and 謝る (ayamaru, apologize) for good measure. A simple いつもごめんね (itsumo gomen ne, sorry this happens so often) could do the trick, but a ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ありません (go-meiwaku o o-kakeshite mōshiwake arimasen, I’m really sorry for causing trouble) brings it up to a more formal level.

Of course, you won’t always be seeking permission from someone you know. Let’s say you encounter a 有名人 (yūmeijin, celebrity) while you’re out shopping for that new computer during your day off from work. Depending on the stature of the celebrity — something you’ll have to 判断する (handan suru, decide) on the fly — you could stick with casual language. Perhaps break the ice with an opening line like あなたの大ファンです (anata no dai fan desu, I’m a big fan) before the main request: 一緒に写真撮ってもいいですか (issho ni shashin totte mo ii desu ka, can we take a picture together?).

But let’s say you encounter the 総理大臣 (sōri daijin, prime minister) while out on a walk. Whether or not you agree with his politics, you’ll likely want to upgrade your politeness levels before asking for a photo. Assuming you get past the 護衛 (goei, security detail), you could convert the request into one of many forms of polite speech: 一緒にお写真を撮らせて頂いてもよろしいでしょうか, (issho ni o-shashin o torasete itadaite mo yoroshii deshō ka, would it be OK to take a picture together?).

While the prime minister is surely busy, this could be your only chance to share your ideas about how to fix society’s problems with a powerful 政治家 (seijika, politician). This could also be a moment to seek a few more minutes of his time: 少しお話しするお時間はございますか (Sukoshi o-hanashi suru o-jikan wa gozaimasu ka, Do you have time for a short conversation?).

To be honest, I’d probably be more excited about meeting someone like Dave Barry. After asking for his autograph and a photo, I would seek his permission on one modest proposal: この写真を山羊の餌にさせて頂いてもよろしいでしょうか (Kono shashin o yagi no esa ni sasete itadaite mo yoroshii deshō ka, Would it be OK to feed this photo to a goat?).

As a longtime fan of Barry, I have faith that the answer would be yes.

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