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Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

How to become a gaijin that can say no


I wish I could say, "No." I wish I knew how.

Meanwhile, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of "The Japan That Can Say No," a bestselling collection of essays penned by Sony co-founder Akio Morita and author Shintaro Ishihara, then a Diet member, now governor of Tokyo and always an in-your-face-ist regarding almost every ism on the don't-touch list. Like racism, nationalism, sexism and so on.

The book's premise was that Japan needed to be more independent of U.S. influence. Japanese business and government simply needed to say, "No," to American pressure.

I am not a government. I am not a business. My only kingdom is my cubby-hole home in Saitama, popular as a target for every crow and pigeon in Japan. But I would like to learn to hand out a few "no's" myself.

And not just to loose-bowelled birds. To everyone.

For as a foreigner in Japan, I find myself unable to fend off "favors" from colleagues and acquaintances. Most of these come in the form of English-language requests. Like. . .

Could you check this text? Could you translate my letter? Could you meet with my class? Could you edit my essay? Could you help me with my thesis? Can you listen to my speech?

"I would highly appreciate it," they parrot out at the end, as if those words cast magic.

"I know you are busy. I am sorry to trouble you. But I don't know whom else to ask. I need your help. I'm in a bind. Oh . . . And could you do it by tomorrow? By tomorrow morning? I would highly appreciate it."

Japanese have this impression of Westerners being decisive. As if we had each stepped out of a cowboy shoot-em-up by John Ford. We talk slow. We look you in the eye. And while we don't wear six guns strapped around our waists, we each carry a weapon.

The "No" weapon. Which we can draw and fire at will.

Except the image is mistaken. Sure, some foreigners can and will scratch you a line in the sand, over which they will not cross. Their "No" means "No" and they are not bashful about it.

But these people typically move on. Either they wear out their welcome or they lose interest. One day, they "decide" to leave and the next day they are gone.

The ones who stay are the ones with broader survival skills. They are the compromisers and harmonizers and cooperators. They learn that strong bonds lead to more jobs and finer job satisfaction — not to mention better income — and thus are reluctant to burn any bridge. Relationships and connections mean everything.

So they don't like to say, "No." Many, like me, just can't.

We "Never-say-no" sayers are forever spinning in a whirlpool of accommodation. So much so that our work identity gets lost in the every day splish and splash. It is not our skills that are being sought, we internalize, rather it is our willingness to always answer, "Yes."

Quality and content be damned. As long as we can squeak out that "Yes," we feel secure.

In fact, we end up fearing that, if we replied with "No's," our employment value would decline. This cheerless phobia is shared by foreign freelancers, part-timers, and self-employed alike, a hardworking triumvirate always anxious about cost-thirsty Japan and the water lines of income.

"No" is such a puny word. Only two letters long. But it packs a wallop.

"Practice makes perfect," says my wife. "Just say, 'No,' once and you are on your way."

That, I tell her, is what I am afraid of.

That a single "No" will snowball into a landslide of "No's." That the word will become addictive. That I will be unable to stop with "No's" the way a chocoholic can't put down the M&M's. One little M&M will get me started and I will continue to gorge myself. Until. . .

"Yes?" says my wife.

Until the world we know is finished. The favors stop coming, the bridges burst into flames, and I have to make my living as a greeter at Costco.

"Yet more 'No's' mean more time to smell the roses."

But I loathe roses. I would rather answer, "Yes."

Which, she says, is the real reason I do so. I enjoy being at beck and call. I don't want to be the gaijin that can say, "No." I like being the one who can say, "Yes."

That, of course, is antithetic to the heart of Morita and Ishihara's book, that "No's" can be beneficial.

So I wish I could say, "No." I wish that I knew how.

"No, you don't."

"Yes, I do."

No, yes, no. . . We dance around a bit as she argues that a few "No's" would do me good. Then she unleashes her secret weapon.

"I would highly appreciate it."

Uh-oh. How can I say "No" to that!?



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