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A zillion years ago, before I came to Japan, I took a short introductory course on Japanese. In it, they showed a video of a business meeting where an American businessman is speaking to a Japanese businessman.

The Japanese businessman kept saying 「はい、はい」 throughout the business meeting. The result being that the American assumed that the Japanese guy had agreed to the proposal they discussed. However, the Japanese person was only saying はい as a way of expressing agreement that he heard and understood what the American was saying.

From there, it was explained that in Japanese, agreement is often about the person making the statement, not the topic. はい can be used to mean "I agree to the degree that it allows this conversation to continue." A little like saying "sure, okay" in English.

In English, I can differentiate between agreeing with a premise and agreement with a person. If I say "yes", I am definitely agreeing with the premise. If I say "sure", I'm going along with the person, leaving room to be ambivelant about the premise.

I'd like to get better control of the same thing in Japanese. Without resorting having to express myself with lengthy sentences or explanations, how can I be sure I'm conveying that I agree with a premise or with the person?

Are these appropriate for stating defnite agreement with a premise:



Are these more ambivelent?



Are there other phrases and words I can use to be clear in differentiating whether I'm agreeing with a person or a premise?

Please note I'm specifically looking verbal ways of handling this, not other contextual clues like gestures or facial expressions. I would like to be able to express myself clearly in writing and on the phone as well as in person.

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That's a really good question, I have a hard time with those myself! Wouldn't 「そうだ」 be like 「そうですね」? Because to me that seems a little ambivalent...a filler phrase to let the speaker know you've understood what they've said. Granted my grasp on this area is quite weak... –  silvermaple Dec 16 '11 at 15:57
How about indicating agreement with the idea specifically by explicitly referring to the idea? –  Karl Knechtel Dec 21 '11 at 2:14
"Sure" used this way is not very common outside North American English. I'm not sure about Canada but it's not really used in the United Kingdom or Australia. –  hippietrail Mar 3 at 7:34

6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I would say that ええ (not え) is even more vague than はい, and that even to a direct question, ええ could mean that you understand the question but are still thinking about it.

うん is a colloquial version of はい, and I wouldn't use it at business meeting. On the back-channel-scale, I'd put it approximately in the same place as はい.

確かに does mean surely or certainly, but it carries the nuance that there might be a "but" coming, so I wouldn't use/read this as an absolute affirmation.

そうだ/そうです are in the affirmative end, while そうだね/そうですね can be quite back-channel.

Even if you don't want gestures or facial expressions, in verbal communication a lot can be told from prosody and intonation. For example はいっ with a glottal stop after the い sounds more affirmative and less back-channel than just はい.

If you want there to be no doubt, you should really give/expect a full sentence, like

  • おっしゃる通りです
  • その通りです
  • そう致します
  • 全く同感です


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To be straight up honest, this answer was not 100% of what I was hoping to learn, but you touched more specifically on the words and points I asked about than other answers (which were also helpful, don't get me wrong), so a bounty for you, good sir! :) –  Questioner Feb 9 '12 at 6:37
Woohoo, Thank you! I'll edit the answer and try to cover your question better. –  dainichi Feb 9 '12 at 13:53

My professor used to say this is not only a question of spoken, but also of body language - this being the reason you will see a Japanese person bowing as acknowledgement/affirmation of the other person even when on the phone, and that even if as a foreigner you would master the verbal part, you would still convey confusing messages by not affirming what you say by what you gesture.

As a student, I thought this statement was mostly based on 日本人論, but then I spent some time in Japanese Zen monasteries (where verbal communication is not an option in many situations), and I gained a deep appreciation for the subtleties and precision in movement and gestures the Japanese use to convey the unspoken - and the realization that this is much harder to learn than vocabulary and grammar.

I'm not suggesting you should spend a couple of months among the monks meditating - but perhaps simply mute the sound when you're watching a modern Japanese movie or a TV show, and just watch the gestures - you'll be amazed how much you will see conveyed.

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The はい you are talking about are the ones said while the other person is speaking. They are not really answering anything. This is as you said : "I'm paying attention and understand what you're saying.". You can never assume they are agreements.

You want to convey that you agree with what the person is saying ? Use そうです(ね)、確か(に/です)、、私もそう思います etc.

But, if you ask a question, and then the person says はい; it is a "yes". If they want to start with a "Alright, I listened to you, understood, let me see now" will be a ま or そうですね (the ね is important here, without it, it is a "yes") or both and they will then, answer.

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そうですね is not exactly agreement (your 2nd paragraph). It's often closer to "I see what you're saying". If someone presents a problem and you say that, you're simply indicating that you understand the problem, not that you agree. –  alexandrec Feb 6 '12 at 21:11
I add the ね is () because it can be an agreement in some rare cases. –  oldergod Feb 7 '12 at 0:34

I would take all the words used for acknowledgement to mean nothing more than just [相槌]{あいづち} - back-channel response that indicates that that one is still paying attention and/or still can comprehend.

The agreement on the idea should always take a "not agreed on" default value unless either party initiates an explicit question to call for an agreement or the listener declares explicitly and unambiguously that they have agreed on the idea.

In short, you would have to form a whole sentence. (Can't rely on はい alone unless it's a response to a "do you agree?" question)

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You could use 分かります although in a business setting it may sound a bit "snobby" (as if you were forced to listen and had to agree with the idea) but generally it's OK.

I would use そうですね over 分かります if I felt comfortable speaking casually with whom I'm speaking to since it sort of gives me the the ability to converse in a less formal manner as opposed to if I used 分かります.

Another one is 成程. It shows you understand what the person is saying - gives the feeling of "Ah, I see..."

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I think there is a process involved here. First, you use はい or other forms like ええ、そうですね、はいはい, as you hear the other person out. There is no need to commit to anything, merely politely listen to what the other person is saying while indicating that you are actually listening.

After the other person has stated their case, it is time to put your own ideas and reactions. This might start out with something like そうですね。それは、ですね... or xxxさんのおっしゃる通りですが、... or xxxさんの説明がよく分かりました。こちらとしては..., or ちょっと質問ですが... or many other ways of launching into a full or partial agreement with, modification of, development of, or rebuttal of what the other person has said.

I guess this is not a direct answer to the question, but it seems to me that it's important to follow this protocol. Rather than trying to express agreement or disagreement with the content of what the other person is saying before that person is finished, it's better to hear them out and then come back with your response.

(I've just realised that oldergod is saying something similar. Take this post as supporting what he/she says.)

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