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On the OpenStack contributor's guide, it contains the following:

In Japanese culture, people tend not to say yes or no clearly as a way to respect others and to avoid appearing argumentative. A common phrase in Japanese business language is “Zensho shimasu” (善処します), which literally means “I’ll do my best”, however the actual meaning is “I will do nothing”, or “no way”. This type of linguistic confusion has caused many problems between Japanese and English speakers, most famously between Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and President Richard Nixon in the 1960s. If, as an English speaker, you notice a Japanese speaker being a bit evasive in committing, or seeming to commit to too many things, check in with them in a private email. It will be much easier for them (from a cultural perspective, anyway) to say yes or no privately, than on a mailing list or IRC.

Is this correct? If I were to give this reply to a Japanese co-worker thinking I'm telling them "I'll do my best", they would take it as I'm not going to do anything? And vice-versa, if I'm told this I should take it to mean they will not do anything either?

  • Are you talking about communications in English or in Japanese (with Japanese co-workers)? If latter, what exact phrase are you thinking of? (I hear it's not only us, by the way.) – Yosh Apr 4 '17 at 7:09
  • @Yosh in Japanese, if I was told this how should I perceive the phrase? I'm sure it's not just Japanese, I guess in the U.S. things like this would be said sarcastically like "Yeah, sure" (with a BIG sneer. lol). – Y12K Apr 4 '17 at 7:12
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“Zensho shimasu” (善処します), which literally means “I’ll do my best”, however the actual meaning is “I will do nothing”, or “no way”.

This statement may not be entirely wrong, but strikes me as an exaggerated "Murphy's law". In reality, when you hear 善処します, you can expect, say, 10-50% chance that it will be done, depending on the atmosphere. Admittedly, if you hear this from a politician, the chance should be smaller :)

善処します is a (notorious) word used when someone does not want to give a decisive answer. Its actual meaning is ambiguous by nature. To me, it sounds only slightly better than "I'll try", "I'll take a look" or "I'll consider it".

最善を尽くします sounds like one will seriously try his/her best.

  • So it would be better to avoid using this phrase? – Y12K Apr 5 '17 at 5:16
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    @keepkun Yes, although I understand there are times when we need this phrase, it basically sounds irresponsible. You really have to read between the lines (or 空気を読む). – naruto Apr 5 '17 at 5:17
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I rarely hear the phrase "善処します". I guess a phrase you want is "最善を尽くします", its meaning is “I’ll do my best”.

It doesn't mean “I will do nothing” and “no way”, but there may be some people who think so. This phrase is very convenient, because if you say it, you can make excuse as "I did my best" whatever the result was.

I think this is the reason why this phrase is used in many companies, ministries, government offices, and politicians in Japan. If they don't want to response clearly or take on the responsibility, they would say it.

  • So it's kind of like a cop-out... – Y12K Apr 5 '17 at 3:41

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