There is a cultural gap so wide between the Japanese and Westerners that neither even know it’s there. The meaning of “hai” in Japanese is a very good example.
If you think “hai” always means “yes” in the English definition of yes, it could become the beginning of misunderstanding the Japanese people, especially in terms of business relations.
Imagine that you are in the first business meeting in Japan for sales promotion. While you talk in front of the procurement group, your Japanese counterpart keeps uttering “hai” in Japanese. You know “hai” means “yes” in English, and so you gain a little confidence in your talk and keep talking, while your counterpart keep saying “hai” again. But somewhere down the line, you might find yourself uncomfortable because their only reaction is “hai”. So you decide to put in a joke in order to inject warmth into your talk…
The Japanese word, “hai” does not necessarily mean “yes”. It quite often means “I’m listening”, which only implies attentiveness with little implication of affirmation or agreement. There is, however, an important “cultural” aspect in the Japanese word “hai”.
The Japanese word “hai” does imply “I respect you.”
If the Japanese counterpart was not listening to you without respect, he would have used “un” instead of “hai,” just like when he listens to his subordinates. Although these two words mean exactly the same, the very strict rules apply in choosing the right one for the occasion, especially in the workplace. Since Japanese people choose the right word unconsciously in everyday life, if one dare to use the wrong one in the workplace, it will be immediately regarded as ill-willed and the person gets in a big trouble.
Use of “uh huh” in Japan is Precarious
Now, the problem with using the English word “uh huh” while listening to the Japanese counterparts is that you use the exact same word while listening to your subordinates. If they notice that you talk to your subordinates in the manner as you talk to them, it is now their turn to start feeling uncomfortable. They might even think that you have an attitude problem, because you didn’t use “yes,” instead of “uh huh,” just like they use “hai” instead of “un.” It is, of course, a misunderstanding that comes from the difference between the two cultures.
When a foreign business starts to deal with an established Japanese business, chances are there is at least one person who communicates in English well with their team, who will serve as a window. There shouldn’t be any problem in communicating through the window, however, when you are in Japan and talk to the entire team, it’s not a good idea to talk to them just like talking to your liaison. There might be some who are not quite good at English and one of them may be the one responsible for the team. Or, if your company is about to launch a new business with a Japanese company that does not have prior experience of dealing with Westerners.
Either way, if you are in Japan on business, you may wish to recall that the Japanese word “hai” implies respect, and that the Japanese naturally think that the English word “yes” implies the same. In other words, while you are in Japan, use of “yes” or “uh huh” should be situation sensitive, just like “hai” and “un” in Japanese.