On Japanese Inscrutability

January 11, 2005

"But why don't they just say it?" I cry with American frustration.

"'Why should I have to say it?' is how differently a Japanese person would probably think," Kosuke explained. "That's just the culture."

I lived in Japan for three years, and I did grow to understand the Japanese aversion to confrontation. It's gauche, it's foreign, and to a society of people trained to be sensitive to the slightest pause, flicker of eyebrow or stiff bow, unnecessary.

On this trip, I especially took notice to how tuned in everyone around me was. They could finish my sentences, fulfill my requests before I'd completed them --everywhere from the convenience store to the train ticket counter.

Kosuke, a former student of mine, is particularly aware of such cultural differences as he just returned from 8 months in France. I was staying at his family's pension, eating his dad's French cuisine and being schooled on how little I know about communication in Japan. (In spite of studying the language for half my life.)

"If so much interaction in Japan is in the form of these "hints," I said to him, "they really ought to teach that too, when they teach Japanese. Otherwise, we're really not learning how to communicate."

"Ya, that's true," Kosuke said. "But I don't think there's a person who could teach that."

Those "hints," the various forms of nonverbal communication, the assumptions people make, those are the keys to really getting it. But how?

I tried to think back on the Japanese guys I flirted with, or those who thought I was flirting with them when I thought I was being polite. I have no clue how to break that code.

(But then again, it took me about 25 years to start deciphering the mating dance here in the States. So what's the diff?)

Much has been made of the stereotype of the "inscrutable" Asian. On the contrary, as Kosuke explained, they're trying to make themselves as clear as possible. We just haven't learned how to read those cues yet.

It drives home the point to me that in order to interact successfully with people of different cultures, we have to learn how to listen in entirely new ways. We have to learn a lot more than vocabulary. And we'd do well NOT to assume that our values --"democracy," "liberation," and such will mean the same thing in an entirely different cultural context.




Great article:))One should live in Japan for a while to understand its traditions...
Ah, but I have! I lived there for 3 years and I studied Japanese for at least 8. I passed the ni-kyu Japanese proficiency test (couldn't now, though). Nonetheless, I am dumbfounded. Hence my frustration.