first arrived in Japan, I already spoke decent Japanese and was familiar with
many of the Japanese customs, so I assumed that interacting with people would
be the least of my worries. However, I soon found out that language barrier
issues stretched beyond verbal communication into a realm I was unfamiliar with.
Back in my
home country, we’re taught that we should verbally convey our thoughts and
feelings as openly as possible to ensure that our point is made. But in Japan,
that’s not how things work.
Kuuki wo yomu, or ‘reading the air’ is a Japanese custom that can be likened to the Western phrase ‘reading between the lines.’ It means to be situationally aware and attentive to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of the people around you without the need for verbal expression.
simple notion, and one of the fundamentals of Japan’s nonverbal communication
approach. It’s also something that non-natives might struggle to grasp since kuuki wo yomu is a uniquely Japanese
custom, at least insofar as its cultural importance.
a more in-depth look at this fascinating component of Japanese interaction.
An overview of kuuki wo yomu
culture, social protocol calls for high attention to the mood, atmosphere and
‘air’ of every situation so that an individual can adapt their behavior
accordingly. The custom can feel particularly alien to those who haven’t become
acclimatized to it because it’s not something we adhere to very much in the
example, I once sat in a meeting room with a team of Japanese colleagues, and
at the end of the meeting, we were asked if we had any questions. Well, I did
have a question, so I spoke up. But then I was greeted with cold silence. The
mood of the meeting room suddenly transformed.
was told by a colleague that ‘does anyone have any questions?’ doesn’t mean
that at all. It’s a sign-off for the end of the meeting and nothing more, and
to actually respond to it was not a good example of kuuki wo yomu.
say, lesson learned.
Ambiguity in Japanese communication
time in the board room of a Japanese company, and you’ll soon learn that ‘no’
isn’t in the Japanese vocabulary.
language with such versatility, you’d think the Japanese would have a way of
giving a direct ‘no’ with a tone of courtesy. However, due to the emphasis of
politeness within the culture, you’ll often find that a direct ‘no’ is replaced
with ‘maybe’ or ‘it’s a possibility.’
just one example of Japan’s language ambiguity, and it stretches far beyond the
boardroom and into every facet of Japanese life. For example, I once asked someone
in Osaka for directions and I was told sore
wa chotto, a phrase which translates to ‘that’s a little…’
statement to say the least. However, directness in Japanese culture is
considered rude, so by saying ‘that’s a little…’, this local was telling me he
couldn’t help me but was omitting the direct part of the sentence (‘that’s a
little inconvenient’, or ‘that’s a little tough for me to answer’). His
assumption was that I’d be able to determine the rest of the sentence for
myself through reading the situation.
One of the
reasons for this ambiguity is Japan’s collectivist culture. Japanese society
favors conformity over individualism, and direct language goes against this
status quo. So, in order to maintain social harmony and avoid what Japanese
people might deem as unpleasant interactions, they have developed the ability
to read and react to situations without the need for words; otherwise known as kuuki wo yomu.
‘reading the air’ might not be too dissimilar from ‘reading the room’ or
‘knowing your audience’ in the West, Japanese people have become much more
sensitive to this custom through demands of their culture. Truth be told, I
wasn’t aware of kuuki wo yomu until
long after I’d become accustomed to it, as strange as that might sound. What I
interpreted as just being ‘the Japanese way’ was actually me becoming familiar
with the nonverbal cues of the Japanese people.
‘Hear one, know ten’
concept closely linked to kuuki wo yomu is
ichi ieba ju wo shiru, or ‘hear one,
know ten.’ This is the belief that people who work together should be so in
tune with each other that there should be no need for excessive verbal
discovered this concept the hard way after several months of working with a large
Japanese firm. Although I was a gaijin newcomer, my work guidelines were brief
and I was rarely given guidance or feedback. Initially, I thought this was a
bad sign, but as I became more in tune with my colleagues, I learned that brief
communication is positive communication.
strange meta-way, I was learning kuuki wo
yomu without being directly told about it.
Subtleties and nuances
that said, how exactly does one ‘read the air’, especially when coming from a
society where straightforwardness is encouraged?
efficient approach is to match the body language of the person or persons
around you. From a psychological standpoint, this is taught as a persuasion
technique in many circles, as it allows you to send subconscious signals to
others that you’re in the same mindset as they are. If they’re reserved and unobtrusive,
be the same. If a group is happily chatting away, do the same.
contrast, it’s also important to read other people’s body language to determine
the most efficient way to maintain social harmony. For example, I once found
myself lost in the backstreets of Tokyo, but it only took a few minutes for a
Japanese couple to notice my predicament and help me. Many visitors to Japan
have reported the same thing happening to them too.
Advantage or disadvantage?
people might ask exactly what is the point of this extensive nonverbal
approach? Wouldn’t it be much simpler to say things outright rather than
tiptoeing around certain subjects?
there’s no denying that kuuki wo yomu makes
certain aspects of life more difficult, but on a whole, it’s a beneficial
element of Japanese society.
from, England, we deal with things in the exact opposite way. If there’s an
issue, we speak about it directly. If someone is acting out of place, we call
them out on it. In our corporate world, it’s not uncommon for meetings to
stretch all day because we cover every inch of every topic. It’s exhausting and
more importantly – not productive.
the Japanese approach also has its downsides, one of the main advantages of kuuki wo yomu is that it limits issues
arising in the first place. For example, you’ll rarely hear a word out of
anyone when riding the trains in Japan because everyone reads the situation and
knows to be quiet. In England, trains are often loud and disorganized because
many of us haven’t developed the ability to accurately read our surroundings
and adapt accordingly (the Japanese have a term for these people too – KY,
short for kuuki yomenai).
The ability to perceive the emotions and mood of others is a benefit to everyone, whether it’s for friendly, romantic or business reasons. It’s a sought-after ability that many Japanese bosses look for in potential employees too. It’s also a failsafe way of uncovering a person’s true desires, because while someone might say one thing, body language, facial expressions, and other signals aren’t as easily manipulated as words.