Kūki wo Yomu: How to “read the room” in Japanese

Kūki wo Yomu: How to “read the room” in Japanese

When you’ve spent quite a bit of time in Japan, you soon realise that it’s easier to say no in Japan than in most Western countries. But here’s the catch: it’s much more difficult to ask for an explanation or reason. 

If someone asks you out for a drink in Japan, an indirect “I have something else to do today” is taken as a decline to the invitation and no reasoning is asked for, whereas in Western countries, people feel compelled to have a justifiable reason for declining. 

This is all linked to what sociologists call high context and low context culture — Japan is considered to be under the category of a high context culture, so a lot of the time, you don’t need to explain much because there’s an unspoken understanding between people. It all balls down to a unique Japanese custom called “Kūki wo yomu (空気を読む)”.

What exactly is it, why is it so important, and how do we begin practicing it? All these answers and more are just a scroll down away!

Kūki o Yomu: Reading the Air

Kūki wo yomu (空気を読む) translates to “reading the air”. It can be likened to the English phrase “reading between the lines”. You ought to be situationally aware and attentive to not only your own thoughts and feelings but also of the people around you — all without the need of expressing them aloud. It’s one of the most significant and fundamental aspects of Japan’s communication culture.

This Japanese custom is not only about social relations — it applies to business contexts as well. You’re expected to predict the consequences of actions and words when you’re interacting with other people, as well as realising your own social status. 

This ability to read the air is not a genetic predisposition or something taught in Japanese schools or by parents — it’s a social trait. You pick it up spontaneously as you go along in life, socialise with others, communicate and most importantly, observe. It’s in the nature of Japanese people to observe their elders and people around them, then mimicking what they see.

It’s an important skill to have in Japanese society — it’s easier for you to make friends, get into a university and get a job. You’ll be more well-liked and fit into the local community easier. 

Someone who’s not able to catch the real meaning of other people’s words is often called KY, an abbreviation of “kūki yomenai” to mean “one who can’t read the air”. If you’re unable to understand the environment you’re in, it can cost you — whether it’s ruining a relationship or blowing a huge business deal. 

Kūki o yomu” forces you to pay attention to signals people are putting out, more than usual, and to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. 

Indirectness in Japanese Communication

Reading the air is also present in other cultures, like “reading the room” or “knowing your audience”, but Japanese people are far more sensitive to this custom. 

There was a tweet that went viral in Japan back in 2019 about a businessman in Kyoto who met a potential client. The client complimented his watch, so the businessman started explaining the watch’s features. It took him a while to realise that the client didn’t care much about the watch, but more of the time it showed — he wanted the businessman to look at his watch to see the time and wrap up the conversation. 

That one situation can sum up the indirectness factor in Japanese communication.

There’s no such thing as a direct answer in Japan, or at least in my experience. You don’t really get a straight-up “no” from anyone, whether it’s a casual or business setting — the politeness within the culture forbids them to. A “maybe” or “it’s possible” is used instead. 

I’ll give you an example: I once asked someone if he could direct me to the nearest station, and his answer was “sore wa chotto…” (それはちょっと。。。) This directly translates to “that’s a bit…” but it actually holds the meaning of “that’s inconvenient for me” or “that’s a bit difficult for me to answer.” Basically, he was indirectly telling me no. The sentence was left hanging, but that’s the phrase often used in Japan — people assume you’re able to determine the rest of the sentence and read the situation.  

There’s a collectivist culture in Japan that is probably one of the reasons for this ambiguity. The society prefers conformity over individualism — to directly communicate is like going against this status quo. So they avoid unpleasant interactions and situations to maintain social harmony, and to do that, everyone has to acquire the skill of reading the air. 

Tatemae vs Honne

Tatemae (建前) is what one expresses in public and honne (本音) is what one truly feels. It links together with how Japanese communication is epitomised by implicitness and indirectness. People are socially obligated to respond according to tatemae, defined by social expectations and opinion, regardless if it contradicts their own honne.

That’s because importance is placed on demonstrating respect and saving face. If you deny a request directly by saying “no”, Japanese people believe that that’ll cause embarrassment and both the invitee and inviter will lose face. A “maybe” or “I’ll consider it” is the Japanese way of saying “no” — their indication of their honne.

“Hear One, Know Ten”

Something that’s linked closely to “kūki o yomu” is a concept called ichi ieba jū wo shiru” (一言えば十を知る). This translates to “hear one, know ten”. Subtlety is pretty key when it comes to Japanese communication, so sometimes, social cues like facial expressions and body language aren’t as physically evident.

Japanese people believe that people should be so in tune with each other that the verbal words make up only 10% while the non-verbal ones communicate the remaining 90% — hear one, know ten. Whether it’s a twitch of the mouth or a discreet raise of the eyebrow can be telltale signs of disapproval or reproach. 

If you decided to work in a Japanese company, be prepared to get as little guidelines as possible and barely any guidance or feedback — they expect you to already know by “reading the air”. And anyway, take brief communication as positive communication in the office. 

What about you, can you read the air? Is your skill as extensive as the Japanese people? Whether it’s by observing people around you or educating yourself with the media, Japan’s high context culture does give you some plus points, especially if you’re planning to live in Japan.

8 Body Gestures You Should Know When in Japan!

8 Body Gestures You Should Know When in Japan!

If you don’t know it yet, Japan is a high context culture. This means the people rely on unspoken words and mutual understanding when communicating. If you’re just starting your life in Japan or just learning about Japanese culture, it can get quite confusing. Don’t worry, there area few common body gestures to start you off.

They’re not your average body gestures that we know. Sometimes, Japanese body gestures can be quite foreign to the rest of us. So save yourself the miscommunication and learn about the top 8 most common ones you should know while learning Japanese!

1. X Signs

x with arms

This first one is most commonly used to avoid misunderstandings between locals and foreigners. There are a few X signs in Japanese body language. The first one is when the X figure is created using arms. Usually, the arms are crossed in front of the body to get a big giant X. This means “no” and letting you know that something is not allowed. If a guard walks up to you and gives you this X sign with his arms, he’s probably letting you know that you can’t go in somewhere.

x with fingers

The second type of X sign is a small X figure using the fingers. This isn’t a subtle way to say no. In fact, this has a whole new meaning. This small X sign is actually asking for the bill. So if you’re trying to get your waiter’s attention for the check, give them this small X sign.

2. O Signs

arms overhead

This next one is the O sign. Similar to the X sign, there are two types of O signs. The first one is using the arms. The arms are shaped in the O figure over the head, linking to each other. This translates to approval. If that guard gives you this O sign instead of the X sign, he’s saying you’re allowed in somewhere.

circle with one hand

The second O sign is using the fingers. You guessed it – it’s not a subtle way to say okay. If you join your thumb with other fingers to make the O figure, you’re gesturing the word “money”.

3. Arms Folded

older woman folding arms at table

This next body gesture is one more familiar to us, but with a different meaning. Sometimes, during work meetings, you might see your clients or higher ups having their arms folded. Don’t worry, they’re not disinterested. It’s the opposite meaning. They’re so interested that they’re thinking long and hard about something. So if you see someone crossing their arms when you’re talking to them, they’re not being rude. They’re just thinking.  

4. Hand Behind the Head

Portrait of funny puzzled perplexed man holding hand behind head

The hand behind the head has a few different interpretations. You’ve probably seen it if you’ve watched anime or Japanese drama. Some understand it as a way to say no, some understand it as a reaction to embarrassment. If you’ve done something embarrassing and someone caught you doing it, it’s a natural reaction to have one hand behind the head. Like, “oops, I tripped”.

In another situation where this body language is used is if someone wants to say no, but is too polite to. If your friend isn’t free on the day you ask them out, they might have this body gesture while saying “um” or “chotto…”

5. Nose-pointing

touching nose

In Japanese culture, pointing is considered rude. You shouldn’t point at others, but you can point at places and objects. You can point to yourself, but this is where the Japanese body gesture comes in. To point to yourself, you point to your nose. Kick that habit of pointing to your chest when referring to yourself and point to your nose when you’re in Japan!

6. Palms Together

praying hands with dirt under nails

If you’ve been to temples and shrines in Japan, you’ve probably seen this body gesture. This is a common one: palms pressed together in front of the chest. It’s kind of like a praying position. When Japanese people are praying at temples and shrines, they’ll do this gesture. But it also has another meaning: asking for help. If someone wants to ask for your help, they would do this gesture along with saying “please” or “onegaishimasu” (お願いします).

One some occasions, this can be used together with an apology to express your sincerity.

7. The Waving Hand

Manekineko

One hand gesture that’s pretty unique to Japanese culture is a wave with the palm faced downwards and moving back and forth. It’s kind of like the beckoning cat (maneki neko, 招き猫). If someone does this gesture to you, it’s not to shoo you away. Rather, it’s beckoning you to come closer.

If someone’s doing the same waving motion but with their hand moving up and down in front of their face, like as if they’ve smelt something bad, the meaning changes. This is another way of saying no, but more for declining a compliment. If you compliment your Japanese pal and she goes “sonna koto nai” (そんなことない), this gesture will usually accompany it.

8. The Chopping Hand

Woman with her hand up

Don’t be surprised if a stranger starts chopping the air with their hands. This is a way of saying “excuse me, I’m coming through”. The most common example is when you’re in a crowded train, and someone wants to get off. They’ll place their chopping hand (the palm facing the side) in front of them to make their way through the crowd.

Sometimes, the chopping hand can be used to interrupt a conversation.

I have friends who would interrupt a conversation with this exact motion – I’ll be talking with another person and someone would come in between us, chopping the air and pause, before continuing to join the conversation. 

Now you’re 8 gestures closer to fully understanding the high context culture of Japan. The thing is, if you really don’t know what your Japanese friend is trying to say, just ask! There’s definitely no harm in asking for an explanation, but it might be riskier to assume what they’re trying to say.