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.