Do you ever wonder why Japanese people can understand each other despite the lack of verbal utterances? This trait is known as kuuki wo yomu, or reading the situation. You might think that people from different cultures also do that, but why is kuuki wo yomu difficult for foreigners in Japan?
What is kuuki wo yomu?
Kuuki wo yomu (空気を読む) is a Japanese phrase for reading the air or atmosphere. The equivalent translation in English is reading the room or reading between the lines. It is a common practice in Japanese society anywhere at any time. If you can't do it, you will be labeled as KY. It stands for kuuki ga yomenai, which means unable to read the situation or can't take a hint.
In a high-context and indirect communication society like Japan, the ability to take a hint is incredibly vital. It is a well-embedded value in every Japanese person, along with other principles such as omoiyari and tatemae. They learn to be constantly aware of unspoken messages, gestures, expressions, and other non-verbal cues.
For foreign tourists who come to Japan for a short trip, this behavior seems kind and thoughtful. People stand on one side of elevators, so people in a hurry can walk through another side without repeatedly saying excuse me. People in a packed train automatically put their backpacks in the front, so there’s more space. It seems like everyone is considerate toward each other.
Japanese escalator etiquette (Picture: impressivemagazine.com)
However, foreign students and workers who stay in Japan for a longer period may find kuuki wo yomu a cultural barrier. While those actions are indeed thoughtful, it heavily relies on collective thinking. It’s hard for non-natives with different cultures to know such unspoken etiquette without being explicitly told.
Ambiguity in Japanese communication
There is a Japanese proverb 一言えば十をしる (ichi ieba ju wo shiru) which means hear one, know ten. This proverb shows that typical Japanese conversation where the speaker and listener share the same knowledge, so the speaker only needs to talk a little. The listener will figure out the rest by themselves.
When foreigners come to Japan, they don’t share the same knowledge and customs as the Japanese. They won't be able to understand ten things when they only hear one. The previously compact yet effective conversation will become ambiguous.
The ambiguity in Japanese conversation is not solely caused by the lack of words. There are some situations where people use words, but they can't be translated directly. The different meanings may cause misunderstandings among foreigners, especially if they aren't familiar with aizuchi and tatemae.
In some cultures, being a good listener means listening quietly and attentively. However, Japan has a different perspective. The Japanese people, despite their subtlety, are not supposed to be silent when listening to a conversation. To show you are listening and paying attention, you have to say some interjections frequently as responses to the speaker. Unfamiliar people may think it’s interrupting, but listening quietly in Japan means you have no interest in what the others are saying.
The examples of aizuchi are はい, ええ, and うん. These three are directly translated as yes. During a conversation, non-native speakers may think their interlocutors agree because they keep saying yes, but it’s not the case. If はい, ええ, and うん are used as aizuchi they mean yes, I’m listening, not yes, I agree with you.
Honne and tatemae
Kuuki wo yomu becomes a real challenge when there are words to interpret, especially for westerners. Many western countries have a direct communication style. They mean what they say and rarely beat around the bush. Most Japanese people are not like that.
Honne means true self. People in Japan usually express themselves freely only on private occasions among closest families and friends. Tatemae is the facade people use in public, often the opposite of the true feelings. Some people may think of tatemae as being dishonest or two-faced, but it's necessary for maintaining harmony in Japan's group-oriented society. Tatemae is behavior out of politeness, not maliciousness.
For example, a Japanese person asks if there are any questions by the end of a meeting with one minute left. It could be a facade because they actually want to end it immediately. The correct response, if so, is to answer no. You don’t want to prolong the meeting and hold back other participants from their next agendas, even if you actually have questions.
How to read situations fluently
To avoid being a KY, you have to be aware of your surroundings. Here are a couple of things you can do to learn to read the situations:
Study Japanese body language
Unfortunately, speaking fluent Japanese won’t guarantee you can socialize better with locals. To read the situation correctly in Japan, you also need to learn body language and gestures. It's also crucial to avoid awkward situations. For example, constantly looking someone in the eye during conversation is an aggressive move.
Watch Japanese media
You can see a lot of body language gestures in Japanese media. It's better to learn from reality shows or dramas to be safe. Characters in anime also use Japanese body gestures. However, body movements and facial expressions in anime tend to be exaggerated. If you imitate an anime character's behavior, you will look ridiculous (unless you are a cosplayer at a cosplay event).
Make some friends
Having local friends will help you a lot. You can learn from their examples and ask questions directly. Also, it is only natural to copy their body language after befriending them for a while.
Learn through game
There is a game called Kuukiyomi if you want to learn in a fun way. Kuukiyomi contains hundreds of situations with no instructions. Players should read the situation and react appropriately. It was released in Japan only at first, but the developer launched the English version in 2018. It is available on mobile (iOS and Android), Switch, Playstation, and Steam.
Don't worry too much if you're new to Japan. It is expected for foreigners to not understand nearly telepathic Japanese communication. Even Japanese natives can still make a mistake.
You can start with easy things and gradually learn more complicated ones. Most importantly, remember that learning this skill will make your life in Japan easier and more enjoyable. It will be worth it!