It's been a few years since I first attended a Japanese class. Still, some things that my Japanese teacher said then remain fresh in my memory. Here's one of her comments:
"Learning the language is not enough to communicate appropriately in a Japanese setting," she once said, and then proceeded to present a lecture about Japanese culture.
That was the first time I'd heard the terms "high context culture" and "implicit communication style."
At that moment, I realized that it's not possible to just learn Japanese. The connection between Japan's culture and its language (and, indeed, between any language and culture) is so significant that if you try to put culture aside, you likely won’t be able to use the language “correctly.”
So, if language alone is not enough, what do you need to communicate effectively in a Japanese setting?
This post is going to get into some important differences between Japanese and Western culture. I hope it will give you some insight and clarity when you find yourself communicating with Japanese people. More importantly, perhaps, I hope it will let you use Japanese more confidently.
High Context vs Low Context Cultures
So, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the Japanese communication style, let's cover what a high-context culture is and how it differs from a low-context culture.
- In high-context cultures, nonverbal communication is more prevalent. In these cultures people pay more attention to behaviors and circumstances than to words—to put that differently, you might say that a significant portion of communication happens outside of the actual words spoken in an interaction.
- Low-context cultures, on the other hand, tend to be more direct. People communicate more explicitly, and generally feel that it's a good thing to make their intentions clear and precise. I'm not a mind reader: if you don't tell me, I won't know.
When contexts clash: a historical example
In one portion of his book "Beyond Cultures," the anthropologist Edward T. Hall looked at the legal systems of Japan and the USA to shine a spotlight on some major differences between their cultural contexts. Here’s one such example, in which he cites a trial that took place in Japan after World War II:
An American soldier was being tried in a Japanese court for the murder of an elderly Japanese lady after World War II. The Japanese authorities were shocked that, instead of showing remorse, this soldier displayed a righteous attitude. He showed no signs of repentance. The authorities were so stunned by this attitude that, instead of prosecuting him, they requested his repatriation and forbade him from entering Japan ever again.
This in mind, Hall concludes that the purpose of a trial in High context cultures (such as Japan) and low-context cultures (like the USA) is different. Even if the Japanese authorities were to punish this soldier, he would not take his punishment in the way the authorities expected, mentally or emotionally speaking. He didn't appreciate the moral burden associated with being judged in Japanese society.
This scene illustrates how expectations can vary from one place to another, even in a legal context.
How context affects communication
The following images are an extract from a publication called "Communicate Effectively Between Cultures" written by Delphine Ménard about the differences between high- and low-context cultures, and how to communicate effectively within them.
Japan’s High Context Culture
You may have heard that Japanese people are not very open when it comes to expressing their thoughts. There is some truth to this statement. Being a collectivist society, Japan considers maintaining harmony within groups to be extremely important. As a result, the majority's well-being tends to get prioritized even over the individual's.
In order to maintain the harmony of the group, Japanese society has a series of unwritten rules which should be followed in cetain situations. To give a few examples:
- Behavioral scripts: A number of day-to-day interactions are quite scripted in nature, and there are fixed responses to a wide variety of things that come up in a given day, such as when a customer enters a store.
- Nonverbal communication: Gestures and facial expressions can say things that words may not.
- Social hierarchy: The position/status of a person in a specific setting determines how he/she communicates. People who fail to behave according to their social status, especially in the corporate world, are looked down upon in Japanese society.
This probably seems underwhelming. Those things are true in Western culture, too, right? And even within Japanese society, there are individuals who will speak their mind. Right?
Well, you're right. Those assessments are correct.
Having said that, we're more talking big-picture, here.
If you were (somehow) to look at society and communication as a whole on a spectrum, high-context cultures would skew toward preserving group harmony while low-context cultures would skew toward maximizing individual freedom. It's nothing mindblowing or incredibly foreign—we're all people, after all—but it is a quite different balance than what you might be used to, and it comes with a learning curve.
Characteristics of Japanese Communication
In the book I Saw the Same Dream Again by Sumiko Yoru, there’s a scene in which the main character (a girl in early grade school) is complaining to an older woman that her parents seem to enjoy working more than they enjoy spending time with her. The older woman suggests that the girl simply tell her parents that she feels lonely, but the girl responds that it wouldn’t be the “wise” or “well-behaved” thing to do.
While this is just a a scene from work of fiction and perhaps shouldn't be taken too seriously, I think it's interesting that such a young character is more concerned about how her actions would be perceived than she is about how she actually feels.
So, anyway, what I feel are the two main characteristics of Japanese communication:
- Implicit and Indirect: Japanese people often communicate indirectly. Sometimes they express themselves ambiguously, and the receiver is expected to be able to read between the lines to understand what the speaker meant. As a result, Japanese people usually pay attention to non-verbal expressions and try to see “beyond” what the speaker is saying.
- Reading the Air: In Japanese culture, there is a concept called “reading the air” (空気を読む, Kūki wo yomu). It means observing what’s happening around us and discerning how to act without needing to ask, even when in unfamiliar situations. This skill is highly appreciated among Japanese people. It is considered a sign of courtesy, maturity, and selflessness.
As foreigners, Japanese people do not expect us to act like them. However, it's still essential to understand the culture. We must look for what’s behind the words and be aware of our surroundings. Otherwise, we might get in trouble without knowing exactly why.
Influence of Japan's Culture on Its Language
Going back to that university lecture on Japanese culture that I mentioned at the beginning of the article, let's look at how some of Japan's culture gets reflected in its language.
To begin with, Japanese’s formal language and casual language are two separate worlds. It may seem like that applies to all languages, but whereas many languages merely say this phrasing sounds more/less formal, Japanese actually has concrete grammar/sentence structures to convey different levels of formality. The way you talk to a colleague and a friend are physically different.
Here’s a quick look at the different registers of speech that Japanese speakers employ on a daily basis. We won't get into the actual grammar of these registers, as we've got a whole post on that topic. For the purposes of this post, I just want you to notice how many ways a single English verb can be conveyed in Japanese. (And this is just for starters!)
Known as タメ口（ためぐち, tameguchi), this register is used with people in your immediate circle, such as family and friends. It implies that you see the listener as being of similar social status as you, or that your relationship has reached a point where such formal pretenses are no longer necessary. As you might imagine, then, using this form with strangers or superiors is not recommended.
Tomodachi ga kuru.
My friend is coming.
The Japanese language uses grammatical structures to convey the formality of a given utterance. This type of grammar/language is called Keigo (honorific language). It's sort of a spectrum, insofar as there are a less- and more-formal structures, and it encompasses different categories:
This could be considered the first level on the "polite language” scale. It is generally used with people who in your circle that you (a) do not have a close relationship with, but (b) share roughly the same hierarchical/social status wth. It’s also a “safe” bet if you need to address a stranger.
Sensei ga kimasu.
The teacher is coming.
2. 尊敬語 (そんけいご, sonkei-go)
This category refers to “respectful” language and is used to show deference to the person you are speaking with: it literally raises their social status in relation to yours. Whenever you talk with elders or superiors at work, you should use 尊敬語.
O kyaku-san ga irasshaimasu.
A customer is coming.
3. 謙譲語 (けんじょうご, Kenjōgo)
This is known as "Humble language," and is a very distinctive aspect of Japan's culture and language. 謙譲語 is a type of speech that lowers one's own social status in relation to the person they are addressing.
Shachō ga mairimasu.
The company president is coming.
(Said in reference to your own president at a meeting with another company/group.)
The above examples show how the physical language a person uses can change, depending on the situation and who they are referring to. Although all of the above sentences express the idea that someone "is coming," the Japanese word for is coming differs from sentence to sentence. The first two sentences show two different forms of the same verb, while the last two sentences feature two unique words: one to show that a person of a higher status is coming, the other that a person of a lower status is coming.
Now, let's look at an example of “improper” use of language according to the context.
Real-life Example: How Ignoring Context Creates Friction
Recently, I witnessed a situation that effectively illustrates the concepts discussed in the previous sections: a somewhat awkward interaction between three Japanese people. One of the three was my friend (R-さん), the second person is his boss (K-さん), and the third person is my friend's friend (M-さん). We were all talking about our lives here in Germany.
While talking, I noticed that my friend R-さん seemed a bit tense. I couldn't quite figure out why. He kept looking back and forth whenever his friend M-さん spoke directly to his boss, K-さん.
After some time, R-さん’s boss went to the bathroom, so I took the opportunity to ask him what was wrong. He said that he was a little upset by how his friend (M-さん) was addressing his boss (K-さん). He told me that his friend was using タメ口 to talk to his boss, and that it was a bit awkward.
Here's an example of one of the "awkward" phrases R-さん was referring to:
- K-さん(Boss): いつからドイツに住んでいるの？
Itsu kara Doitsu ni sunde iru no?
How long have you been living in Germany?
- M-さん: 俺は七年ぐらいいるけど、来年日本に帰るかもしれない。
Ore wa nana-nen gurai iru kedo, rainen Nihon ni kaeru kamo shirenai.
I've been here for about seven years, but I may go back to Japan next year.
So, what's “wrong” with M-さん's language? At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything that's outright disrespectful. He's not swearing or anything like that.
All the same, R-さん considers the following forms (marked in red) to be inappropriate for the situation.
According to R-さん, his friend should be aware of the status of person he is talking to, who is obviously "above" him due to his age and job title. Thus, the friend should use 尊敬語 (respectful language)—or at least 丁寧語 (polite language)—when talking to the boss.
Here's how the friend should have responded to the boss, according to R-さん.
I found this situation to be interesting, personally. While R-さん wasn't the one casually addressing his boss, he still felt "secondhand" uncomfortable because his friend did not respect the hierarchy. (Keep in mind that the friend was not a coworker, and thus has no relation to the boss K-さん).
This situation really impressed upon me that it's impossible to separate culture and language. To speak well, you must be familiar with the culture where the language is spoken.
Thus, considering what we have discussed so far, I think it's fair to say that Japan's high-context culture has a major influence on the Japanese language. It’s an unbreakable bond that makes it a little difficult to master the language without also becoming culturally aware.
That being said, there is no reason to be intimidated or concerned about this. While it is important to be mindful of the context in which we find ourselves to act appropriately, we should never forget that it’s a continuous learning process. Furthermore, Japanese people appreciate the effort we put into learning their language, so they won't judge every single word we say.
Consider learning the culture as being one of the stages of your Japanese learning journey. By doing so, you will be more able to appreciate the nuances that make this complex language so beautiful.
yondekurete arigatou gozaimasu!
Thanks for reading!