Japanese Culture

Communication

Verbal

  • Indirect Communication: Japanese people are generally indirect communicators. They may be ambiguous when answering questions as a way to maintain harmony, prevent a loss of face, or out of politeness. People are often attentive to non-verbal cues (such as body language, posture, expression and tone of voice) as a way to draw meaning from a conversation. Disagreements that must be discussed are usually done so in private and at a later time.
  • Refusals: As indirect communicators, Japanese people often avoid direct refusals or negative responses. When refusing, they may show hesitation before replying with an ambiguous response. For example, someone may respond to a request with “Kento-shimasu” meaning ‘I will consider it’, even if the speaker does not intend to consider the proposal.
  • Silence: Interrupting someone who is talking is generally considered impolite. This means that many Japanese tend to remain silent during a conversation, until there is an opening to speak. Sometimes, silence is intentional to allow people time to think about the discussion. Silence is often understood as reflecting politeness and respect.
  • Interjections: Interjections (aizuchi) are very common in Japanese communication. They are not understood as an interruption, but rather indicate to the speaker that their counterpart is actively listening. Aizuchi are particularly important in situations where people cannot see non-verbal cues, such as speaking on the phone. There are different types of interjections depending on the context of the conversation. One type of interjection indicates agreement, and includes the sounds ‘un’, ‘ne’ and ‘ee’, and phrases such as “Hai”’ (‘yes’), “Sou desu ne” (‘So it is, isn’t it?’) and “Sugoi” (used in casual contexts to mean ‘wow’ or ‘amazing’). Interjections of agreement are usually accompanied by a nod. Another common type of interjection indicates surprise, and includes the sound “Eeee?’ and the phrase “Honto desu ka?” (‘Really?’). The phrase “Māji ka?” (‘Seriously?’) is commonly used, but only in casual contexts.
  • Compliments: Humbleness is a common value in Japanese culture. As a result, there is a general tendency for people to politely deflect compliments. Excessive complimenting may cause embarrassment.


Respectful Speech (Keigo)

The Japanese language has a thorough grammatical system to express different levels of politeness, respect and formality. This is known as keigo (‘respectful speech’ or ‘honorific speech’). There are three general categories of respectful speech, each used in different situations and employ different word choices and ways of communicating.


  • Sonkeigo refers to ‘respectful language’ and it is used to demonstrate respect towards the other person. This type of speech is often used when speaking to superiors (e.g. an employee speaking to their boss), and tends to include a lot of drawn-out polite expressions.
  • Kensongo refers to ‘humble language’ used to depreciate oneself or other people in the same group (e.g. business workers talking about their business to customers). In this kind of speech, people tend to drop honorific titles to show humility.
  • Teineigo refers to ‘polite language’, which is more general and can be used to refer to other people or oneself. This kind of language does not convey any particular kind of respect or humility to oneself or others. Polite language is also often used among acquaintances.


Non-verbal

  • Physical Contact: Minimal physical contact is preferred. People tend to avoid touching others unless it is unavoidable, like in a crowded public place. Close friends or people of the same gender may stand or sit close to one another. Public displays of physical affection among opposite genders is uncommon. However, affectionate and friendly contact such as hugging, hand holding or walking arm-in-arm is quite common among friends of the same gender.
  • Personal Space: Attitudes towards space are often based on a distinction between public and private spaces. For instance, bodies are pressed together without comment in crowded public spaces, such as a busy mall or public transportation. Meanwhile, bodily contact is generally kept to a minimum in private settings. Where possible, people will maintain distance from one another. When standing next to friends or family, people will usually stand at arms’ length apart. This distance is further among acquaintances.
  • Eye Contact: Eye contact is an important aspect of non-verbal communication in Japan. Indirect eye contact is the norm as direct eye contact may be interpreted as intimidating. Indirect eye contact is particularly common when speaking to an elder or someone higher ranking to demonstrate respect. Usually, people will look at another part of someone’s face, such as their chin.
  • Bowing: Bowing is common throughout Japan and is often used as a gesture to mark certain emotions, such as showing gratitude, remorse or reverence. The etiquette of bowing contains many intricate rules that depend on factors such as the context, social status and age of the person (see Bowing (Ojigi) in Greetings).
  • Gesturing: There are a number of other common gestures that may be used while speaking. For instance, a common gesture used when someone is embarrassed is to raise one hand and place it behind the back of the head. This gesture is also sometimes used as a way to indirectly disagree or refuse something. Another gesture used to indicate a lighthearted disagreement is to wave both hands in front of the body or face. 
  • Beckoning: In Japan, people usually beckon by facing the palm of the hand to the ground and waving their fingers towards their body. However, it is improper to beckon someone socially superior in this manner, such as one’s boss.
  • Pointing: Pointing with a finger is considered rude. Instead, people in Japan hold out their hand and gently gesture towards the person, location or object.
  • Counting: When counting with their fingers, Japanese usually start with an open palm and close a finger to symbolise a number. For example, the number one is represented when the thumb is closed and the other fingers are open. Similarly, a closed fist represents the number five. However, the opposite style of counting where the number of fingers held up reflects the number symbolised is becoming more common.
  • Nodding: It is common for people to nod during conversation to indicate they are listening or as a sign of acknowledgement. Nodding is a gesture of politeness, and does not necessarily imply agreement.
  • Expressing Emotions: Displaying intense emotion is usually avoided in Japanese communication. This is especially the case in formal situations such as in the workplace or at school. People tend to avoid overt and intense displays of anger to preserve face. Social status can play a role in how intensely emotions are expressed. For example, it is more socially acceptable for those of higher social status to express anger.
  • Feet: It is considered rude for someone to display the soles of their feet, use their feet to move something, point their feet towards someone or put their feet on furniture.
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