Outgoing Japanese people

When Belgian people ask me questions about my stay in Japan, they often ask what Japanese people are like. From their questions, I gather that they believe all Japanese people to be quiet and introverted. When I answer that I actually met lots of Japanese people who were outgoing and easy to come into contact with, they react surprised. When I add that, in my experience, Japanese people are a happy people who laugh a lot, they look incredulous. I wrote about these prejudices more elaborately in the article ‘Japanese people are human too‘.

Today, as I was going through the pictures that I took when I was in Japan exactly four years ago, on May 21st 2012, I found a video that perfectly illustrates how outgoing Japanese people can be. I was visiting the indoor market in Kanazawa and noticed some live crabs laying on ice, who were still moving. As I stopped to film this fascinating scene, the vendor asked me what I was doing. I said that I was making a video of the crabs but that they appeared to have stopped moving at the moment. As you can see in the video, the vendor immediately reacted by prodding the crabs and placing some more lively ones on the ice. He even took a crab and held it towards the camera, which produced some screaming and hilarity.

This kind of spontaneous and humorous exchange was by no means an exception during my stay in Japan. It shows that Japanese people, just like people all over the world, can be outgoing and enjoy having a laugh!

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Japan in a word: ‘KY’ – ‘Unable to read the air’

I recently got the idea to do a series of posts titled ‘Japan in a word’. Japanese language is fascinating and holds many clues to cultural phenomena. I found that Japanese is rich in very specific vocabulary, more so than other languages that I have studied. When Japanese students of English attempt to literally translate these expressions and words into English, it leads to the weird and funny English that we often hear in Japan. Usually, the only way to really translate such Japanese words is by using entire sentences in English. The power and depth of meaning that is sometimes packed into a single Japanese word intrigues me. Over the course of these series, I will try to give you some examples and try to explain how they pertain to certain aspects of Japanese culture.

First up is the expression KY. You pronounce it by saying the English letters ‘K’ and ‘Y’ separately. It stands for ‘kuuki yomenai’ (空気読めない), which means ‘can’t read the air’. The expression is used for people who are not able to perceive what is appropriate in a given situation, or who are not able to pick up on subtle social clues. For really bad cases, the expression SKY is used (pronounce like the English word ‘sky’). It stands for ‘super kuuki yomenai’ (スーパー空気読めない).

Japanese sky and pine tree at Korankei gorge in Toyota City

Japanese sky and pine tree at Korankei gorge in Toyota City

The stereotypes about Japan and foreigners dictate that all foreigners are KY and that all Japanese are able to ‘read the air’. Certainly the many unspoken social rules and the indirect communication in Japan have driven many a gaijin  to desperation. But any regular reader of this blog will know that I am not a fan of stereotypes. My opinion is that a foreigner will have trouble understanding implicit social rules and cultural conventions in any foreign culture. The frustrations associated with this are an inherent part of culture shock. I do grant that the shock might be even greater in Japan, since there is no country quite so ‘different’ as Japan and there are therefore more new rules and social conventions to learn. But a Japanese person who moves to a Western country might likewise have a lot of trouble ‘reading the local air’ too.

Moreover, not all Japanese people are able to read the air, even when they are in Japan. Unlike the image that some Western media like to give of Japan, Japanese people are not mind readers and they do not share a psychic connection through which they automatically know what others expect of them. I have heard many Japanese people complain about being expected to ‘read the air’. This can especially be a problem between people of different regions. For example Osaka people are reputedly more outspoken and Kyoto people are supposed to be more indirect in their communication. So a person from Osaka who moves to Kyoto might experience some communication problems.

But all my anti-stereotypical ranting put aside, of course the expression KY does illustrate something about Japanese culture. Generally speaking, Japanese people are more aware of their surroundings and of the people they interact with than Westerners. Attention to detail and thoughtfulness towards others are qualities that are more appreciated and encouraged in Japan than in the West. It is one of the reasons why highly sensitive persons, who naturally gravitate more towards those qualities, tend to feel more comfortable in Japan than in Western cultures.

When I was in Japan, I tried to ‘read the air’ as best as I could. I tried to be considerate and follow social conventions as much as possible. I even had the idea that I wasn’t doing too bad a job of it. But as I continue to learn more about Japanese culture, I remember more and more situations in which it turns that I, inadvertently, was behaving very KY. Fortunately (or unfortunately according to some), foreigners are not held to the same standards as Japanese people and as long as you are clearly doing your best, most of your gaijin KY behaviour will be excused. So don’t let a fear of being KY hold you back from getting to know this wonderful culture!

Japanese people are human too

Recently I moved back to Belgium after having spent a year in Japan. People often ask me about my experiences in Japan. One of the questions that I get asked the most, is “Did you get to know any Japanese people?” Quoted out of context like this, the question may seem fairly innocent. Although the fact that people feel the need to ask this, knowing that I have just spent a year living there, could be the first clue that there is a little more to this question than meets the eye. The idea behind the question becomes even more apparent when considering people’s reactions to my answer. They seem surprised when I tell them that, yes, I did manage to acquaint myself with a few Japanese people. In fact, in my experience Japanese people were warm, open and sociable; some of them were even extroverted. I have made some wonderful friends while I was there. “Gasp! Horror! Shock! You mean to say Japanese people are human too?!” That’s exactly what I mean.

Belgian people (and I think Westerners in general) hold many stereotypical beliefs about Japan. One of them is that Japanese people are shy, introverted and even cold. Perhaps a little like robots. Where does this idea come from? Allow me to illustrate with a little anecdote.

I vividly remember footage from right after the Tōhoku disaster. A man is looking out over the wreckage of his town. He has just lost everything. With a flat voice he tells his story to the camera. He gazes into the distance while talking. There are no tears rolling down his cheeks. Afterwards, a Belgian talk show host comments on the footage. “How can Japanese people be so cold? Don’t they feel anything when witnessing such devastation?”

What the talk show host doesn’t realize, is that he is being confronted with a cultural difference. I think there is no culture quite as different as the Japanese culture (as I have argued before). The way people interact and express emotion is culturally defined. In Japan, it is considered childish to openly show your emotions. Self control shows strength of character. That doesn’t mean there is no emotion, or that it is not clearly visible to the trained (i.e. Japanese) eye. But to Westerners these more subdued expressions of emotion come across as cold.

Another reason for the idea of Japanese people as being cold or distant, is that some Japanese tend to freeze up when being addressed in English by foreigners. Many Japanese people feel insecure about their English skills, even when they can actually manage pretty well. Knowing the language is the key to truly unlocking a culture, especially in Japan.

If all my ranting up to this point still hasn’t convinced you that there are, in fact, outgoing and sociable people in Japan, I will make a final effort to convince you by submitting the picture below. During a trip in Kyoto, me and my two fellow gaijin companions were ‘ambushed’ by an elated Japanese family. They started talking to us and insisted that we take a picture together. They were joking, laughing and having lots of fun. It totally made my day.

gaijin with elated japanese family in kyoto temple

A visiting friend from Belgium posing with our new Japanese friends. Can you spot the gaijin? ^_^