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!

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