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? ^_^

On culture shock, or the lack thereof

People living abroad often experience ‘culture shock’. I find it hard to describe culture shock in just a few words, but simply put it refers to the process we all go through when coming into contact with a culture different from our own (see below for scientific definitions of culture shock).

culture shock

One of the most typical things about living in a different culture is that you are unfamiliar with the correct way to do even the simplest of things. How to greet your neighbour in the elevator, how to order in a restaurant (regardless of language constraints), how to do the laundry or operate the stove, how to do your groceries … All these things have to be learned again, as if one was a child. This feeling of being completely lost in the day-to-day world can sometimes cause feelings of anxiety, frustration, alienation or depression.

Having lived abroad before, I braced myself upon arrival in Japan. Hit me culture shock! But the shock didn’t come. I was loving every minute of my new Japanese life. All the differences were not alienating or frustrating, they were wonderful and interesting. Although I too was lost in all the aforementioned day-to-day things, strangely (and different from my previous experiences in foreign cultures) this did not lead to frustration or anger. Just fascination.

But wait a minute, it’s probably just ‘the honeymoon phase’, the first phase of culture shock. This phase, where everything is exciting and exotic typically lasts around three to six months. As we have been living in Japan for about six months now, I have been expecting the second phase, often referred to as ‘frustration/ withdrawal/ crisis phase’ for some time now. But so far so good. No crisis phase in sight.

culture shock U-Curve

Culture shock U-curve

Admittedly some things have changed. I don’t take a picture of every single thing I see anymore. I’m no longer constantly amazed as I walk down the street. I have recently had a few non-perfect Japanese experiences such as an unpleasant and alienating doctor’s visit or a conversation that was completely lost in translation. But despite all this I still love my Japanese life and am still fascinated by Japanese culture.

I remain a little distrusting of this serenity and continue to brace myself for whatever may happen next. Maybe there will be a reverse culture shock when we return to Belgium for a two-week holiday. Or maybe the culture shock will happen upon returning to Japan after our holiday. But then again, maybe I will just have the good luck to be stuck in the honeymoon phase forever. Here’s hoping.

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(1) Definition of culture shock by Oberg: Culture Shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life.

(2) Definition of culture shock by Hofstede: A state of distress following the transfer of a person to an unfamiliar cultural environment, which may also be accompanied by physical symptoms.