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Commentary by our President, Hitoshi Shirai
Recently I had the opportunity to interview a number of Japanese people who work at international organizations. When I asked, “What do you find most difficult in the course of your daily work with people of various nationalities?”, one person said, “I miss the nonverbal aspects of Japanese conversation. You know, the habit of ‘a-un’*, which relieves us from explaining everything.”
Reflecting on the way we Japanese establish a sense of distance from each other, I somehow feel we have a culture of trying to read the counterparts mind and making assumptions about his or her intentions. Without clearly expressing what we mean in words, we attempt to predict what will be said next, while allowing the language to remain ambiguous. In addition to the concept of ‘a-un’, Japanese abounds with expressions such as “heart-to-heart communication,” “a word to the wise is sufficient,” and “actions speak louder than words,” which symbolize this cultural tradition. I have the impression that a subconscious sensibility is at work here. A sensibility which seeks to avoid assertive language in an effort to maintain harmony by being sensitive to the counterpart’s feelings, rather than expressing feelings explicitly.
In the past I worked with a person known to be a man of great intelligence. His conversation in Japanese, however, was often hard to follow. When a conversation ended, I realized on reflection that I had no idea what he had said. As he spoke, he was in the habit of pressing on with whatever point he was making by using expressions such as, “That’s right,” “That’s the situation,” and “You get my point, don’t you?”. This tendency had the effect of making me doubt my own capacity to understand. However, upon consulting others, many also reported the same problem understanding him in Japanese. Strangely enough though, he was known to have excellent English, which I found to be clear, logical, and extremely easy to understand. This contrast in clarity between English and Japanese exemplifies the influence of the vagueness of Japanese.
In Japanese, the subject is often omitted or obscured in such a manner as to avoid clearly indicating whose opinion is being stated. Or a person may choose to indirectly state his or her own opinion by quoting the same opinion from a person of authority, or some similar contrivance. Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel Prize recipient, used the word “suggestiveness” to describe the vagueness of Japanese. His literary masterpiece “Snow Country” begins with what is now a very famous opening. Literally translated, it says, “After passing through the long tunnel between borders…snow country appeared”: here, the subject is vague. However, the English version is translated, “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country”: here, ‘the train’ is added as a subject for clarity.
In English, direct expressions which reflect a respect for logic are used extensively. A significant proportion of the world’s population use English as a second language. This may, to some extent, be due to the long history of using English as a means for confronting people of different ethnicities and different cultures with one’s particular contentions. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some Japanese people who could speak English at a high level, conducted an experiment in which they discussed the same subject in both Japanese and English, arriving each time at a conclusion. The Japanese discussion reportedly took twice as long as that in English, and reportedly reached a different conclusion.
From the start, conversations in a Japanese social setting are, to some extent, premised on a sense of pre-established harmony between the participants, rather than the desire to arrive at a clear conclusion. Consequently, any active attempt to upset this harmony tends to result in friction. I once heard that Hiroshi Kume, a news broadcaster for “News Station,” a popular TV Asahi news program, hated to use the commonly used closing comment, “The future course of events will require attention.” The use of this fixed expression at the end of the news presentation, he believed, somehow tended to make viewers erroneously feel that they had fully understood the situation. However, if we consider the meaning of this expression, we realize that both the subject and the intent of the sentence are unclear, and so the words are vacuous. Because Kume tried to subvert the pre-established harmony and convey more directly what he thought and felt, his on-air comments sometimes exposed him to criticism.
Research results of think tanks are usually summarized in report form. Clearly, it is essential that they be written with clear underlying logic, and in a manner enabling readers to understand the key points and recommendations. At Hitachi, the use of expressions such as “Developments from hereon are worthy of attention,” or “It will be necessary to pay attention to the situation in future”, are disallowed, in principle. This is because, as in the broadcasting media expression cited above, when such expressions are used, the most important elements of the report, i.e. ‘WHO should do WHAT’, are omitted entirely. Effectively, this abandons the key findings and underlying issues, and suspends any meaningful thought processes before considering countermeasures. However, it seems that no amount of cautioning against the use of these expressions results in their complete eradication. Possibly, these are extremely useful, acting like a prophylactic drug, in obscuring the key findings of a report.
Rather than settling on one position, the notion of polysemy and ambiguity, leaving behind some suggestiveness, in some way symbolizes the tradition of Japanese beauty. While we value such cultural traditions in the business world, even as it undergoes rapid globalization, coexistence across cultures requires that we properly expose our logic to critical analysis by using clear expressions, without fear of causing friction.
*An expression describing communication style in which the speaker says only a few words, and the listener pre-empts what the speaker will say next, a form of communication based on the minimal exchange words.
Oe, Kenzaburo, Japan the Ambiguous and Myself (Iwanami Shoten, 1995).
O, Seonhwa, The Power of Ambiguity (PHP Institute, 2009)
Kawabata, Yasunari, Snow Country (Kadokawa Bunko, 1956).
Kawabata, Yasunari, Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (2011), Snow Country (Penguin Books, 2011).