In Japan, it’s important to read the air. Here’s a closer look at what that means and how you can learn to “kuuki wo yomu” like a native.
“Reading the Air” in Japan: Why it Matters
One of the biggest challenges that foreigners living or travelling in Japan face is knowing how to 空気を読む（kuuki wo yomu）or “read the air.” A modern phrase recently coined to define Japan’s dominant culture of indirect communication, kuuki wo yomu offers big benefits and dire consequences. If you can read the air, you’ll blend in and make friends. If you can’t, you might end up dubbed as KY: kuuki wo yomenai, or someone who just can’t take a hint.
In this article, we’ll look at why reading the air is such a big deal in Japan and how you can improve your air-reading skills. Your journey away from the dreaded KY title starts here!
The Importance of Reading the Air
In well-mannered Japan, it’s considered a breach in etiquette to say “no” or to otherwise flat-out deny someone. For this reason, a Japanese person attempting to decline an offer or suggestion will use a series of maybe’s, vague half-answers, or sentences that trail of suggestively. It’s up to the other party to decipher and accept the true no hidden away in these answers. If they’re unable to do so, the other person will be stuck in a situation they had no desire to be in. Inconvenience and discomfort will ensue, a classic case of kuuki wo yomenai.
This situation is just one example of why reading the air is so important to Japanese people. Typical to Asian countries, Japan is a collectivist country and carries a large amount of interpersonal communication on unspoken words, cultural expectations, and body language.
Rather than being officially taught in an etiquette class or other educational setting, these social cues saturate daily life from the time a Japanese child enters pre-school. Mothers and caretakers will fold toddlers’ little hands and say, “Itadakimasu!” (“Let’s eat!”) even though the children aren’t old enough to speak. Aisatsu, or greeting culture, is firmly enforced and encouraged throughout school life. These, combined with family influence and activities both social and cultural, equip Japanese people for their life in a country ruled by a necessity to read the air.
How to Read the Air
How exactly does someone who hasn’t been through Japanese school life or upbringing tap into the skill of kuuki wo yomu? Foreigners, especially those visiting from more individualistic Western cultures, commit many a faux pas by overstepping unspoken boundaries, not knowing when or how deeply to bow, or maybe using the wrong kind of envelope to put gift money inside. The list of accidental wrongs could go on and on, but fortunately, we’ve compiled a lengthy list of our own. Here are some things you can do to improve your kuuki wo yomu abilities.
Study Japanese Body Language
You can become a real pro at reading the air simply by understanding Japanese body language. By observing slight changes in facial expression, or “micro-expressions” to shifts in posture or arm movement, you can decipher what your Japanese friend or coworker is really thinking. Each culture creates a different mix of body language; the best way to understand Japan’s is by watching people. The internet can help, of course; check GaijinPot’s guide to basic Japanese gestures or Tofugu’s list of Japanese body languages.
To give you an even bigger head start, here’s a brief list of Japanese gestures and expressions to be aware of:
- Sucking breath through the teeth – this is a sure sign that whoever you’re speaking to wants to say no.
- Tilting the head slightly – the person you’re speaking to might be confused or is having trouble following the conversation.
- Pointing to the nose – this means me, myself, and I. While many cultures in the west favor pointing to the chest when referring to oneself, Japanese people point to their noses with an index finger.
- Holding up fingers or arms in the shape of an X – this means no, bad, or impossible. It’s especially important to understand that a thumbs down, while indicating the same meaning in some western countries, is an insult in Japan. Please try to avoid this gesture and use the X instead.
Watch Japanese Media
Many of our cultural norms and expectations are strengthened by the media we consume. Japan is well-known for its colorful game shows, dynamic comedians, and heartfelt television dramas. Any one of these will not only help you learn some Japanese phrases and words, but will also give you more of an instinctive understanding about how to read the air. If you’re uncertain about where to start, Japan’s national broadcaster NHK has a massive selection of foreign-friendly media. If you have Netflix you can check out some of these movies and show—don’t forget to activate Netlifx’s language learning plugin to maximize your studies! There’s even a Nintendo Switch game that teaches you how to read the air!
Many cues for Japan’s kuuki wo yomu culture can be found in Japanese. For example, if you’re able to read Japanese, you’ll have a head start on any street signs or written warnings set up to prevent a kuuki wo yomenai moment. Instead of putting your water bottle in the plastics garbage where it doesn’t belong, you’ll know to read the label and stick it in the proper “PET” garbage.
You’ll also find that Japanese people are delighted when visitors speak to them in their own language! Even if your pronunciation and grammar aren’t perfect, a Japanese person who would have been offended by your faux pas will probably feel more gracious if you speak to them in polite Japanese. As your conversation abilities grow, you will naturally develop an instinct for reading the air, just as any Japanese native does over their lifetime.
Make Some Friends
Make some Japanese friends so that you can learn from them if you need to. In the course of hanging out and speaking with your friends, you’ll learn how to read the air and gain a greater understanding of Japanese social norms. Besides, who doesn’t want more friends?
If you’re still living abroad and are wondering how to connect with Japanese people, try a Japanese subreddit, check out a language exchange app, or take to a social media site like Twitter to follow Japanese hashtags and meet new people online.
In order to avoid being a KY (kuuki wo yomenai) person, it’s best to learn to read Japanese people’s body language and facial expressions. Keep up on your studies of both the language and cultural trends in Japan so that you can avoid awkward social situations. It’s important to make friends, immerse yourself in Japanese media, and keep up with your kanji so you can avoid many of the faux pas that earn people the nickname “KY.” Just keep in mind that Japanese people can be accused of being kuuki wo yomenai just as easily as a visitor from another country; everyone makes mistakes! Keep practicing and never give up. Thank you for reading along with us, and be sure to check out Tokyo Room Finder’s blog for more informative articles about life in Japan!
Author: Erin Himeno