• Life & Culture

Japan Cultural Nuances: Communication Styles & Eye Contact

Kyoto street with two women wearing kimono

How to read between the lines of Japanese communication…

To get the best insight into the Japanese culture and how it works, we asked a Japanese manager at Interac to complete a questionnaire on communication. A good understanding of this information will be beneficial to you during the recruiting process as well as when you are working in Japan.

Why don’t Japanese people make much eye contact in Japan?

This is simply one of many significant cultural differences that most non-Japanese people have a hard time understanding. While not making eye contact while someone is talking to you is considered rude in Western and many other cultures, doing so for a long time is in Japan. A parent would feel disrespected if their child looks straight back at them. Eye contact in Japan simply isn’t a thing.

Why do Japanese people say “yes” all the time?

Japanese people often use the word “yes.” Despite their verbal agreement and signs of understanding, it’s not so easy to understand whether Japanese people have truly agreed or understood you. This is one of many aspects where non-verbal communication in Japan misunderstandings lead to discomfort between the Japanese people and foreigners.

“Yes” in Japanese, “hai,” has ambiguity in the word itself, depending on the situation, while in English, the word doesn’t have much ambiguity. Japanese communication style is different.

Japanese people use it in much the same way an English speaker would give a nod and say “uh-huh,” “I see,” or “hmm.” With this said, don’t assume that a Japanese person will understand everything you say. They may only be saying “yes” as if they’re nodding to what you say. It’s always good to double-check with someone if you think they have a question mark on their face.

Another reason you should double-check at the end of the conversation is that, in Japanese culture, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone in the middle of their speech. There’s a chance that a Japanese person may understand the main point of the conversation but not the small details.

In addition, little adjustments such as speaking clearly and slowly and choosing common vocabulary can always help avoid misunderstanding in communication in Japan.

Why do Japanese people like the word “maybe”?

Another quirk of indirect communication in Japan, Japanese people rarely use the word “no.” It’s not that they can’t say the word, but they prefer to use “maybe.” Japanese custom has a strong taboo against directly refusing or giving negative opinions to someone else’s ideas. Japanese people will try to keep any confrontation out of the work environment in order to maintain the harmony known as “wa.”

Often, Japanese people will agree with you during class. This is to avoid any confrontation. However, it wouldn’t hurt to ask the teacher during recess or lunchtime if there are any concerns or comments about the lesson. Despite how this might frustrate many of you, with time or with change of setting, the teacher might give you their honest thoughts. Due to the language barrier, the teacher might not have any concerns. However, it wouldn’t hurt to approach teachers in each class, as this would make the teacher more comfortable with you, and, in the future, they may be able to share some honest opinions.

How do you read their mind to understand if they mean “no”? As you may all know, communication is more than just exchanging words – you need to become an expert in non-verbal communication too! What one can do to improve their relationship with Japanese people is to try to understand them not only through words but also through their voice tone and body language.

Why won’t Japanese people speak to me directly?

This is another cultural difference, and it’s simply due to Japanese people doing their best to maintain the harmony known as “wa.” In Japan, directly pointing out mistakes or giving negative opinions to a co-worker is avoided. Japanese people think this act will create conflict in the work environment. 

Because of this, they convey messages gently by not speaking to one directly but by having a third party do so. This method of indirect communication is considered best to maintain the harmony or “wa,” whereas for many foreigners, it’s seen as “sneaky” or “untrustworthy” behavior. Although it is one of the most difficult customs for many foreigners to understand, it’s important to understand Japanese people’s effort to maintain “wa.” 

They will appreciate you understanding and respecting their behavior, and moreover, your effort to maintain “wa” will certainly be recognized and appreciated by the Japanese rather than attempting to justify your point.

Why do Japanese people apologize so much?

This is another communication custom that supports the idea of maintaining “wa” in the Japanese social structure. Historically, its society was agricultural and village-based, with people cultivating tiny plots of land side by side. 

Cooperation in the village was essential in order to operate as a group to cultivate crops on limited available land. In Japan, maintaining group harmony and restricting individual demands and desires was highly regarded. This is why individualism has a negative connotation and can sometimes be interpreted as simple egotism.

The expression “sumimasen,” which can be translated as “I am sorry,” is used to ease and prepare the atmosphere and promote interaction. It is not Japanese people simply apologizing for no reason. This act of conversation is very basic for Japanese people, and it’s used simply to get someone’s attention in order to get to the main discussion point.

Why can’t Japanese people insist that they are right?

Japanese people usually don’t argue against what someone says to them. In Japan, if you argue back at someone, you run the risk of it being taken as a character assault. It’s important to take plenty of time before voicing opposition, no matter what the subject or situation. 

It is not good to quickly offer an opposing opinion. In Japanese culture, it is always important to consider the appropriate time, place, and occasion (T. P. O). This is known as “ma.” In reality, “ma” is not just a few seconds or minutes. Sometimes, it can take several days or weeks to bring the topic up again after the initial conversation. Conveying a message indirectly through “ma” is an important indirect communication technique by which Japanese maintain “wa.”

Why are Japanese people often so ambiguous?

In Japan, being ambiguous is intelligent and savvy. Ambiguity is a weapon that enables one to co-exist harmoniously with others and to enjoy the benefits of insider status. Ambiguity and non-verbal communication in Japan avoids or smooths over conflicts and promotes teamwork, allowing one to modestly blend into the group. 

You can avoid angrily criticizing the ambiguous behavior of your Japanese colleagues by learning a little about their culture. Efforts to adapt to their ways of behavior should be made. Through repeated trial and error, Japan’s communication style misunderstandings can be resolved.

Why are Japanese speeches difficult to understand?

Japanese people try to get to the core of a problem by first understanding the background and context. They use “kishotenketsu,” a style of logic used in speeches and in relating accounts. This style presents the background of an event and gives related examples and only then comes to the main point in the conclusion. 

You may get bored or interrupt the speaker in anticipation of the conclusion. Often, this builds more frustration, as the Japanese speaker usually just starts from the beginning again. This is a result of significant differences in western and Japanese communication style.

Why won’t Japanese people elaborate when explaining?

It is often said that the Japanese people convey messages containing unspoken meanings in their communication style. The proverb “say one, know ten” illustrates the belief that if the whole message is given all at once, a person can give the impression of being too pushy or patronizing to the other party. 

Unfortunately, there are cases in which a Japanese person may explain five points to get ten across, thinking that this is enough, but the foreigners may still only understand half of his or her explanation. To avoid misunderstandings, foreigners can take memos and go over the points at the end to let the person know what you got from their explanation.

Why don’t Japanese people go home right after work?

In Japan, people have to get to know each other and build a good relationship in order to create “wa” among the group. After working all day, staff members come back to the staff room at the end of the day, and this allows those from the various departments to see each other, just like a family. 

Department members get together after five to relax and discuss what happened during the day, exchanging customer-related gossip or information about internal affairs. Japanese people stay late in order to be part of the circle of communication and to network. It’s not that they always stay late to work, rather, they stay late to build relationships. In reality, the practice is not very productive.

Why do Japanese people take a long time to make decisions?

In Japan, an individual’s decision-making authority is more limited than in other countries. Foreigners can readily change plans after a decision is made, but this is most often almost impossible in Japan. 

The Japanese people’s strength is that they take time to lay a solid foundation before the initial decision. Consensus is necessary in making the initial decision, so Japanese people must gather the necessary resources, statistics, and past precedents along the way in order to persuade top management.

Any questions about Japan’s unique indirect and non-verbal communication styles? Get in touch with us – our staff can give you tips, from eye contact to spotting hidden meanings.