The thing that I enjoy most about Japan is the harmonious co-existence of contradictions. While contradictions often create disagreement and chaos in many places, that is not quite the same in Japan. There seems to be this huge invisible force that mandates the opposites to get along with each other, to not interfere and to accept and make peace.
I figured that it is this huge set of unspoken rues that guides the peace and these rules seems to reside in every Japanese person. A set of rules that regulates and controls every aspect of their behavior and ultimately forms their very strong social consensus.
“KY (kuuki wo yomu or “read the air”) – non Japanese do this as well, but in a different way and to a different extent. To (most of us) non Japanese, its obvious that we say, should not go to the bank in our pajamas. To a Japanese person, it is obvious in a similar way that in some situations a person who smiles too much is not to be trifled with”. (Kyle Von Lanken)
While it is not impossible for one to live here without fully internalizing this mysterious set of unspoken rules, foreigners who are found ignorant or breaking these said rules can be pardoned, but that also mean an automatic exclusion from being “one of us”, a.k.a. Gaijin (an outside person).
Social Manifestations Of The Unspoken Rules
I reckon that there are a few very Japanese traits that best manifests the rules and also help set the foundation of this harmonious society.
- Never be in the face of others
- Don't cause inconvenience to others
- Always seek agreement not discussion
- You can never be too polite
- When I doubt, just smile or laugh (politely)
Hence it seems obvious that vagueness may be the universal answer to all the above. As long as you are vague (enough), you will never be in danger of breaking the unspoken rules.
Just How Vague Do You Have To Be?
It is understood that at the root of all these vagueness, is the way the Japanese language is formed. The language itself is lacking of emotional descriptive, hence the display of emotions not on a verbal level but through explicit self expressions as seen in elaborate festivals, cosplay, anime, performance and art.
Even in everyday lives, people don't really talk much. My husband comes through the door and grunts something to the point of making his presence known. Your neighbors nod good morning to you and avoid any lengthy conversations. People answer "domo" to end any exchanges. It sounds super cold but that's the way it is here.
We can’t be truly Japanese but it is especially important that we abide by the unspoken rules of this society. Hence, to stay safe while exploring the perimeters of this “Japanese vagueness”, it may be helpful to bear in mind the following guidelines.
- Always have inherent respect for others - always consider the comfort and convenience of others
- Never impose your own opinions - always leave room for accommodations and self-interpretations
- Nothing is being said as it is – always read in between the lines
- Playing stupid or providing some kind of comic relief can enable easy exit from situations
Hence in Japan, we shall say "Say little and live life!" ;)