Unravelling Social Norms of Japan and Integrating as a Foreigner (Part 2)

Part 2 of the article "Unravelling social norms of Japan and integrating as a foreigner".

This article discusses visual and vocal aspects of communication with people in Japan.

Being very visual

Being visual might not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Japanese people, but watching a TV show or reading a non-fiction book explaining concepts will often demonstrate this. The tendency for visualising may come from the more pictorial aspect of Japanese Kanji characters. Much more than other types of television, Japanese TV programmes will often use subtitles, in particular on "Variety" TV programmes where the subtitles are used to comedic effect with different fonts and colours to express the nuance and tone of how someone may say an interesting or "amusing" soundbyte. A common example may be that someone pretends to be angry and their words are converted into large, wavy red Kanji characters.

One will also see this on informative news programmes - when describing details of things explained or said, such as a new policy explained by a politician, in Western TV, this is normally something simply discussed by talking between a panel of people. On Japanese TV however, this is often preceded by a school-lesson style explanation, with quotes and explanations written word for word on a board, which is then read out by the presenter in full, often with key words or key points such as "this may be a danger to the public" covered by a label and then "revealed" to provide emphasis to this point. This is a very different and structured way of presenting things, but can be a surprisingly good tool to help learn Japanese and fully absorb the details of a discussion, which can be difficult to follow for an individual still learning Japanese. One will also notice that Japanese people will often use diagrams more often to explain abstract concepts rather than expressing this through full verbal communication. This can be very helpful for visual learners, but less so who prefer a more "human" style of communication.

But also, in some ways, very vocal

Japanese people, particularly in Tokyo, can often be seen as less animated with body language, such has hand gestures and variation of intonation when speaking. Often foreigners in Japan are observed by Japanese to be highly expressive and energetic. However, where Japanese are very vocal is in the acknowledgment of others when they speak, which is known as "aizuchi" (相槌). This will often be observed with frequent vocal utterances to acknowledge what the other is saying, and provides an appropriate rhythm and sense of assurance that the other person is listening and acknowledging, particularly in a phone conversation where the other person cannot be seen. If this rhythm of Aizuchi is not present, there can be situations (particularly in more formal exchanges) where the feeling in the conversation can become less settled as the flow of the conversation is not as expected. Often people will hear Japanese respond with a large "heeeee" to a statement in surprise, which would often be excessive in an English speaking environment, but quite normal among Japanese people. One theory is that the increased vocal responsiveness of the Japanese compensates for the lack of animatedness in body language.

The idea of having a certain tempo and typical responses to a conversation is not uniquely Japanese, but each culture has a different way of going about it, and it can sometimes happen on an almost subconscious level, influencing the way we build and develop relationships. It can sometimes explain why we are at ease with some people, but feel less confident around others. Observing and understanding how the "rhythm" of typical Japanese conversations work is certainly a good method for more effective communciation.

An encyclopedic range of sense descriptions

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One key difference between languages and cultures is the way things are described, particularly in literature. As you learn Japanese, you will find that there are a myriad of ways to express senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste which are particularly hard to translate into English. One example is "kuse ga aru" (癖がある)which is often used for "strong" tasting things such as cheese, alcohol or certain types of seafood, but can depend upon whatever it is describing, but often relates to a certain aroma and after taste. There are also many onomatopoeic sounds known as "giongo"(擬音語)or "gitaigo"(擬態語)which are similar but whose sound isn't directly onomatopoeic to the object it describes. One example is describing a very quiet environment where "one could hear a pin drop" as "shiin to suru" (しーんとする)which conveys an intuitive sense of striking silence. If one takes a peek at something for a moment, one can say "chira tto miru" (ちらっとみる) whose sound alone conveys that sense of sneakiness when peeking, and often shown by the tone in which it is said. It is common to observe such "sensory" ways of communication more commonly than in English, where descriptions are often made by comparing things to others, or through metaphor. While this of course also exists in Japanese too, there are certainly more ways and more instances of communicating visceral senses even in everyday conevrsation in Japanese.

How can you integrate as a foreigner in Japan?

Understanding such aspects of Japanese society and its people is an ongoing process and often happens over time. As a foreigner, reading the above may seem intimidating, especially if one wishes to truly master the language and communicate effectively. However, one must not forget our universality and sameness as humans, so as to not be overwhelmed by cultural differences. In addition, having an open mind, kind heart and curiosity to learn will serve you well in any culture and facilitate a lot of learning and integration.

As a foreigner, particularly if you are not east-asian looking, it is inevitable that you will be treated differently in relation to a non Japanese, as many foreigners are in other cultures. While this can present difficulties and result in assumptions and stereotypes about you from people less aware of cultures outside Japan, it can also be used to your advantage. Without the expectation to act like a Japanese person, you have the freedom to pick and choose elements of Japanese culture, your own, and any others which you admire. Over time, you will learn which to employ at the right time, and reconcile your personality with elements of Japanese social norms that suit you, whilst maintaining aspects which are very much different to other Japanese people. There is no one way to adapt to life in Japan, as everyone must find a way that suits their individuality. Even Japanese people themselves go through this process, especially if they have had experiences abroad and changed themselves, viewing social norms through a more critical lens.

However, the key take away is this - get to know Japanese people and actively observe how people communicate, and find your way to communicate effectively within these social contexts. Having a positive and open mindset, and developing a habit of reevaluating one's cognitive biases is also very important. Without this, some foreigners get sucked into negative thoughts of social exclusion and feeling lonely in Japanese society. As with anywhere, find the people and the community that accepts you within Japan, and remain open and curious at all times - you will reap the rewards!

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Claudia Anderson

Claudia Anderson

Author & Translator