Everybody appreciates peace and quiet now and then. But no country seems more keen on the pursuit of silence than Japan. Believe me, Japan has the ability to be as noisy as anyone (which I will cover in the future), but in this country of contradictions and extremes, you can experience the two within a hair’s breadth of each other. But don’t be mistake: quiet isn’t always a simple, positive thing here. Let me explain.
In Japan, not everything is on the surface. There is as much said in what is not said than what is said (try saying that ten times fast). Japanese, for instance, is what is often called a ‘loaded language’: because the language is comparatively limited compared to most other languages for sounds, it compensates for this by placing a lot of weight in the unsaid. For example, if your Japanese boss tells you that your hairstyle is cool, she’s probably really telling you that it is unsuitable for the workplace. If there’s a special event coming up and your colleague tells you that you don’t have to do if you don’t want to, what he really means is if you turn down the invitation, you will be a social pariah for the next year.
This phenomenon is called ‘Tatemae’ (建前) and ‘Honne’ (本音), which mean ‘public stance’ and ‘true intention’ respectively. This is all about reading the silence. Reading between the lines and deciphering euphemisms. Of course, we have this in the West too. But what is remarkable is just how prevalent it is in everyday life. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that if you flipped everything that was said to you in Japan, you’d get a much better picture of what everyone was really trying to say.
So not only do you read between the lines in Japan, but you read between the lines that aren’t there as well, and you are expected to make solid judgements on them as well. Instructions or requests can sometimes seem vague, even if you are conversing in English, and your really do have to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself. This is called ’Kuki o yomu’ (空気を読む), reading the air. Which is as easy as it sounds. So don’t worry, native Japanese are just as hopeless at it most of the time, too.
Perhaps it all stems from their roots in Shinto and Buddhism, which emphasizes minimalism, subtlety and implied meanings. Don’t get me wrong, on good days, it is a wonderful beautiful thing to behold when people seem to be in sync with one another like they are all siblings. And even on an obtuse level, the standard common-or-garden quiet is so much more prevalent here too, a great asset when you can get on a bus on not have some meat-head slumped at the back blaring music out for all to hear, and not be woken up at 3am by a drunken brawl and/or singalong.
But, as with most things in Japan, it is a double-edged sword. You have to be prepared to take the good with the bad. And the utterly silent. Whatever that might mean.