Japanese art of avoiding rebuttal

Yokohama

According to Wikipedia, even Albert Einstein was impressed by the Japanese and their oft-touted modesty. One thing Japanese that is less lovable, however, is honne to tatemae.

This translates roughly as “Though I’m standing here before you pretending amicably to believe one thing, I’m actually secretly thinking something quite different.” Some thoughts or feelings are indeed wisely left unexpressed, but generally I’d prefer the truth over someone pretending to agree with me, any day. At least his or her candor might afford me the chance to clarify myself or to make a rebuttal, which is what’s really being avoided, of course.

Alas, the Japanese value nonverbal communication, variously referred to as haragei or stomach art (which really involves reading someone’s mind, not their gut), or even ishin-denshin or telepathy. Many would concur that we could all use a break from the nonstop chatter and mindless retorts of tweets and soundbites.

Some Japanese, however, believe this mind-reading ability is uniquely Japanese, as is clear from a remark by Hajime Takamizawa in his book “Business Japanese” (which I highly recommend): “[Japanese] people negotiate while reading the other party’s mind, which to foreigners may look like a strange form of telepathy.”

Perhaps some foreigners are so mystified, but when I, for one, observe nothing but deafening silence and glances between my Japanese counterparts in negotiations, I’m certain they’ve decided not to hire or to do business with me. (I tried sending this message to The Japan Times telepathically first, but it failed.)

gary henscheid
yokohama

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.