Upon arriving in Japan in 1549 to convert the natives to Christianity, it is not surprising that St. Francis Xavier ran into communication difficulties. While he was positive overall about the Japanese people, he came up with a remarkable theory about their language. He found communication so challenging that he wrote of his belief that the Japanese language had been planted by the Devil in order to stymie Christian missionary work.

A country of devil-tongued natives? I wonder what embarrassing communication mishap was preying on his mind the day he wrote that letter?

There are plenty of candidates for the element of Japanese study that could have driven St. Francis over the edge: kanji; the lack of a grammatical subject; kanji; the special humble and polite forms of address; more kanji; the lack of clear differentiation between present and future tense; and even more kanji.

But my theory is that it was not the structure of the Japanese language per se, but the confusing (to outsiders) way it is used. Japanese have made an art form of white lies and well-meaning pretences every bit as deep as the tea ceremony. Some social interactions cannot simply be slurped down with milk and two sugars. They must be ritually cleansed, rotated, sipped, rotated again, sipped and appropriately admired … and ritually wiped clean.

Not long after I had arrived in Japan, when I was a teacher at a language school, I struck up a chat with one of the Japanese office staff. He told me that he played the bass. I told him that I played the guitar. He told me he liked drinking, and we decided to go out for a drink together after work.

The night didn’t go so well. His English was limited. My Japanese level was very low. We ran out of things to say and concentrated on our drinks instead to hide our embarrassment.

The next day at work, though, he seemed extremely positive about our evening.

“Ah, William,” he said. “I had such a great night! You’re a very heavy drinker, ha ha! We must go out again some time soon!”

“Oh,” I thought. “Maybe the evening wasn’t such a wash out after all. I suppose you could say that we sat in a companionable silence?” So I said, “Sure. Let’s do it again then. Are you free on Friday night?”

Now he seemed a little unsure. “Well, I have to work late on Friday…”

“OK. No problem,” I replied. “Saturday night then?”

He started to sweat. His eyes were darting around the room, looking for someone to intercede on his behalf. “This Saturday I’m, uh, helping my friend to move house? I mean, I’m helping my friend to move house. Yes.”

I was finally getting the idea. So why did he insist so strongly just a minute before that he was desperate to repeat the evening? And now he started all over again. “I’m sorry about this weekend. But please make sure, definitely, to invite me out again. We must go soon! What a great time we had last night, ha ha!”

“Was that the ‘devil-tongue’ St. Francis was talking about?” I thought.

Fifteen years or so later as I write this, I can now see his artful white lies and well-meaning pretences for what they were. My own tongue has developed the ability to pick rice from between upper and lower teeth simultaneously, due to its ingenious bifurcating capacity.

On the birth of my son, one of my acquaintances bowed as she gave the ritualistic phrase, “Go-shussan omedetō gozaimasu,” (“Congratulations on the birth”) — as well as ¥10,000. Ritually cleanse and rotate. According to custom, I ought to spend half of the money, ¥5,000, on a return gift to say thank you. So I bought the gift. Sip and rotate. She pretended to be hugely surprised, both to receive it and by its splendor. Sip and appropriately admire. I pretended that it was no trouble, something practically worthless. And we both pretended to believe each other’s pretences. Ritually wipe clean.

If St. Francis ever did suspect that the little pretences and constructed ambiguities that were causing him so many communication difficulties were devil-sent, a little more time in the country would have cleared his mind.

At least, I came to see them as clever tools that promote social harmony. There is something comforting about acting out these social micro-dramas, as long as everyone knows their part. It’s a little like kissing your husband or wife goodbye as they go off to work in the morning, whether you are in a good mood with them or not. If everyone hears the sound of a tree falling in the forest, does it matter whether the tree really fell? If everyone says how keen they are to meet up again, does it matter if they never actually do it? Just enjoy the micro-drama. And be careful not to fluff your lines.

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