Japan and non-verbal communication

When dating someone of a different ethnicity, culture, you sure learn a lot about your own cultural assumptions. It’s a good opportunity to learn to compromise and to understand the other person. My experiences with my wife over the years with regard to communication have been interesting, and this makes for an interesting topic for Westerns who interact with Japanese. One such issue has been the notion of haragei (腹芸), which means something like non-verbal communication. The whole notion behind “haragei” is that “actions speak louder than words”, so when interacting with people, you can show a lot of things just by your actions.

For example, if you are served a food you don’t like, you don’t have to come right out and say “I don’t like to eat this”. You can be gracious enough to accept it, and just not eat it. If they are a good host or hostess, then they’ll probably catch on.1 Same with beverages. If you want more tea or beer, you don’t have to ask for it, the host will notice an empty glass and refill it. If you are a Westerner and hosting Japanese people for some reason, try to be extra sensitive and vigilant to what’s going on around you, because an especially polite Japanese person won’t come right out and say it. If you catch on to the non-verbal communication, you’ll find that will put them at ease, and things will go over nicely.

Even in other East Asian cultures, this is true. For example, when I was studying in Hanoi, Vietnam years ago, I remember visiting one friend’s house, and they served us the obligatory green tea.2 Every time I’d try to be polite and drink the cup (hard to do when you’re not used to the bitterness), they would promptly fill the cup back up. I felt pressured to keep drinking, though years later I realized that they were just being very polite and attentive. In hindsight, I wish I had brought a gift too, because the village outside of Hanoi was very rural and poor, and I’m sure they didn’t have much tea and food to offer. That’s what I get for not being young and stupid, and reading up on these things before going there.

In Japanese culture too, it’s very common to bring a gift, usually food, when invited to someone’s house. It shows that you appreciate the person for being a host, and that you are trying to repay the kindness in a small way. After years of dating my wife, I finally appreciated this point. I used to always wonder why we’d go out of our way to get some snacks or drinks before visiting someone’s house, since it’s not obligatory in the US, but now I finally get it.

Same with omiyage (お土産). Omiyage are souvenirs one brings back after a trip, and usually people spend quite a bit of money on it, and get omiyage for just about every friend and relative they can think of. When coming back to Japan, we usually bring back a suitcase load of smoked salmon and coffee from Seattle (or tea from Ireland, which was quite popular on this last trip). The souvenirs usually aren’t too fancy, but they tell the person that you appreciate things they did for you in the past, and also sorry you couldn’t come with us. A lot can be said in a simple gift. That’s also why people often send gifts or cards to special teachers at certain times of year, just to say thanks. The card itself speaks more than the words printed on it.

When interacting with Japanese and Japanese culture, bear these things in mind, and I believe it will make your experiences more positive, and I believe many of these qualities would be equally useful in Western culture too.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. I can’t say for sure, but I think there’s some influence from classic Confucian notions of ritual and reciprocity. By ritual, I mean things like manners and courtesy. As for reciprocity, this is just about treating others the way you would like to be treated. Confucianism places heavy emphasis on benefiting family and society, not so much one’s self-interest. Of course, if everyone followed this, everyone would benefit, at least in theory. :)

1 – Unfortunately, some people in the world are just really dense. It’s for people like that that we have so many religions and teachings.

2 – Vietnamese green tea is really, really strong if you’re not ready for it. Very bitter.

About Doug

A Buddhist, father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Japan, Japanese, Language, Vietnam. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Japan and non-verbal communication

  1. Jeannie says:

    “For us Americans in particular, manners and courtesy are two things we’ve forgotten since my grandmother’s generation.”

    I’m sorry this has been your experience. My experience has been that Americans are gracious and hospitable (despite a bad apple or two) and are no more or less kind than other groups of people.

    Being kind and polite really goes beyond cultural divide.

  2. Doug says:

    No disagreements at all, but kindness is not the same as good manners, and when I see how my grandparents act, compared to people I meet in regular life, there is a noticeable difference. I am not the first to have lamented this decline in courtesy, and probably won’t be the last. Kindness and good manners are the best of both worlds, like you said. Point being, we could learn a thing or two from other cultures. :)

    P.S. My wife complains that Japanese are not very warm and helpful, just polite. So obviously, they could learn a thing or two from us (as she would put it).

  3. Maggie says:

    I like this posting. Yes the Vietnamese tea can be so hard on one’s stomach, me too. I had many experiences like these before I realized what’s going on too!!

    You’re doing a nice job of thinking about these unspoken cultural behaviors and observing and thinking again. I’m a strong believer in the value of these observations…. good work!

  4. Doug says:

    Yeah, I’ll never forget how bitter Vietnamese green tea was. I really couldn’t believe people drink it on a daily basis, but I think if you grew up with it, it would be no big deal. Better than drinking the faucet water in any case. I remember having intestinal issues for the entire VASI trip (8 weeks). :)

    Thanks for the kind words in any case. I wish I had learned sooner though. Innocent mistakes of course, but I wish I could repay all the kindness people showed me in Vietnam when I was there. :-/

  5. naoko says:

    Thanks for your comment on my post, Doug-san!
    It takes a while to fully understand the differences of culutre. It might need to live actually in that culture like you.

  6. Mike says:

    Amazing!! I greatly enjoyed this text and am looking forward to experiencing this for myself. I am only 16 and going to Japan for 3 months on a 1 way exchange and i was just looking up verbal and non-verbal communication in Japan. This was very helpful in educating me in such a topic thank you.

    PS Thanks for the warning on the green tea.

  7. Doug says:

    Hi Mike,

    Best of luck in your trip to Japan. Glad I could be of help. :)

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