In every culture communication is vital on all levels for daily functioning. One of the distinct ways in which Western and Eastern cultures differ is in the realm of communication style. For example in the Western world, direct as well as open honest communication has become the basis for building understanding with one another. Western culture tends to generally value truth over harmony in communication. (Although that has been changing with the concept of political correctness!) However, in Japanese society the value of harmony has become the basis for understanding one another when communicating. How is harmony achieved in communication? In the place of truth as the prime value in communicating, Aimai, or obscurity exists as the norm to achieve harmony. Why?
Japanese society in general was built around densely populated amounts of people having to work together closely in a small area for survival, hence the need for harmony became necessary. The group became more important than the individual. In a group setting the need for harmony was said to be more important than truth so as to not cause offense as well as division. This characteristic became evident in the development of Japanese culture as ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, Taoism, Secular-Humanism, Christianity, and Materialism all blended together with no one 'truth' overriding another. With these strong influences being incorporated into culture the concept of truth became highly obscured which is especially evident in communication. Even to this day Japanese people tend to have a difficult time clearly saying: “Yes” or “No”! Decisions often take a long time since every small detail of each part of the group must be carefully considered for the sake of harmony. In America indecisiveness is considered a great weakness, however in Japan it is considered very wise!
More complexities arise when the vertical hierarchy of Japanese society is included into the equation. For example in new interactions Japanese people carefully try to ascertain what the social ranking of the person they are talking to is so as to not cause offense. To avoid potential offense it became safer to speak ambiguously rather than specifically. Even though Japanese speak in a very obscure as well as ambiguous style, it is a highly valuable trait to be able to discern true intentions. This is called 'reading the air', or the art of understanding what is actually trying to be communicated from the vagueness of what is actually being communicated! For instance, rather than saying 'No', most Japanese will say 'chotto' which being translated means 'it is a little bit hard for me to..'. So, even though the Japanese person is not directly saying 'No' it is generally understood that 'chotto' is a polite way of trying to get out of something! Rather than pressing the matter for details as to why the person is saying 'chotto', most Japanese will be able to 'read the air' and understand not to pursue the topic further!
How can this impact ministry in Japan? On a positive note cooperation with church projects is high because of harmony as well as not wanting to offend in communication. A strong sense of group unity can help a church face adversity as well. However on the negative side, just as in a church in America that practices love and harmony while abandoning truth, so can be life in Japan in the realm of communication – frustrating. General acceptance exists while at the same time making it difficult to understand what people really believe. Truth becomes a matter of group decision. Also, Japanese people without exposure to the West are not used to direct communication, so it can seem barbaric or rude to them when it does happen! (However the new generation is changing because of increased exposure to the West.) Finally, because Japanese people can be afraid of being excluded from the group, they will often 'go along to get along' no matter how bad a situation can become. Please pray for us as we navigate communication in Japan!