Understanding Japanese

Understanding Japanese

Getting confused while speaking, taking back what you said, bouncing back and forth by changing words… These are the common traits of people who are really trying to express what they think. People who speak out their opinion smoothly like a flowing river are undoubtly voicing someone else’s opinion. The tragedy of communicating with these people is that they’re determined to stick with their opinion. It is non-negotiable so cannot be resolved though communication. If you cannot (or are not willing) to change your mind, it is because the opinion itself did not come out of you.
-Tatsuru Uchida
When I was in business school in US, I remember doing this small exercise of pairing up and facing with one of my classmates and see how long we can keep our mounths shut. When I first heard this exercise, I thought it was a joke. I couldn’t even understand the meaning of this exercise.
Recently I’ve been doing this experiment using my private English school (which is done over skype) to ask our teachers to record the lesson to see how the student is communicating during the lesson, and have a coaching session with the student after listening to the actual lesson.
It’s been a month now but I realized many interesting things. The lesson starts with our instructor explaining an interesting business topic and the students are asked multiple questions regarding the topic. Listeing to the recordings, I quickly realized that students were not thinking outloud. When asked a sudden question it’s hard to come up with a perfect answer. That is not expected.
But that’s not how we Japanese communicate. If we can’t come up with an answer on spot, which I believe most questions are, they just freeze. It’s either you can give an answer or not. That’s why when Japanese people communicate using the language Japanese, it’s a taboo to directly ask a question out of the blue. Since if they cannot answer it, it will embarass them which will damage further relationships.

For example, there was a lesson about scent marketing, how many corporations are smartly using scents to boost their sales. The lesson starts out like this:

  • Instructor: “What do you think is the most popular scent in the world?”
  • Student (in their thinking in their mind): “Most popular scent in the world? Wow! I’ve never thought of that. I don’t have the slightest idea.”

What happens is dead silence. Yes, the student understands the question but can’t come up with a satisfactory scent. The instructor asks whether if the student want a hint. Student says “yes.” The conversation is always passive. This is NOT an English issue. This is simply a communication style issue.

So during my coaching sessions, I try to show how to think outloud, to engage the counterpart and coming up with a solution together. Before the coaching session, I have them listen to how I would communicate during the lesson using the exact same materials.

For example, my version of the lesson starts out like this:

  • Instructor: “What do you think is the most popular scent in the world?”
  • Me: “Most popular scent in the world? Wow. I don’t have the slightest idea. Ummm… Let’s see… Can I change the question to which scent I like the most and start from there?”
  • Instructor: “Sure!”
  • Me: “I love the smell of fresh coffee in the morning. I sometimes step into a bakery because of the yummy smell when I pass-by. How about you? What is your favorite scent?”
  • Instructor: “Freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. The ones just came out of the oven.”
  • Me: “I like that too!” “Ummm so there’s a lot of scent and you’re asking me what is the most popular in the world.”
  • Instructor: “Yes.”
  • Me: “It must be something sweet than sour. Something desertish.”
  • Instructor: “Yes and it bring backs old time memories.”

and the conversation goes on. But believe me, this is very uncomfortable way to communicate for a Japanese, especially in a formal setting. If I translate the conversation above in Japanese, it would sound very awkward.

So when coaching, I tell my students to act as if you have a split personality. Think that you have a switch and switch on the English mode. But when speaking Japanese, turn that Japanese switch back on or you’ll be in big trouble.
I find this coaching part helping the student very much. Once they really “get it” they say that even though it’s much easier to communicate using Japanese, it’s a lot less stressful when communicating thorugh English. This is because English is a language you can stop and clarify the conversation anytime. This communication style is natural since it’s a communication device used by people from different nationalities, values, and background.
This holds true In a homogenious country like Japan where people receive the same education, share the same values, read the same newspaper, we don’t need to clarify or ask direct questions. The Japanese language is built that way and we use the communication style suited by language.

Posted by Masafumi Otsuka

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