In a culture where unspoken rules, manners and words abound, any newcomer is likely to be nothing less than confused. These very aspects of Japanese and even some other Asian cultures tend to indirectly contribute to unfortunate stereotypes of Asian inscrutability.
But is Japanese culture truly so inscrutable? Is it really so mysterious that foreigners can’t possibly understand it? The short answer of course, is no. All aspects of a culture have some rhyme or reason, no matter how strange its origins may be. However, vagueness is a part of Japanese culture that draws at least partially from the language itself.
Believe it or not, Japanese used to be even vaguer than it currently is. For example, older forms of Japanese were completely devoid of punctuation. This made for vague personal letters and even vaguer legal documents.
As an amateur translator, a very frustrating aspect of the translation process is reading in between the lines to determine meaning as to what is being referred to. As I mentioned in an earlier article about bad Japanese translations and why they happen, Japanese is an implicit language while English is an explicit language.
Since often times a clear definition of the subject is not known, translating from implicit to explicit requires the ability to infer meaning and insert the appropriate words/phrase into the explicit. However, parts that are perceived as vague to non-Japanese are often understood by Japanese people.
For instance, “好きです” (suki desu, or “I like it/you/him/her/etc”) is a phrase from which the subject cannot be determined without prior information. What exactly is it that you like? It is vague by nature. But if you have experience with the person who said the phrase and what they usually mean by it, a mutually understood meaning can be inferred, but at least some prior experience with that person or more words are needed to do this.
Even without the grammatical vagueness of the Japanese language, it is not a language constructed to be used very directly in daily life, and sometimes no words at all are used at times when we foreigners would probably interject. Part of this is because Japanese people are constantly reading the situation to determine whether or not it is appropriate to speak, and if they are to speak then a way of speech must be determined.
This is called KY (空気を読む kuuki wo yomu, or “read the air”). Non-Japanese do this as well, but in a different way and to a different extent. To (most of us) non-Japanese, it obvious that we say, should not go to the bank in our pajamas. To a Japanese person, it is obvious in a similar way that in some situations a person who smiles too much is not to be trifled with.
Considering this situation, an unsuspecting foreigner may find everyone around said “happy” person to be acting strange. “What a weird and uncomfortable situation,” he might say to himself. “What is going on here?”
To this foreigner unfamiliar such a situation, said Japanese person probably just seems happy and everyone else is acting strange. However, exaggerated happiness or laughing is a common defense mechanism for many Japanese people to mask anger or an otherwise stressing or uncomfortable situation. Many walk on eggshells around these people to avoid setting them off.
Sometimes a Japanese person’s refusal to answer a question directly can come off as vague. Questions could be met with an answer partially or entirely hiding the speaker’s true feelings or with no answer at all. Maybe this is because they are either embarrassed about their true feelings, or because their opinion could be taken as incendiary and they don’t want to cause a fuss. Additionally, overly opinionated people who are very forthcoming about their opinions, especially about hot topics, are not perceived in a very appealing light.
The overall point I would like to get across is that in spite of the overarching stereotypes, Japanese culture and language are not as vague as they might appear on the surface. There is a rhyme or reason to tradition and behavior, and seemingly vague parts of the language simply require discernment.