Why don’t Japanese People say their opinions aloud?

Many non-Japanese individuals find it challenging to understand and connect with Japanese people. One primary reason is that many Japanese individuals seldom express their feelings and opinions openly. For instance, a Japanese person might express interest in visiting your home for dinner, but when you extend the invitation, they always seem to be busy. Or, you might ask a Japanese date if she’s fine with Indian food, and while she agrees, her disappointment becomes evident when you arrive at the Thai restaurant.

In such situations, it seems simpler to just be forthright. Yet, often, their true feelings remain unspoken. Why is this?

Here are some insights directly from Japanese individuals:

  • Expressing something that might upset someone needs to be avoided.
  • Voicing personal opinions might disrupt the harmony of a conversation.
  • To foster good relationships, it’s better not to oppose or contradict friends.

If you find yourself disagreeing with these perspectives, it’s a clear indication of cultural differences. But it’s essential to understand the Japanese viewpoint.

In Japan, maintaining a harmonious atmosphere is highly valued. Speaking one’s mind, especially if it’s contrary to the group’s sentiment, is considered impolite. Most Japanese people refrain from doing so to avoid standing out and disrupting the harmony. When a Japanese person remains silent or nods ambiguously, it’s often out of kindness, intending not to hurt or offend.

The expectation is that the other person will understand their feelings without them being explicitly stated.

This cultural norm, however, can lead to misunderstandings, especially with foreigners unfamiliar with Japan’s unspoken communication style. Given that only about two per cent of Japan’s population is foreign, many Japanese individuals aren’t used to interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds and might not realise that their feelings or intentions might not be as easily discerned.

Such misunderstandings aren’t limited to interactions with foreigners. Even among Japanese people, this indirect communication can lead to confusion. For instance, a woman might not tell her boyfriend about dinners with male friends, even if there’s no romantic involvement, simply to avoid potential conflict. If the boyfriend discovers this omission, he might try to deduce her reasons rather than confront her directly. This approach can lead to a range of assumptions, some benign and others more distrustful.

Personally, I’ve become more direct in my interactions with my non-Japanese friends who speak English. Such straightforwardness might offend my Japanese friends. For example, instead of telling a friend that a particular dress doesn’t flatter her, I might suggest that another dress she owns looks better on her. Consequently, my Japanese and non-Japanese friends perceive me differently.

While I can now comfortably interact with both Japanese and non-Japanese individuals, I’m more candid when speaking English. However, having grown up in Japan, I can’t disregard my Japanese sensibilities. This duality, inherent when one is fluent in multiple languages, means I have multiple facets to my identity. Both reflect who I am, even if they appear contrasting. Occasionally, this leads to misunderstandings, but most often, these are resolved amicably. After all, true friends understand and accept each other’s nuances.