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Oct 11, 2012

[China Net] Can you Read “Kuki”? Strange Logic in Japanese Society

It sounds strange convention even to me, native Japanese.  Therefore, I think it is difficult for foreigners to understand this.
It is one thing to define oneself and cherish a spirit of harmony, and another to lose one’s identity and go with public opinion.  However, the average Japanese who is mentally immature and afraid of solitude seems to find it important to sense this “kuki” (atmosphere).  Such average Japanese does not seem to realize that almost unaware act hampers his/her mental development or even if he/she realizes it, he/she seems to prefer to stay the same due to a lack of courage.

Masatoshi Takeshita

English translation of an excerpt from a Japanese article: China Net (Japanese version) – October 5, 2012 –

Can you Read “Kuki”?  Strange Logic in Japanese Society




In 2007, the word “KY” (Kuki Yomenai  - means "can't(NAI) read(YOME) air(KUKI)" - ) was awarded as the grand prize in “Japan’s Keywords-of-the-Year-Contest for 2007.”  I wonder what this word “kuki” means.  This writer and many foreigners living in Japan for many years and having no problem in speaking Japanese find it difficult to grasp the meaning of this “kuki.”

In group living, the majority of people tend to sense the “atmosphere” around them, judge the course of collective action, and behave to the rhythm of all.

This ability “to sense atmosphere” is cultivated from elementary school days.  Around a third or fourth grader starts to form a closed small group.  Once a group, which usually consists of several classmates, is formed, the group members do not allow others to join the group.  If there is a good leader within a small group, he gains respect from other members whom he takes care of, and a unified group is organized.  On the other hand, if a leader has a bad personality, he shares bullying and abuse with his followers, which creates the “atmosphere” of the group.  Also he himself is likely to be bullied.  Under such circumstances, children learn to behave, paying attention to the atmosphere around them even in a small group from an early age.  In Japan, when a husband is order to get transferred, he is worried that his child, an elementary school kid or a junior high school student, may not make friends with other classmates and may be isolated at a new school.  This is why husbands tend to live apart from his family at the new workplace.

It is true that every country has a bullying problem for senior children at elementary school, but in most countries there are “friends who stand for the weak.”  As children have a high fluidity of friendship, all a bellied child has to do is to go to other friends.

In Japan, however, there is not so clear distinction between home education and school education and there is a tendency to end safely and peacefully.  People who cannot be accepted by a small group are not good mixers, cannot sense the “atmosphere” and cannot be treated properly by the group.  Therefore, many children within a small group tolerate bullying and maintain a cautious distance from one another.  The only way to get away from such group is to transfer to another school.

In Japanese society under such “atmosphere,” whatever it may be, a small group or a whole society, sophisticated harmony and stability is required.  In Japan’s social life, we can hardly see frank discussion or rational debate in public.  Although this writer has lived and worked for almost thirty years, I have never seen quarrels in public places.  Fistfight is, of course, out of the question.  Therefore, a “hero of justice” never appears.

In an organization, it is necessary to first obtain agreement in advance before introducing a new plan.  After gaining the support of majority, the new plan is officially proposed.  Even if there are different opinions in a meeting, they are not expressed frankly.  They are expressed in roundabout ways at the right time and in the appropriate atmosphere.  It is because those who sense the atmosphere all know that this plan has already won their agreement behind the scenes.

In Japan, they can speak out over drinks.  There are no Japanese words describing “blunder due to alcohol” or “slip of the tongue due to alcohol.”  Generally, any act or remark is tolerated while drinking and causes no quarrel except for male-female relations.  This is the very reason why Japanese salaried workers don’t go straight home after work and they want to drink alcohol at Japanese-style pubs.  Some superiors want to quarrel with their subordinates because they think that listening to candid opinions of their subordinates is useful to incorporate their opinions in the work.



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