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VALUING HARMONY: How to communicate with Japanese friends

You probably noticed that Japanese people seem very friendly. Even when people may be mad at each other, you may not notice it when you observe them talking. This happens because Japanese people value harmony between people (和, wa) above all else.

I lived in Japan for 7 years. I speak Japanese decently.  Yet there are times when I am still puzzled. I will talk about one of the techniques to communicate better in this culture.

#1 Express your opinions hesitantly and softly

You may be the most experienced about cuisine in your group. However, eating the best food is less important than making everyone agree. Agreement does not mean that contrary opinions are ignored. It means that contrary opinions are not expressed openly. In return, your listener will be observing you carefully and making sure s/he did not miss any signs of your disagreement.


If you are in a mall deciding the restaurant on the spot, do not start to advertise any restaurant by listing its pros. First, you may say ‘I’m hungry (お腹が空いたね)’ or, if it’s decided that you’ll go eat, ‘What shall we eat…? (何を食べようかな...). Then, you can say ‘Oh, I heard (name of the restaurant) is popular (~は人気の場所らしいですね)’ and WAIT for the reaction.

 If your friend does not appear interested, you may want to give up this choice. Observe how they will decide, what works and what doesn’t work.  You can use it later. When a place is suggested, if you are not happy, you can say ‘Hm... so we’re going to (restaurant name)? (~ですか...(try to use just slightly disappointed tone – emotion is needed to be understood right, but it’s expressed much softer than in many other cultures)’. Unless you are going in a very big group with some big boss, your disagreement will likely be heard, and friends/colleagues will ask about types of food you like.


In Japanese culture being open and assertive is considered a bit rude. In Russian culture, where I was raised, being open is valued. Despite this difference, both cultures are beautiful. Just like in table tennis you throw the ball softly and in lawn tennis you throw the shuttle strongly. Different rules of these games make you play them differently, but both games are fun.  

I remember how at a conversation class in Japanese we, international students, were asked to imitate Japanese agreement style. Whenever someone says ‘I love sushi’, you follow with ‘I love it too’, then you say ‘I hate cold’ and another person says ‘Oh, cold weather is not fun, is it?’ and so on. At the end, the teacher asked, ‘Did you feel relaxed and accepted?’ and we were indeed feeling that way. For me, this experience was an important insight.  I also noticed that getting by in a culture became more fun once I started looking for the rules.


Author: Snezhanna

Degree: BA and MA from Osaka University

Major: Japanese Linguistics in Japan in 2012-2019

OUISA Alumni enjoys hiking and relaxing

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1 Comment

Joshua Ole Mutua
Joshua Ole Mutua
May 19, 2020

Good read.. Thanks for sharing your experience with Japanese culture

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