I Cant Read
No this post is neither about illiteracy nor my own inability to read Japanese. It is also not a confession of my own illiteracy or an accusation that students in Japan cannot read English. Yomenai directly translated does mean ‘(I) can’t read,” but I am referring to “reading the air” not written words. Kuuki Yomenai (KY) is a phenomenon in Japanese culture that refers to ignorance of social norms and cues.
Japanese is a very low context language, and I suppose you could say that Japan also has a very low context culture. In many situations in Japan everyone is expected to adhere to social protocols that are often vague and unspoken. To foreigners it almost seems like telepathy. Japanese people often seem to be united and on the same page with little or no communication. This is because Japanese culture heavily emphasizes gathering information by observing the environment rather than directly asking for it.
Read the Air
Even at a young age Japanese children are experts at reading the air. I was once at a sports day for kindergarten students. The students were very busy all day and didn’t have too many opportunities to use the bathroom. During the closing ceremony, there were a few speeches and students had to stand at attention for over 20 minutes which is quite a long time for four and five year olds. With only about five minutes left the students sang the school song. Just before the start of the song, I noticed a little girl starting to do the potty dance. Really it probably would have just looked like the fidgeting of a normal four year old if it wasn’t for perfect attention stance every other kid was holding. After a minute or two she was really moving, but the formal social “air” of the situation did not allow for interruptions or potty breaks. So the poor little girl did her dance and though preoccupied with her predicament, began to sing along with the other students. At first I thought it was amusing, until I realized she wasn’t going to make it. She held her position and sang until about halfway through the song when she suddenly stopped dancing. She gave a quick glance backward and then resumed her standing posture and continued singing the song. By the time the song was finished a teacher had come over and seen what had happened. Instead of taking the poor girl away to get her cleaned up, the teacher mopped up the mess with some paper towels and everyone continued to stand patiently while the closing ceremony finished. By the end of the closing ceremony I saw two more teachers rushing over to other students with paper towels.
In this situation the social air dictated that it would be somehow more appropriate for the poor kids to pee their pants than to interrupt and go to the bathroom.
There is a very strong pressure in Japan not to stand out. No one wants to be the kid that had to slip out to the bathroom. No one wants to be the outlier, the odd one out or even the last man standing. There is a saying in Japan that says: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This captures Japanese culture pretty well. Everyone just wants to blend in and not interrupt the wa or social harmony. On the positive side this encourages unity, interdependence and cohesiveness among groups and communities. Though it can also stifle creativity and independence.
For foreigners or really anyone who hasn’t been raised in Japan and taught to read the air, it can be difficult and this is why most foreigners are very KY in Japan. Japan is an extreme example, but I think that foreigners are really very KY everywhere. As foreigners we don’t know the laws of the land. We don’t know what cultural norms and taboos we are violating and we don’t understand the values that are emphasized.
I am KY
So I must confess I am KY. I cannot read the air. I was KY in Hawaii, though it isn’t even a different country. I was KY in Costa Rica. I was KY all through Europe and in Korea. Now I am KY in Japan. To be a foreigner and especially a tourist is to be KY. I didn’t always know I was KY. Being KY at first is like being a fish out of water only the fish doesn’t realize it. To the Japanese people foreigners are like fish flopping around unable to breathe. But in our minds everything is just peachy and we don’t even know we are drowning. It is difficult being KY and not knowing it. You never really understand what is going on around you.
But knowing is power. Now that I know and accept that I am KY, not only do I understand it, but I embrace it. To be KY is to have a marvelous opportunity. It means we get to start fresh. We get to throw away all our culturally determined preconceptions, values and customs. We have a chance to see what life is like under completely different rules and culture. And along with our inability to read the air we get a foreigner card. We get a free pass that says we get to be KY, to some degree at least, and all will be forgiven.
Give KY a Try
Ever wonder what life would be like if individuality and independence were not core values? Go to Japan. Ever wonder what life would be like if our bodies weren’t so sexualized, and people weren’t so concerned about seeing each other naked? Go to Europe. Or maybe you are tired of fast paced city life and just wonder what it would be like if everyone would just slow down and enjoy life a little. If that’s the case then Costa Rica should be your next destination.
The next time you find yourself lost in a foreign land, instead of freaking out at how out of place you feel, embrace it and see what you can learn from such a vastly different perspective on life.