Japan: Communication Styles
The Japanese communication style reflects the value placed on maintaining harmony.
The Japanese are non-confrontational and rarely will directly decline requests. Instead, they will reply, “It is inconvenient,” or “It is under consideration.” They do not criticize, insult, put people on the spot or do anything that might cause embarrassment and thus loss of face. The Japanese present disagreeable facts indirectly, making it necessary to read between the lines. For this reason, understanding body language is of paramount importance. In fact, there are books for foreigners (gaikokujins) that explain and interpret Japanese body language.
You should expect long pauses during conversation. This usually means the other person is reflecting on what has been said. It is not necessary to fill the silence with small talk, and you should never interrupt when someone is speaking. Avoid using excessive hand gestures or making quirky facial expressions. The Japanese will cover their mouths or laugh when they are embarrassed. They will smile to maintain self-control. Japanese people also tend to laugh awkwardly when confronted with an uncomfortable situation or when nervous. It is considered polite to say, “I’m sorry,” “excuse me” or “Sumimasen” frequently. Japanese do not consider it rude to ask personal questions, such as about a person’s material status, or to comment on a person’s weight. It is important, however, not to ask questions that may cause the respondent to lose face.
Traditionally, people in Japan place great importance on physical space. They do not like to be crowded, nor do they like to be touched by strangers. (This, of course, does not apply on Japanese subways.) Touching an adult on the head is considered taboo and implies a condescending attitude. Direct eye contact is perceived as an invasion of personal space. When engaged in conversation, it is best to focus on the chin or tie.
Always bow when greeting someone. Avoid physical contact such as hugging or kissing the cheek.