Photo by J3SSL33 via Flickr

It is said that in music, the space between the notes can say as much as the notes themselves. This idea also applies to language, through which the pauses in speech, the unspoken words and the implications of the context can say as much as any overt comment.

And that, it need hardly be said, goes double in Japan.

The Japanese, as a homogeneous, “high-context” society – in contrast to “low-context” societies in Western Europe and the Americas – share an almost infinite number of common assumptions about life. Thus, many of those assumptions need not be stated, and communication can take place with a minimal amount of explanation. The Japanese can get by with using fewer words.

Or, perhaps, no words at all. Thus, silence (chinmoku in Japanese) can reveal as much as speech, and the artful use of silence in Japanese communication is one of the subtleties of Japanese culture. But it can also be used to obscure, and silence and other non-verbal subterfuge has its dark side – as well as its profound effects.

Photo by Gino Mempin via Flickr

With much understanding already baked-in to any given conversation, the Japanese can communicate what is required or desired by speaking indirectly, or not at all. Chinmoku is a powerful form of communication, reflecting the Japanese appreciation for the value of simple silence. Or it may just seem simple to the outsider; to the Japanese, silence can be loaded with meaning. From Zen Buddhism, in which silence holds the secrets of existence – indeed, language is considered inadequate to expressing real truth – to deep cultural tropes that characterize those who speak as more shallow and common than those who maintain silence – mono ieba kuchibiru samushi aki no kaze (“it is better to leave many things unsaid”) is a popular Japanese proverb – silence isn’t empty and it isn’t meaningless.

Instead, silence can be taken to mean the other person is taking what you just said seriously enough to be considering it carefully. On the other hand, that person may just be buying time to consider how to respond without offending you when they think you are wrong. Worse, they may simply having nothing worthwhile to say; silence can obscure shallowness as well as depth.

While in the West, people seem in a hurry to fill every pause with talk, and aren’t shy about disagreeing with another, the Japanese are comfortable with silence and do not run from it. But there is a flip side to this comfort with silence; the Japanese are generally not comfortable with confrontation, and will avoid direct contradiction of another’s position merely to avoid disagreement.

There is a subtext here: the Japanese preoccupation with maintaining harmony (wa). Japanese will often talk around a topic, certainly when it comes to his or her own opinion, largely in order to maintain this harmonic equilibrium. Japanese society and manners and especially language are all built around the desire to maintain wa, particularly as regards the social group, at nearly any cost. Thus, the Japanese are anything but “plain-speaking” – in fact, to speak plainly is to be seen as childish, unsophisticated, even arrogant, and to upset the delicate social balance.

Photo by Gino Mempin via Flickr

While this use of silence allows the Japanese to maintain wa, it can be at the cost of unresolved disagreements. This is one of the frustrations of foreigners in Japan, especially those engaged in business, which often involves disagreements that must be resolved. It isn’t so great in personal relationships, either.

A related concept is captured by the current vogue word sontaku, a previously obscure word that was chosen as the top buzzword of 2017 by the publisher Jiyukokuminsha. Sontaku literally translates as “guess” or “speculate” but is better explained by the phrase “gyokan wo yomu,” which evokes a familiar English expression: it means the ability to “read between the lines.”

Sontaku grew in use after it was employed to describe actions in a recent scandal involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, in which underlings were suspected of acting on orders that were given indirectly, thus avoiding implicating anyone higher up the chain of command.

The use of sontaku in turn evokes another, somewhat darker, aspect to this use of language, or of the silence “between the lines,” to obscure the truth. The word haragei literally means “stomach art,” but given its usage by businessmen and politicians, there is a less polite translation, usually abbreviated to “B.S.”

While even those who have been in Japan for many years tend to struggle with these counterintuitive concepts and behaviors – how can we communicate if we’re not communicating? – approaching conversation with the Japanese with an openness to silence can be a revelatory experience. In this way, Westerners may yet find the truth in one of our oldest sayings: Silence is golden.

By David Watts Barton