Learning to read hiragana, katakana, kanji, and the air

Celebrate Diversity!by Robert Moorehead

With the spring semester now over, I’ve been thinking about the challenges of getting students to think differently about incorporating non-Japanese into Japanese society. The arguments students make and the ones sociologists usually cite in the research literature are like two roads that never meet.

As I’ve written before, students’ view of Japanese history seems to skip the roughly 100-year period between the Meiji Restoration and the Tokyo Olympics—nothing important happened in Japan between the 1860s and the 1960s, did it? Based on this, students often claim that Japanese people have little to no experience interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds. Plus, Japan is an island and thus was inaccessible to other groups. The invention of boats around the world apparently didn’t impact Japan … but I digress.

Students also state that Japan, unlike other countries, is a “high-context culture,” meaning that much communication in Japan is unspoken. Meanings are implied, and understanding those meanings requires reading between the lines and reading the context of the situation. Those who can’t “read the air” (空気を読む or “KY”) are treated as socially inept and may struggle in their social interactions.

This is a fair point, as communication in Japanese proceeds somewhat differently compared to communication in English, Spanish, or other languages. But, can’t people learn to “read the air”? Is Japanese culture so byzantine, so complex and inscrutable that non-Japanese can’t simply figure out how to talk to people?

Students also claim that because Japanese are not used to interacting with “KY” people, they can only accept people who are just like them. Interacting with non-native Japanese speakers and people who can’t “read the air” is too much work, so non-Japanese are just out of luck.

This inherently conservative argument could be extended to justify excluding pretty much anyone. Japanese women want a right to equal opportunities for employment? Too bad. They could never really understand men’s particular communication style, and their presence might make men uncomfortable—no more sex jokes in the workplace—so women will just have to settle for serving tea and lower pay. The disabled want to work? Sorry, accommodating their needs could be inconvenient, so they’ll just have to stay home. Okinawans and the Ainu want to express their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness in mainland Japan? Sorry.

This approach dismisses the rights of the individual in support of the rights of the majority. That is, the majority only has to respect the individual rights that are convenient. This approach fits with the LDP’s planned revisions to the Japanese Constitution. As Lawrence Repeta notes, these revisions would subordinate individual rights, such as free speech and free assembly, to the demands of public interest and public order.

On the one hand, I should be thanking students for their honesty. But do researchers cite any of these ideas when analyzing immigrant incorporation? I just finished teaching a course on international migration, and we spent the semester reviewing the sociological literature, including the main schools of thought, and issues of gender, education, transnationalism, citizenship, among others.

And not once in that literature did anyone talk about “high-context cultures,” or the whether interacting with cultural others might be too inconvenient.

So, have sociologists missed the boat? Are we just talking in circles, clueless as to the real issues?

Or is communicating across cultural and linguistic lines simply a fact of life for many people on the planet? Don’t we have to make all sorts of adjustments every day, even if we don’t have any foreigners in our midst? We communicate across lines of class, gender, age, and sexuality all the time, so why should we treat communicating across cultural lines as some special case?

As famed anthropologist Harumi Befu (2001) has noted, the United States is often held up as the main contrast to Japanese society. The US is multicultural and a nation of immigrants, while Japan is neither of those things. In the US, people complain about the challenges of diversity, like struggling to pronounce new names, understanding various accents, and talking with people who are still learning English. But … so what?

Seriously, so what? Is learning new names and using a modicum of patience to interact with non-Japanese really that difficult? Is “reading the air” really that complicated? Are foreigners really that inept at communicating in Japan?

Is it more difficult than figuring out how to pay for health care and pensions for Japan’s elderly, when Japan’s population is dropping and postwar boomers are retiring?

Since Commodore Perry’s black ships forced open Japan to international trade, Japan has gone through the Meiji Restoration, imperial expansion across much of East Asia and the Pacific, multiple wars, fire bombing, nuclear attacks, defeat, occupation, democratization, reconstruction, development into a global economic power, bubble economies, inflation, deflation, stagnation, population booms and declines, earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear disasters.

Change is the constant. In light of all that, talking to foreigners seems like it should be the least of their worries.


Befu, Harumi. 2001. Hegemony and Homogeneity: An Anthropological Analysis of Nihonjinron. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.


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