In fact, this statement is a statement that shows how useful English is and how suitable it is to be the lingua franca of the world, and that it can lead to smooth communication by learning more about the nature of the Japanese language and using it well in different situations. It is a very useful and beneficial fact for people from overseas, especially native English speakers, who wish to communicate with Japanese people.
As a specialist in cross-cultural communication theory, linguistics, etiquette and protocol, I am here to explain why I have made the statement that it is better to use English rather than Japanese when communicating with the Japanese, based on an academic article. I will present main aspects.
Before reading this article, please be aware that most of the content is from a Japanese perspective, which is something that Japanese people do not often say to people from other countries. There is a significant difference in the perception of rudeness between Japan and other countries. While Japanese people appear to be polite, there are some behaviours and actions, especially to Westerners, that may be perceived as rude. However, these are mostly misunderstandings and differences in perception, and if you are not aware of this fact, you will not be able to develop a mutual relationship with each other. This article is designed to support that “understanding of cultural differences”, I will mention it first.
- Culture and structure of the Japanese language
- The culture and composition of the English language
- History of the emotional language Japanese
- Japanese is more ‘reading’ than ‘listening’ and ‘speaking’.
- Important conversations are less likely to be misunderstood when they are conducted in English
Culture and structure of the Japanese language
Misconceptions about the Japanese arise from Japanese compassion
As is the case with any language learner, people who learn a language try to learn it only in its ‘form’, without really understanding that it has a culture. However, it is important to first recognise that language has a culture. The following is a description of the cultural differences between English and Japanese.
Although not well known worldwide, Japanese is, as the Japanese recognise, an emotional, affective and ambiguous language, rather than a theoretical one. And this is precisely the beauty of the Japanese language. These features of the language make sense when you read the Nihonshoki, Kojiki and Manyoshu, which appear later in the article.
Non-Japanese may often wonder, “Why can’t my message get through to this person, even though I haven’t made a mistake?” Japanese people pretend to “understand” out of compassion, but this kindness can be misinterpreted by you as meaning that the person understood what you said, when in fact, later on, it was not the case. The person did not actually understand you. This is not uncommon in communication troubles with Japanese people.
This is a perfect example of a Japanese person smiling and saying, “I understand”, which may leave you with an uneasy feeling of having been deceived. You might think, “Why did you lie to me? However, in most cases in this situation, the Japanese are not lying and pretending to understand, which is a true Japanese cultural courtesy and evidence of their respect for you.
Japanese ‘sensing’ communication techniques ‘reading people’s true minds’
In many situations, Japanese people respond with “I understand” or “I will consider it” as a form of social or business courtesy. The original meaning can sometimes be ‘approval’ and sometimes ‘rejection’. It is actually almost impossible, even between Japanese people, to make a decision on the spot. Therefore, foreigners who say that they are capable of making such a decision are often mistaken. The real issue is the ‘haste’ of trying to ‘decipher it immediately’, which robs them of numerous positive opportunities.
Japanese people usually try to ‘guess’ from the tone of voice, facial expression or mood, read the atmosphere, and then think later, ” Did they mean that that was a good message?” and afterwards, consider it. After some time has passed, they then call or email to confirm, and only at that point do they know the real answer. Therefore, it is very important to take your time so that people trust you. Many expats assume that this is a waste of time, but it is not, and because of this time and effort, it is possible to build a very long-term, trusting and strong relationship.
Japanese take time to build trust and avoid conflict
Conversely, it is also part of Japanese courtesy to “take it back for now” out of concern that giving an immediate answer will give a “lax”, “sketchy”, “not serious” or “suspicious” impression. To which you might say, “Why don’t you answer me right away?” you could be judged as a ‘complainer’ which is equivalent to ‘rude person with no courtesy’, and a project that was once ‘approved’ may be immediately ‘rejected’. The Japanese may seem kind, but they also have a harsh and even inflexible side.
The Japanese value invisible ‘feelings’ such as loyalty, humanity and respect. Furthermore, in the case of “rejection”, the way to convey this is to “not raise the corner” (a formal Japanese expression of “not to create bitter feelings” or “rock the boat “) by not saying anything definitive, e.g. “I will consider it further”. This is business courtesy, and by withdrawing without blaming the other party even if you are angry, you are respecting their opinion and their existence.
Japanese is an emotional language, a language in which it is assumed that one has to read behind the words
Japanese is an emotional language, not direct and rational in the language itself. This has to do with the culture and spirit of ‘non-verbal language’, which Japan has cherished for 10,000 years.
Even we Japanese sometimes find it extremely difficult to communicate with Japanese people in Japanese. In particular, if you come from a different region, the meaning can be completely different because of the difference in senses. Therefore, the Japanese language has a common language, called Kanto (Kanto) standard, which Japanese are required to use in business to avoid misunderstandings between Japanese people. This is similar to the fact that English is regarded as the lingua franca.
What is really important when using Japanese is your ability to understand the ‘other side’ of a person’s language. This is a type of cultural understanding that cannot be acquired by learning a language alone.
The culture and composition of the English language
Direct English vs Indirect Japanese
On the other hand, English, the language of many low-context cultures, is a theoretical and rational language originally created for diplomacy, a useful and logical language that anyone can grasp if they dare not use slang or confusing words.
In English, there is no need for ambiguous expressions, except for ‘planned dares’. Far-fetched expressions are preferred in the UK, for example, but they still sound very direct to the Japanese. Especially in business situations, efforts are made to ensure that messages are conveyed 100% to each other, with as little ambiguity as possible. Conveniently, it is a language that allows this.
English is a language in which, if the subject, verb and object are used correctly, even intermediate levels of English language learners can communicate in business with minimal misunderstanding. Of course, there are differences in level, but English is a language in which the listener also makes an effort to understand the other party’s message. And because Japanese people always try to read the person’s true mind, both words and feelings are conveyed with greater certainty.
Japanese people are always trying to be polite as much as possible with only few words, which sometimes causes communication issues, and do not say this directly, but in practice they often feel as follows. ‘I am very grateful that he speaks Japanese, and this man is a very nice person, because he respects Japanese culture.’ I can trust him as a person. But when it comes to business, I do feel a little uneasy as I am not sure how well I could express my words to him.” They prefer to use English not for pleasure, but because it is much more convenient to use than Japanese as it is easier to get to the main point.
English grammar vs Japanese grammar
In terms of the grammatical phase, if you fill in the English grammar structure; SV(Subject + Verb), SVC(Subject + Verb + Complement), SVO(Subject + Verb + Object), SVOO(Subject + Verb + Object + Object) and SVOC(Subject + Verb + Object + Complement), you have established English. Also, for instance, do, be ~ ing and will alone tell you whether you are talking about the present or the future, whereas in Japanese they sometimes use exactly the same verb form, whether in the present, the future or sometimes the past. Often the verb itself is not used at all. Japanese sentence patterns are frequently the opposite of grammatically correct, and these expressions are also used in formal situations. Many times they are spoken in exactly the same order as in English. Since only one of the subject, verb or object is commonly mentioned, even among Japanese people it is sometimes unclear what is intended, which is rather normal, and communication is developed by confirming this with each other.
English is very useful because the messages are very clear. Japanese people may find it emotionally quite challenging to give a direct answer, but when it comes to English, they make an effort to answer well.
Differences in the importance of honorifics
Honourifics also exist in English, but unlike Japanese honourifics, they are used in the form of supplementary prefatory words, phrases and vocabulary. Even if you use it incorrectly, it may be a little ‘rude’ to the other person, but not as much as they personally feel you are insulting them, especially as English speakers are often relatively honest in expressing that they feel offended by being treated rudely. Apologising or explaining the reason for the mistake often solves the problem. (Of course, non-native speakers may miss this opportunity, but even then they rarely root for it.)
However, if you use the wrong keigo in Japanese, personal feelings of negativity might arise. In Japanese, no matter how foreign the other person is, if someone who speaks Japanese well speaks to them without honourific expressions, they often feel like they are being treated idiotically, yet they do not show this in their speech or attitude, which means that you could be disliked without even knowing it.
English is suitable as the world standard language
One of the reasons why English is suitable as a lingua franca is that when Japan was communicating non-verbally only within its own country, continental countries using various languages and Latin languages, which are the roots of English, needed to travel to and from other countries from ancient times, and for their diplomacy to be successful, “no lack of communication” was essential.
English has its roots in ancient times, when Anglo-Saxon English existed. From there, various political processes took place and the language changed over time. Finally, in the 16th century, English was officially established as the language of the upper classes, and from there it has continued to change with the times and with the world, and is now used by many people as a lingua franca. This is because English has become a very efficient, logical, rational and easy-to-understand language for everyone to communicate in. It is the same reason why Kanto became the standard language in Japan. In short, English is the world’s advanced language and is that much more resistant towards diversity.
History of the emotional language Japanese
The Japanese language is sentimental and the Japanese attach great importance to emotions
If you are not aware of the fact that the Japanese language is emotional, you will have emotional challenges with the Japanese. Many people from abroad may think regarding this, “Absolutely not, I do not know any Japanese who are emotional.” The Japanese certainly do not usually show their feelings in a straightforward manner. This is also a unique Japanese courtesy and diplomatic skill.
It is true that the Japanese are sentimental, emotional, affective and have always valued ‘feelings’. This is something that is well expressed in Japan’s Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) and Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). It is well known that Kanji was introduced to Japan from ancient China around the 1st century. Kanji was used on the Chinese mainland as a communication tool to use ‘words’ and, like its English counterpart, has the characteristic of characters whose meaning can be predicted by anyone who looks at them.
Japan has a much older history, tens of thousands of years before relations with China, so how did they communicate with each other during that time? The actual roots are still not precisely proven, but within that long period there is a history of people understanding each other non-verbally, without the use of words. In ancient times, when people on the continent used words to communicate and even fought wars, in Japan they used non-verbal methods such as body language to communicate, cooperate with each other, share resources and live peacefully. It is also clear that the fundamental nature of the Japanese people was already formed in this period.
Japanese kanji, katakana, hiragana and word order
Japanese is a language that uses hiragana and katakana together, except for kanji characters imported from China. By the time of the Yamato Imperial Court (mid-3rd century), both the phonetic and kun readings of kanji were already being used in parallel. The Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) was written in the Chinese reading of the Chinese characters, while the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) was written in the Japanese reading of the Chinese characters. The kun-reading words were not only used as Japanese transliterations of the Chinese text, but were also used by the Japanese people in their everyday language, which is known as the Yamato language, an ancient Japanese language.
Professor Shoichi Watabe, Japanese English language scholar, critic and professor emeritus at Sophia University, states in his book “The Heart of the Japanese Language” that, unlike Kanji as a foreign language introduced directly from China, the Yamato language used in the kun-yomi reading represents the ancient spirit of the Japanese people. The beauty, gentleness, softness and motherly warmth of the Yamato dialect are explained by contrasting it with the Chinese language, using haiku and tanka poetry as examples.
On the roots of the Yamato language, Professor Susumu Ohno, Japanese linguist, Doctor of Literature (Doctor of Dissertation, 1962) and Professor Emeritus of Gakushuin University, in his linguistic research to solve the mystery of the ancestral language of the Japanese language, has argued that the cognate language of Japanese is the Tamil language of South India.
This information was obtained from the attached academic paper, which even Japanese find it rather emotional than logical, to the extent that they often find it difficult to decipher. The sentence structure is also very Japanese, and it is clear that it is ” incomprehensible”, which is precisely the characteristic of the Japanese language itself.
Consequently, the ability to read and understand the Japanese language is extremely important when communicating with the Japanese.
Japanese is more ‘reading’ than ‘listening’ and ‘speaking’.
Westerners attach great importance to getting their message across
This is a major difference with English and a point of misconception for many foreigners.
In particular, many Westerners focus on ‘what this person said’ and try to decipher the other person’s message in ‘words’, but they assume that Japanese people do this as well, and this misconception often results in them receiving the wrong message and feeling uncomfortable. This is what is known in Japan as ‘shallow reading’ behaviour. Failure to ‘read the background and emotions’ of the Japanese, who have few words, means that they do not see the true meaning of the other person’s message and receive it in a negative way.
In the West in particular, the act of ‘speaking oneself’ is considered important, and people unconsciously ask themselves ‘how can I get my message across’. As this is customary, they tend to assume that Japanese people have the same awareness as them, but in this way, there are differences in the way we perceive and feel language, and this is also related to our historical and cultural backgrounds.
The Japanese attach great importance to receiving messages
The Japanese place more importance on ‘listening’ than on speaking, preferring to listen rather than to speak themselves. They are also particularly good at ‘reading’ and are very quiet communicators. Sometimes they communicate silently, often understanding each other with just a word or two.
This is an act of ‘reading the air’ between each other, and they are almost certain to get the message based on their overall assessment of the person’s facial expression, body language, back and forth, subtle eye contact, tone of voice, and other factors. Sometimes, women are better at demonstrating this ability, with Japanese women communicating in an instant and with a comprehensive judgement of the person in front of them.
Whilst English is spoken in ‘sounds’, Japanese is not spoken in ‘sounds’. For Japanese people, what they write tends to be more important than whether they speak Japanese or not. This is partly due to the fact that the language culture exists in such a way that the meaning of a kanji can be instantly empowered by looking at it alone.
Pronunciation in Japanese is very simple and, unlike in English, mispronunciation is not a major concern. Rather, it is more crucial to be able to write Japanese, which is why Japanese language teachers start with hiragana to teach.
Important conversations are less likely to be misunderstood when they are conducted in English
The above reasons alone are not enough, but for some of these reasons, it is more reliable to use English if both parties speak English to communicate with each other about important matters. Other languages are also acceptable, but English is better suited for global communication because it is a lingua franca and has a very clear, organised and theoretical structure. Of course, it is assumed that the other party is also able to speak English.
Japanese is a very complex language, even for the Japanese. Again, this is not because of the challenges of the language itself, but because of its cultural complexities. In high-context cultures, people expect to read the feelings and opinions of others without speaking to each other, and furthermore, Japanese is frequently spoken without subject, verb, object, etc., and additionally, people speak in the belief that “of course this expression should be clear enough”, which certainly causes mutual misunderstandings even between Japanese people.
There is no reason for people from overseas to go to the trouble of using Japanese to cause communication disputes that could easily occur between Japanese people, to their own detriment.
English is a very well developed language. It is the quintessential global lingua franca.
In my next article, I will write more on a similar topic.
Finally, if you would like to learn more about cross-cultural understanding, especially Japanese culture and etiquette, and communicate more smoothly, please join ICPA’s courses. We hope that your life in Japan will be more comfortable.