Kuuki wo yomu (Reading the air) – how to understand Japanese social relations and why it is better to give up on it

Reading the air is a basic element of Japanese social relations and a local equivalent of the phrase “to read between the lines“. It applies to business situations as well as casual meetings and random encounters that happen every day. Kuuki wo yomu is an ability to predict the consequences of words said or actions taken when interacting with others and realizing your social position and status depending on the situation you find yourself in. It is a trait expected to be had by members of Japanese society, treated as a social skill and as a form of good etiquette one should always present when around others.

Never in their lives were the Japanese taught directly how to read the air, so this social knowledge develops as a spontaneous result of all life experiences, including growing up, going to school, going to work, etc. As you may have guessed, good use of this ability makes it much easier to get a job, get into a university, find new friends or a person of interest. As long as you are accompanied by other people, no matter how strong your relationship with them is, reading the wind will be a useful tool to show that you are in fact a part of the same society.

Japanese people praising each other and smiling to one another is not a rare sight and though many people may find it to be very forced, I find it that Japanese people have genuine sympathy for others.

Taking a standard Japanese office as an example, employers will test new employees’ ability to find way-outs of difficult situations, the way they act under pressure and how fast they can predict possible effects of their actions. Regarding more casual situations, reading the air will be used to understand partner’s indirect ways of expressing critique or refusal to do something.

However, kuuki wo yomu is a complicated thing and not everyone can be proficient at it. To skillfully read between Japanese lines one must posses the ability to think collectively. This trait, which separates Asian and Western cultures, is present constantly in the Japanese society, making its members more conscious about other people’s emotions and concerns. Furthermore, social awareness and strong care for other members of society are also the most important reasons for famous Japanese politeness and patience.

This is where I want to refer to the title I gave to this blog entry. Pursuing proficiency in reading the air can be a pointless task if it is done only for the satisfaction of getting to be a part of the Japanese society. It should be done regardless of the benefits it gives, as a way of understanding feelings and expectations of others, for their sake and not the sake of oneself. With the correct mindset learning how to read the wind correctly should not be hard, but seem natural because of genuine sympathy for another person.

Kuuki wo yomu ability is not a genetic predisposition, but a social trait, therefore it can be learned by absolutely anyone. Japanese too can struggle and fail at catching the real meaning of other people’s words. Those who do not posses this skill are often called KY in internet chats, which is an abbreviation of the sentence kuuki yomenai (one who cannot read the air). However, people more open-minded and sensitive will find it fairly easy to communicate with the Japanese while understanding all the inarticulated hidden messages. There are several nuances that everyone will have to learn, but one should not feel discouraged.

One of the most interesting (in my opinion) nuances is called “sashisuseso” and it is a form of subtle sarcasm which you can use in 5 situations. First is sasuga さすが which means well done, but said when no actual hard work was put into doing something. Second is shirinakatta 知りなかった I didn’t know that, which one can use when something just heard is an obvious fact. Third is sugoi すごい awesome, said in the most boring moments. Fourth is sensu ii ne センスいいね as a form of complimenting someone’s non existent good looks or knowledge. Lastly, sou nan da そうなんだ (meaning: really?) is the one that can be used in every situation one wants to mock another person. 

What I can recommend as the quickest way to learn kuuki wo yomu is just to learn the Japanese language. Person’s true feelings and emotions, called honne, will most likely not be presented in public, but be replaced by more expected sort of behavior, the one that the public eye finds as correct, called tatemae. To try and realize the true intentions of people good Japanese language proficiency will be most useful.

Lastly, setting oneself a goal to quickly understand all the riddles existing in the Japanese society is an unnecessary struggle. All of them become clear in time, for some it is few months, for others it is few years, but they are yet another reason why experiencing Japan is an amusing journey. I hope this article gives you more inspiration to become a good “reader” and enjoy Japan with all its features. Though learning reading the air is not an easy task, it eventually creates many possibilities for new friendships and will surely be a source of some funny stories.

Wojciech Zukowski

Writer and arubaito for Japan's trusted wi-fi rental company, Lucky Wi-Fi. Sanguine personality nerd, addicted to learning japanese and going to karaoke.

3 Responses

  1. I totally agree that it’s worth to try to learn this ability. Apart from the benefits mentioned above I also think it helps to develop the mind in interesting ways, which for sure does empower one’s empathy skills.

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