Japanese Culture – Indirectness and Social Organization

In Japan, people generally do not come up to you and ask, “do you want to go to a party?”  Instead, many Japanese people with an invitation opt for a more round about approach.  They may ask if you are busy or try to find out if you have plans for a certain day or time, without first mentioning they would like to go out.  If you say you are free then they might give you the invitation.  This has led to many Japanese people giving somewhat confusing answers to the question “are you free?”

Instead of saying “yes” or “no” as a westerner might, the Japanese are much more likely to say (an equivalent translation) “I’m kinda busy” when they might actually be quite free and are simply “screening” your statement.  Often they might be worried you are asking them to do some work, or other unsavory outing.  While they might be happy to go out, for them it is better to hedge their bets.

You might say that it is not so strange, that people in the states will often do the same thing when inviting someone out.  While it is true that indirectness is not a Japanese only phenomena, the inclination to be indirect is far more pervasive in Japanese society.  Even in the language, one would almost never use the word あなた (anata) or “you” to anyone but a lover or extremely close friend, referring to someone as you is too direct, to informal.

The indirectness in Japanese conversations and even actions can be traced to traditional social organizations.  Since the main social object tends to be a group instead of the individual, many Japanese tend to react in relation to whether someone is inside or outside of their particular grouping.

In Japan, the ie is your family group.  It includes yourself and those you consider to be your direct family, while everyone else is soto or outside.  The ie is like a ripple of water expanding away from you, the further away it gets, the weaker the ie is connected to a person.  For example: your father would definitely be in your ie. A co-worker unrelated to you may also be in your ie if you are dealing with a work situation with someone outside your workplace, however, the connection and thus your statements would not be as strong.

So how does the social organization in Japan relate to directness?  Since the social organization has been in Japan so long, it has saturated nearly every aspect of Japanese society.  The class systems of the Tokugawa era and before solidified people already conditioned to think in an “us vs. them” mentality  into a hierarchy.  As “them” became potentially higher status (and since ‘them’ often had swords to back it up), one would have to speak in a respectful manner outside the ie AND up the status hierarchy.  This also means that one would have to speak modestly ABOUT the ie, while still speaking respectfully to those above within the ie.

The class system created an atmosphere where it was rude to directly refer to others, be it group or person.  Hence, in Japan today people are still indirect in their dealings, especially with people they do not know well.  That is not to say outside cultures have not influenced Japan, and that all people will talk about the weather before inviting you somewhere.   As anywhere there are people who work completely outside the social norm.  What is more, thanks to the JET programme and other organizations, more Japanese than ever before are more aware of Western cultures, and so may more easily and directly deal with westerners.