04 May 2014

the sounds of silence (communication in japanese)

Kit here again!

I was just talking about Kill la Kill, and when rewatching the series I was struck by how little Satsuki actually says; when she does talk, it tends to be important. At the same time, some of what she says doesn't quite convey her feelings. She sounds cool, and lofty, but at the same time... we get glimpses of her true feelings only rarely, and when she speaks of what she feels, those are rarer moments still. Her actions seem to convey her emotions more succinctly than any words.

Satsuki expresses so much!

This idea of communication that isn't necessarily spoken, comes up again and again in anime and manga.

"Very complex emotions are shown by facial expressions,” Yukari Fujimoto [associate professor, Meiji University] said. “Japanese people don’t clearly speak about their emotions in words, so therefore in daily life as well Japanese try to read each other’s expressions."
- from "Understanding Japan through manga" by John Rash

These ideas are known by many phrases such as "mental telepathy" or "reading the atmosphere", but all boil down to non-spoken communication. It's why much is left unsaid in anime and manga: even if you just want character X to confess their love for character Y, and you know X and Y love each other, they might find other ways of expressing it rather than coming right out to say "I love you". After all, if Character X said "I love you" to Character Y, what can Y say in response? It might become really awkward. Of course, these sorts of tensions and worrying about what someone might mean or not gets more complicated: there are concepts of "public face" and "private feelings" in Japan that have a bit more emphasis than in American cultures, and so in public, people might feel constrained on what they can express, too. The fiction of a single shared "Japanese society" also includes avoidance of confrontation when possible: so silence may convey concern just as easily as it may convey a pleasant shared experience for which no words could describe except perhaps a line or two of poetry. (In fact, the celebrated poem-contests of imperial courtly life were a way to express what often could not be outright said, while still having plenty of room for interpretation and 'mood'.)

Sound confusing?

This doesn't just apply to romance either. It can apply to businesses too, or any sort of thing. Banks in Japan had a high approval rate because they simply didn't proceed with loans or anything they thought could be too risky. They wouldn't outright refuse, but instead say something like "...well, it might take a long time" or "there are complicating factors". This let them avoid rejecting applicants outright, helping their ratings and - so the idea goes - helping the other party save some face.

In anime and manga though, usually you see the results of this emphasis on non-spoken communication in terms of relationships - from family, to friends, to romance, to everyday interactions with classmates or coworkers.

In books like the bilingual "Eigo de hanasu 'Nihon no kokoro' - Keys to the Japanese Heart and Soul" - this form of not-stating is described as starting early on in parent-child relationships, where the child learns to trust the relationship, and looks on nonverbal cues. Perhaps that is the case, but even so, when you hear "that's just how things are done" or "you should have known" - these signs and cues are learned. So don't worry if you don't know them, or come from a society that idealizes honesty and individual passions. It can get confusing for Japanese people sometimes too - which is why many manga pages or anime episodes are spent on wondering about the true emotions of a character!

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