January 28, 2014

IM-ing the Unsaid Thought

Culture, Japan, Our People Post by

“You’re more than welcome to stay for some ochazuke (a simple dish made by pouring tea over rice)”.

If you’re in Kyoto visiting someone’s place and hear this, you might want to start thinking about leaving, as the host probably means the complete opposite – “you’ve been here long enough and I think you’re ready to go”. My father, who was born and raised in Kyoto, once told me this is how people in Kyoto used to ‘ask’ their visiting guests to leave. I imagine the proper response to this fake offer would be something like “oh no, I don’t want to trouble you, I think I’m leaving”. While I’m not sure if such style of communication is still present to this day, I think it says a lot about Japanese communication in general.

In Japanese communication, it’s important to maintain a certain level of ambiguity at all times. Overly direct or explicit expressions are usually avoided. Idiomatic phrases like 以心伝心 (direct communication from mind to mind) and 言わずもがな (it should be left unsaid) embody such cultural tendency. As these idioms suggest, it’s almost expected that you guess the other person’s true intention and feelings based on the context, without having to be told verbally word by word. If you are incapable of doing this, you may be labeled as 空気が読めない人, which literally means ‘one who’s unable to read the atmosphere’. In a culture that places much emphasis on group harmony, inability to sense the mood of the unified whole is seen as a clear negative. In such an environment, perhaps it’s only natural people would frequently use ambiguous – or aimai in Japanese – expressions because they’re less likely to disturb harmony.

Understanding the concept of aimai and its relevance to Japanese communication also helps us better understand the rise of stickers in LINE. In LINE, the most widely used instant messaging app in Japan, you can use during your chat sessions large emoji-esque illustrations known as stickers. In addition to free stickers featuring original LINE characters, there is a vast array of sticker sets available for purchase. The popular appeal of stickers comes from a couple of different factors. Firstly, visual imagery has always been crucial to Japanese culture, as evidenced by popularity of manga and anime. Secondly, stamps make conversations more fun and casual. And thirdly, they give you more options to express yourself. However, I think there’s something else to it as well.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 5.14.53 PM

As shown above, some stickers have bizarre designs that may at first appear unclear as to what situations they will be useful for. Yet, if we remind ourselves of the importance of ambiguity in Japanese communication, it starts to make sense. It makes sense that many Japanese consumers would find such stamps useful, albeit subconsciously, because what the ambiguousness of the designs do is to leave room for interpretation and ‘guessing’. Put differently, stickers – including even the weird-looking ones – enable people to convey feelings and ideas in ways that are aimai, making it possible for people to have a more nuanced communication consisting of tacit messages. Furthermore, going back to the point made earlier about playfulness of stickers, it’s fun to be creative in trying to incorporate the most bizarre-looking (yet somehow appropriate for that specific occasion) sticker into your conversation.

Using stickers in LINE is almost like telling someone how you are feeling without actually putting it into words, which is, again, an important aspect of Japanese communication. With the help of stickers, you may even perhaps be able to ask your guest to leave without being rude.

POST BY ATSU ISHIZUMI

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One Response to “IM-ing the Unsaid Thought”

  1. Yin says:

    Sometimes the use of stickers especially among youngsters transcends beyond the original intention of ambiguity, that is to avoid negative connotation, and comes to create purposeful misunderstandings as a distinctive way to be fun and chill for play on words
    = =///

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