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The Art of the Stomach and Pitfalls in Communicating with the Japanese

Haragei (腹芸)in Japanese is “the art of the stomach.” Many Japanese people have not heard of this expression, but all Japanese are surely familiar with what it represents. Haragei is the art of understanding what someone means in conversation without his or her having to say it aloud. Haragei also means conveying meaning without explicitly saying it.

Japanese society is highly homogenous. People share a common history, culture, religion, and language, and this makes implicit communication like haragei possible. In Japan, haragei represents refined, intelligent, educated and mature conversation and communication. To speak directly is the opposite—brusque, unrefined, uneducated, and immature. People who communicate directly in Japan are for the most part children.

You may have noticed that Japanese people can seem exceedingly circumspect or indirect when speaking. In Japanese culture, as in Japanese communication, people tend to avoid conflict and seek harmony. Harmony or wa (和) is so important a tenet in Japan society, that wa in Japanese is another way of saying “Japanese.”

In contrast to haragei, communicating in English is all about being direct and explicit. We value people who say what they mean and mean what they say. Perhaps this is because American society is not homogenous, but rather a melting pot of people with different backgrounds, cultures, histories, and religions. In America, many people speak a different language at home. Precision and conciseness in American conversation is essential if we are to understand each other.

A grasp of English vocabulary and grammar does not necessarily mean a grasp of how to communicate in English. Have you ever had a conversation with a Japanese person in English, but you have no idea what he or she is talking about? This is what haragei sounds like in English. It can rub us the wrong way, and may even call our trust in that person into question. Similarly, the way we speak in English, in direct and bold terms, can rub the Japanese the wrong way, coming off as childlike, arrogant, and even belligerent.

Mastering haragei is part of mastering communication with the Japanese. Click To Tweet

At a minimum, it is useful to be aware of haragei. Beware of tendencies to judge people on how they communicate, not just for what they say. What is polite, refined and sincere to one may seem opposite to the other. Whether negotiating with a transaction partner or communicating with staff, beware of perceiving the worst whereas both parties may be competent, sincere and filled with the best intentions.

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