Why Foreigners Should ‘Read the Air’ When Working in Japan

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If you’re studying Japanese, you may have heard of the phrase “空気を読む” (kuuki wo yomu), one of the many unspoken rules in the culture. 

Though seemingly similar to what is referred to as ‘reading between the lines’ in Western countries, a “high context” country like Japan introduces a few nuances to this concept that may be foreign to non-Japanese people from “low context” countries such as Australia.

Knowing how to properly communicate yourself well is a great way for professional networking besides attending Japanese career seminars.

How does ‘reading the air’ affect the way you should interact with your workplace superiors in Japan? What’s the best way of expressing a difference of opinion during your meetings?

Current job-hunting university student Yukiko Eguchi and seasoned employee of 20 years Ayako Kikuchi spoke to Asia Options to share their thoughts on the matter and provide tips for foreigners who wish to work in Japan.

Community vs Individuality

「周りの人と同調して、反対とか違う意見を言わないと言うことです。」

“Align with the people around you and not say an opinion that is different from or against theirs.”

The Japanese concept of ‘reading the air’ is best explained by student Ms Eguchi to be the act of prioritising the needs and feelings of the people around you by not expressing an opinion that goes against the general consensus. 

This can be linked to the Japanese moral that the welfare of the group will always be seen as more important than individualistic goals. 

By ‘reading the air’, worker Mrs Kikuchi adds that this group harmony is kept by the ability to blend in with the majority of the crowd. 

“That’s why you’ll find that Japanese employees often look alike,” she says, “They have similar hairstyles, clothes and makeup with no piercings or stuff like having red hair.”

Building Workplace Culture: Saying Yes

「違う意見があったら、しつこく言わない。しつこく言うと嫌われる。」

“If I have a different opinion, I will not say it persistently. Being persistent is frowned upon.” 

It is no secret that there is a strong ‘yes’ culture in the Japanese workplace, which explains why the whole office is seemingly always agreeing with their superiors.

This means that even if you don’t agree with your boss’ proposal, the best thing to do is to ‘read the air’ and nod your head like everyone else. 

Mrs Kikuchi notes that from her working experience, the general rule of thumb would be to not persistently reject your boss’ suggestions . 

“Japan’s education system has taught us to be this way since we’re about as little as six years old,” she says, “You generally wouldn’t want to disagree with your teachers.” 

While discussing a difference of opinion may be normal in Western countries, disagreeing with your boss can be seen as a sign of disrespect in Japan.

When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do

「マナーみたいな感じになっているから、あんまり意識にしたことはないかも。」

“It has become a part of manners, possibly not really something that is done consciously.”

‘Reading the air’ is embedded in Japanese culture, Ms Eguchi says, almost like an innate skill that is acquired over time through constant practice and interactions.

Past surveys have suggested the importance of this practice, particularly with maintaining tenure in the workplace. 

Mrs Kikuchi adds that there have been instances where foreign workers in her company have experienced huge culture shocks from the difference in communication style. 

“A few of them have quit, thinking that the workplace culture in Japan is weird or that it doesn’t suit them.” 

For foreigners who are thinking about living or working in Japan, it might be worth doing deeper research on Japanese customs and etiquettes to help adapt to a new environment.

Making Decisions 

「みんなの意見を聞いて、同調する意見を言うと、空気は読める。」

“Listen to everyone’s opinions, express an opinion that is aligned with theirs, and you’ll be able to ‘read the air’.” 

Ms Eguchi advises that if you’re having trouble ‘reading the air’, it’s always a good idea to ask for everyone’s opinion on the matter. 

“Listen to what they have to say first before expressing your own views,” she says, “That way, you can match your opinions to theirs.” 

However, it may sometimes be hard to decipher the opinions of your Japanese peers and colleagues due to the difference in “high context” self-expression. 

Communicating and finding what works with everyone around you takes time and patience, but it’s important to take everyone’s thoughts and feelings into consideration before making workplace decisions.  

“It’s like teamwork,” Mrs Kikuchi says.

The Times are Changing But…

「最近は、空気を読むことも大事だけど、自分の意見をはっきり言うことも大事だよね。」

“Recently, it is still important to ‘read the air’ but it is also important to clearly express your own opinions.” 

Ms Eguchi says that she has noticed a subtle increase in Japanese youth branching out from the ‘group harmony’ and expressing their opinions without much thought for ‘reading the air’.

“When this happens,” she says, “There are instances where they’ve gained respect from others.” 

Mrs Kikuchi says that the reason why the youth nowadays are a little more outspoken could be due to the contemporary change in education. 

In 2020, the Japanese government implemented the Japanese Education Reform system to encourage further active learning among the students via class discussions and participation.

When asked to give one last piece of advice to foreigners wanting to work in Japan, Mrs Kikuchi says that there are still employers who still expect their workers to ‘read the air’. 

“It’s important to learn about Japanese workplace customs,” she says, “Learning the culture is as important as learning the language.”  

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Melissa Hong

Studying Journalism and Japanese in her final undergraduate year of Bachelor of Arts, Melissa is also taking on her first year of Masters in International Relations, specialising in international diplomacy and trade. With a keen interest in languages and taking on new challenges, she hopes to continue finding ways to build bridges between cultures. On top of her determination to perform her best on any given task, she wants to further understand how she can assist global communities to work together towards social and economical prosperity in an international scale.

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