Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

August 25, 2016

Ninja Communication
Inside the Japanese Art of "Air Reading"

Patrick Harlan / Comedian, TV Personality
Patrick Harlan

Patrick, an American comedian known as Pack'n, appears on a wide range of television shows in Japan. He co-hosts the NHK WORLD's Dining with the Chef and Doki Doki! WORLD TV.

Japanese people have supernatural powers. They have the ability to "read the air." This is an actual Japanese expression which means to sense the mood in the room, to react with tact and delicacy to the situation at hand. Of course, this is a skill which all nationalities share to some extent, but people here have taken it to preternatural levels.

The result is that to us ordinary mortals, Japanese communication can be bewildering. For example, it is often said that Japanese do not say "no." This is true, sort of. In almost any setting, after presenting almost any proposal, one practically never meets with a direct refusal or rebuttal. Rather, the response is nearly always encouraging. But that doesn't mean the answer is yes.

For instance, when an offer is made in a business meeting, the answer will often be something like this: "Let me talk this over with my team and get back to you." In most parts of the world, you would think this means your proposal has been judged worthy of consideration. Here, however, this generally means "no." Similarly, "We'll consider it" means they won't. "We love it!" means they don't.

Another common phrase, "That sounds great" means it doesn't." And "We'll make it happen" probably means it's not going to. With no irony intended, the answer is actually the opposite of the words used. "Sure!", "Absolutely!", "Let's do it!" and, in fact, "Yes!" all quite regularly mean "no."

Contrary to popular belief, Japanese people are saying "no" all the time. The rest of us just don't pick up on it. The clues are nonverbal and subtle. They are in the air. This is literally true in my favorite example: after a suggestion is made, you will often hear the listener inhaling, sucking air in through her teeth before responding.

This, too, means "no."

Generally at this point, the person making the original suggestion will realize the refusal and withdraw the proposal. In fact, non-verbal communication goes so smoothly an entire negotiation often sounds like this:

"Well, if it's…"


"Okay, I see."

It's opaque to the rest of us, but the rejection in this interaction is clear as day to an "air reader." Come visit. You will see this magic in action all the time.

This is not to say that Japanese people never say yes. They do, of course, quite readily. They are famously accommodating and eager to please. It precisely for that reason that they strive to make "no" sound so nice. For the uninitiated this protective ambiguity can be frustrating, but once you get the hang of reading the air, the calming, peacekeeping effects of this system become apparent. In 23 years in the country I have seen fewer heated arguments than one might witness on a single typical subway ride in the US. Japanese people avoid conflict, start from a point of agreement and work from there. Reading the air preserves the harmony the country is so famous for.

I pointed this out to one of my American friends once. "It's amazing," I said. "Japanese people make a point of agreeing with you even when they don't. We Americans just sort of reflexively disagree. We always contradict each other."

"No, we don't," he said.


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Patrick Harlan / Comedian, TV Personality

Born in the USA and now one of the best known foreign-born entertainers in Japan, Patrick is an accomplished actor, author and TV personality, as well as the funny man in the comedy duo Pack'n Mack'n. His Japanese skills, Harvard education and comedy credentials give him the depth and credibility to succeed in a variety of roles. Patrick's solo work ranges from TV dramas to game shows to commercials, from political commentary to picture books.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
23 years, almost exactly half my life.
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I wanted an overseas adventure before settling down. I came to Japan to teach English at the suggestion of a friend
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
The Echizen coast of Fukui Prefecture. The monstrous winter waves of the Sea of Japan crashing on the bare volcanic rock cliffs are breathtaking.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
My motorcycle and bicycle. Two-wheeled transport in Tokyo is crucial.
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
Tsukkomi. It's a comedy technique where you point out a statement's inherent silliness and make the whole scene funnier.


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