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If you’ve ever spent much time on Japanese message boards or texted someone in Japanese, you’ve probably run across the abbreviation “KY.” And no, they’re not referring to KY Jelly. Well, most of the time they’re not. So what does KY mean then? KY stands for kuuki yomenai which means “can’t read the air.” It’s probably one of the most annoying concepts in Japan for a straight-shooting foreigner to come to grips with. Why? Let’s find out.

Oh, the Ambiguity

Basically, KY is used to describe people who have trouble getting a read on situations, or have trouble feeling the atmosphere of a situation. This is viewed as a bad thing, and most Japanese do what they can to avoid being labeled as KY.

In many ways, KY can be representative of Japanese culture in general. Japan is a group-oriented society that values harmony, rainbows, and cute animals. As such, Japanese people are well known for being indirect, ambiguous, and avoiding conflict. The Japanese word for this ambiguity is aimai. In Japanese culture, reading body language and subtle clues is quite important to surviving both social and business settings.

“Maybe… Well, no. Maybe not. Hmm…”

Ambiguity and indirect communication can confuse non-Japanese people and create a wide variety of misunderstandings. For example, if you ask out a Japanese girl, she may indirectly say no with a “I’m washing my hair that day,” or “Sorry, but I’m just not that into deep-sea fishing expeditions,” etc. Japanese girls – y u no say what you mean!? Of course, this can extend to many women in general, but it’s safe to say it’s more prevalent in Japan.

The reason they do so is to avoid conflict, be polite, and/or to allow the man to save face. Yet, such warm replies can convey the wrong message, and cause confusion. Does she like me? Doesn’t she like me? Why wouldn’t she just say no if she didn’t want to go out with me? Why can’t I find love in Japan? And the list goes on and on. Will you ever get a straight answer from her? Probably not.

“When I say difficult, I mean no. Why can’t you understand that?”

In business settings, Japanese indirectness may frustrate foreign partners as well. The Japanese word muzukashii can be translated as “difficult,” but in a Japanese business setting it means something closer to “out of the question.” Basically, the Japanese businessman is refusing the request by saying it is difficult. He’d never say “no” flat out because that’s too confrontational. Instead he’d just say “it’s difficult,” and hope you know that he actually means “no.”

To the foreign business partner, this can be very confusing. They might think they mean, “It’s difficult (but I’ll do it anyway),” and just take it as a hard bargain, but something that will eventually get done. This is not the case.

From KY to SKY, Oh Me Oh My

Yes you are.

One-upping the KY term is SKY, or super kuuki yomenai. I know, pretty clever, right? People described as SKY are even more clueless and bad at reading situations than their KY counterparts. Many old folks in Japan feel this way about the younger generation and scorn their general incompetence.

Essentially, KY and SKY boil down to common sense and reading the air of a situation. Like, getting a feel for what’s really going on. As most people grow older and gain experience in life, it becomes easier and easier to read the air, but some people just never get the hang of it. If you can’t read the air, you are KY/SKY, and there are many ways to display it.

You Can’t Read Body Language

Photo by moni158

Body language and nonverbal communication are pretty important in Japan. If you don’t know all about Japanese body language, you can check out our guide here. Some foreigners are pretty used to people being straight up and saying what they mean, but this is not always the case in Japan. To an outgoing, straight-shooting, red-blooded American, the Japanese can seem a bit wishy-washy and downright frustrating with their general ambiguity.

This category ties into scenarios like if someone is talking up a storm to people and the victims don’t want to be bothered or are getting bored. Instead of telling the guy straight up, they’d be polite and hang around, trying to indicate disinterest with subtle body language. This isn’t always easy to pick up on, especially for foreigners.

This goes double with relationship things like mentioned above. Japanese girls can be pretty flaky and ambiguous with their responses as to not cause the males to lose face, and to be polite. For the uninitiated or the KY, this can be very confusing.

You Can’t Take a Hint

On the whole, Japanese people like to avoid conflict as much as possible. In general, they’ll go out of their way to avoid conflict and the potential embarrassment of others (losing face). As such, if you can’t read subtle hints, you’re in trouble.

In western nations like America, people are fairly direct. Men more so than women, but that’s another story. If a westerner disagrees with you, there’s a good chance they’ll voice their opinion and let you know.

In Japan, you need to hone in on the subtleties and realize that if someone is avoiding conflict with you, they’ll be giving you negative feedback in sometimes incredibly roundabout ways. If you can’t read subtle hints very well, you run the risk of being KY in Japan.

You Have a General Lack of Common Sense

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUedNbE5EaA’]

Like I said before, KY and common sense go hand in hand. If you lack common sense, you’re gonna get called KY. This applies to social situations, and can even include things like bad manners, ranging from train etiquette to public bath protocol (don’t be a baka gaijin, kids!)

Pretty much if you’re embarrassing those around you, or causing a nuisance and don’t realize it, you’re being SKY. If you’re being mildly annoying and don’t realize it, you’re being KY. Stop it. If you’re socially handicapped in your home country, be prepared to get called some form of KY in Japan. It happened to at least one of our friends when we were studying abroad over there, and it can happen to you too.

The moral of the story is, you have to be aware of what’s really going on with interactions in Japan, because things might not always be what they seem. Ambiguity can be confusing, especially in Japan, but hopefully it’s something you’ll eventually get a handle on. And now if you ever hear or see the phrase KY, you’ll know what they’re talking about.


So tell me, have you ever been called KY or SKY before? Have you heard of these terms? Have any firsthand experiences to share regarding the subject? What do you think of Japan’s generally ambiguous nature? Let us know in the comments!


Sites Referenced:
Japanese Cultural Learning Blog: Ambiguity

  • Insomnium

    Personally I try to avoid conflict aswell. Ut on the other hand, I suck at social contacts. So how does that classify me? :p

  • http://www.facebook.com/MrIdowhatIlike Jupiter Bullet

    I’m getting too used to “the amount of f*ck I give is close to none” western culture so KY is annoying. Playing detective at socializing, must be very tiring, especially if you suck at it. People should say what they mean in a straightforward manner. Maybe this is one of the cause of depression and suicide in Japan. Don’t get me wrong… I love Japan and KY thing but sometimes… well…

  • JJ

    I dunno. After ten years in Japan, KY seemed little more to me than an updated shorthand for “the nail that sticks up will be pounded down”.

  • JD

    For a while now, I’ve been following Tofugu/Koichi/John (more recently), and I think the content you all are putting out is getting better and better. Good job :)

  • stefafra

    I guess that for people on the autistic spectrum life is going to be extra-hard in Japan…am I wrong?

  • http://twitter.com/yukisuishou 水晶雪

    I tend to be super-sensitive to the “mood”, pay attention to body language, and avoid conflict myself. Does this mean I’ll get along well over there? Haha.

  • Jirugi

    “In western nations like America, people are fairly direct.”

    I respectfully disagree.

    Evidence: The level of political correctness in America.

    I don’t think Americans are any more direct than Japanese people. We’re just more or less direct depending on the issue, I guess.

  • Emily

    The girls in Morning Musume call Ikuta Erina KY all the time, so that’s where I know it from.. it’s her character ^-^

  • Drew Parlow

    Agreed. Sadly, I’m on the autism spectrum, so that might be annoying. I’ve got a couple of years till graduation and I only might go to Tokyo for graduation. Hopefully I’ll learn Japanese by then, since I’m 13 in the eighth grade right now and that’s plenty of time.

  • Witless knave

    The more I read about these matters, the more it reminds me of my own country here in Sweden; none of this seems at all strange to me. Given the right previous knowledge I don’t think it’d be any issue.

  • HatsuHazama

    Good age to start apparentlyIt’s worth starting early if you haven’t already, as looking through the topics needed to get fluent makes me wonder if I’ll get through it all in time for university.
    I myself am 14 actually, and have started self-learning. If you can, I would recommend WaniKani (which I use), as even though the price was steep for me, it was worth it for the rate you learn on it.

    Good luck of course, and maybe our paths shall one day cross in Japan!

  • susi

    That’s actually the thing I’m most afraid of. Not the language, not beeing lost in Tokyo, but upsetting people ’cause I get them wrong or verce visa. Coming from Germany, where a plain “No” is a perfectly acceptable answer (well, depending on the situation) I’m already kinda KY in Great Britain or the US -.- I guess western people learning to be not KY is similar to Asian people learning irony. The concept might be easy to get, but applying it spontaneously in situations can take a while.

  • shiroi

    I would say it depends. Fortunately the Japanese (especially educators) are pretty familiar with Asperger’s and such, so if you are obviously and undeniably on the spectrum then they will treat you with as much tact as possible in order to avoid causing embarrassing situations for you.

    If, on the other hand, you are on the other extreme end and it’s difficult for the average person to immediately peg you as autistic, then yes, you will probably be labeled as KY.

    I’ve known many a Japanese student and acquaintance in my life who was probably on the spectrum, but not quite “there” enough to warrant understanding treatment.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    People that can’t read the atmosphere won’t realize you can’t read the atmosphere.

  • kuyaChristian

    Philippine culture is more or less about ambiguity too. Sometimes people are not afraid to speak their mind, but at the same time they don’t want conflict.
    I know this all too well, having grown up there. Gave me such a shock when I moved here in the US when people were way too direct than what I’m used to. But I hope I’ll be fine in Japan…I’m not the kind to stick out anyway.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I’m not very direct when talking to people, and sometimes they get confused and tell me to be more direct, and then I get mad that they don’t understand and start insulting them very directly, and then it goes downhill from there.

    Do you think I should do it the other way around? Like, start off direct, so they know what I’m talking about, and then be real subtle when insulting them afterwards?

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I can’t read the mooooood! I’m not fit for this world!

    *hangs self*
    *devalues apartment*

    Aw, no! Not again!

  • John

    Nooooooooooooo!!!

  • John

    Yeah, they can definitely be pretty similar.

  • John

    Thanks a ton! We really appreciate it and I’m glad you’re enjoying the site!

  • John

    Yeah, I always thought it was weird how a lot of them don’t really “get” irony and sarcasm.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Don’t worry, I’ll still be around. Tofugu’s already my regular haunt.

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    How can I tell my mother-in-law that I wish a fiery death upon her? It’s much better to wish for it kindly, through the clenched jaw of subtlety. It makes things easier at holidays anyhow.

  • bomblol

    There’s a difference between being direct and being offensive by disregard for others.

  • Corbin

    They have a mascot for KY… why am I not surprised.

  • Sick of J-vagaries

    Yeah, but the downside of Filipinos is their obsequiousness, also evident among those I’ve known in working situations in Japan…that’s why the Japanese employers like them…they cause little trouble compared with Westerners

  • milos81

    “Japan is a group-oriented society that values harmony, rainbows, and cute animals.”

    Might be my favorite line ever written at Tofugu. Good article, John.

  • DAVIDPD

    I’ll stick with Shchadenfreude.

  • milos81

    I agree with you about PC, but I think John was making a comparative point. No society is completely direct; that would make social life – aka, harmony through polite indirection – impossible.

    Moreover, “direct” doesn’t necessarily mean sincere or honest. Perhaps it would be more accurate (but more cumbersome) to say that Americans are more willing to state categorical opinions in a clear, curt manner (PC does that, as you are no doubt aware).

    The difference is perhaps more stylistic than substantive. It’s considered a plus in American/Western society to be thought of as a”straight shooter,” and some people are straight-shooters, of course, but mostly it’s a cultural norm we try to conform to by coming off as transparent. To paraphrase a famous quip, “It’s all about sincerity; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    Still, this stylistic difference reflects a more substantive difference over individualism vs. group-orientation. It’s not an absolute difference, but it’s real, a matter of consistently different emphases between cultures.

    Don’t want to take away from your point, which is true as far as it goes. Just want to note that it doesn’t really affect John’s point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shadegem Rebecca Brock

    I’m from Kentucky…so this abbreviation is very strange for me. Though thinking on a lot of the people from here, some of these comments make a lot of sense in that aspect too…lol. So hard to read and keep in mind they don’t mean my state. You’d think they’d pick a not-taken abbreviation. But then, I guess the only big things KY has provided the world (at least as much as people see it) is chicken and bourbon, so it’s not really a foul I guess. Sigh…

  • Han

    Sometimes Japan seems so complicated… I’m feeling I need to do a Master in Japanese Manners before going there.

  • luscher

    finally the US seems to be nearly over its keitai ky … it’s not a megaphone, people !

  • kuyaChristian

    Yeaaah. That’s basically the majority of Asian cultures, really. Sometimes they just follow whatever because someone said so.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I don’t think it’s necessary to go through the list of all the abbreviations before choosing another one. I mean, people from Oklahoma seem like they’re OK with people using theirs.

  • José

    I’ve always known there’s something fishy going on with japanese and their way of dealing socially. But it wasn’t until now I’ve come to realize how much of a SKY I’ve been! I remember a teacher I had, Japanese born and raised, and she would go “It’s hard for me to give you a lesson”, now I know that she meant “GTFO”, I also had a girl language partner who would swim the same waters. With guys is easier, they just won’t say anything.

  • Jon

    So. . .how do you say something is difficult but possible?

  • http://www.facebook.com/AbigailCamarillo Cam Abi

    This might be a bit hard with people I grow close to.. I tend to be more open and voice my thoughts the more I know a person whereas if I just recently meet someone I’m very quiet in voicing my opinions. It comes with being shy, but I’m a VERY observant person as far as body language so I think I should be able to get along without being too KY

  • Chester

    In English, in American English, we constantly give our audience pointers as to what we’re talking about. We never just jump into a conversation without lead-in.

    For example, if we want to talk to our friend about Pokemon, we might say, “Did you see this week’s episode of Pokemon?” Once our friend understands the topic of conversation, we might say, “What’s with Pikachu not evolving?”

    In Japanese, though, there is no such lead-in. A Japanese person might just turn to their friend and say, “What’s with him not evolving?”

    A lot of this does come down to Japan being a tight-knit society. It may be a cause or a symptom, though – that is to say, are Japanese people vague and uncommunicative because they don’t NEED to be? Or is the cultural homogeneity thing a crutch for lazy communication skills?

    Obviously it’s hard to say – it MIGHT be that Japan is such a highly evolved society that they can communicate without actually saying anything. Or it may just be that they have a complicated, silly and utterly inefficient system of language that REQUIRES them to all be the same so that they don’t constantly walk around asking, “Wait, what were we talking about again?”

    There’s nothing mystical or deep about “KY.” Do you know what it is? It’s Japanese people who are bad and lazy at communication and don’t want to accept blame for being vague, uncommunicative people. “I told that Smith guy that it would be difficult, and he didn’t stop the project immediately. Foreigners are so KY.”

    In some situations, yes, this is ambiguity and subtlety. The thing is, in most situations, it’s simply bullshitting people and refusing to give a straight answer. Note also that Japan is a face-saving society. KY isn’t really a thing – it’s just something Japanese people say when they don’t want to admit how bad they are at communicating.

    Look, bottom line: Japan is not some magical, mystical country. KY isn’t some deep, difficult thing in their culture that foreigners will never understand. Most Japanese people are honest and straightforward. KY is just a way for Japanese people to blame others for their shortcomings.

    Also note: my experience with the phrase KY is that it is used for truly awkward and rude people. That’s probably because the people I know and live with are honest, decent people.

  • CHester

    You don’t. Japanese people are regular human beings. Look, where are you from? Let’s assume you’re American like me. Do you even have any idea how many euphemisms and ambiguous turns of phrase you use in your daily life? There is a huge, long list of things you aren’t allowed to say in polite company and you KNOW that.

    In Japan, the polite, formal word for “toilet” is “shit place.” In English, we call it the “wash room.” The Japanese are EXTREMELY direct about bodies and bodily functions – the whole refusing to say “no” thing? That’s the Japanese equivalent of calling a bathroom a “wash room.”

    In other words, you ALREADY do all these “complicated” things naturally. The only difference between YOUR culture and Japan’s is that they use euphemisms for things that you state directly and vice versa. That’s all.

  • Johnist

    Awesome video!!!! I just became a Johnist (follower of Johnism aka the discipline of posting awesome videos)

  • John

    The flock welcomes you.

  • Cody

    KY = Kanji Yomenai. Majority of gaijins. hahaha

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    Nothing to be sad about, Autism/Asperger’s is not a disease, it’s a social disability. Use the fact that you’re more tuned to certain details as an upper hand. As it is eye contact is not expected, they’ll feel you’re singling them out if you do it. Pay close attention to what others are doing, and you’ll be okay. You’ve got 5 years ’til graduation, that’s a lot of time to study your surroundings and learn how to work on things.
    Also, use this time to learn to enjoy new textures in foods, I know those of us on the ASD spectrum can have a hard time with textures of certain foods (i.e. Shrimp, octopus, squid, tofu)
    Best wishes on your studies.
    日本の言語と文化を学んで頑張りましょう!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    Wani-Kani.

    The Tofugu team take teaching Japanese culture seriously, WaniKani is great to get Kanji going, but you need exposure to the spoken language. If you are a Bible student, you can get a very good online Bible, or download a PDF of the scriptures with furigana at http://www.jw.org/ja and click on the blue: 聖書をオンラインで読む link, each chapter has audio. Here’s a list of the Bible books in Japanese matched up to the Japanese: https://sites.google.com/site/jfc1984/intro-to-japanese/bible-language
    Best wishes in your Japanese language studies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melissa.yeow.92 Melissa Yeow

    Dude, it’s a cultural thing. It’s not that they’re bad at communicating, It’s just the way people in that culture communicate with each other, relying heavily on cultural context and less on direct verbal cues. It tends to be like this in Asian cultures. Chinese culture tends to be like this too, which may be why I’m more okay with it. It is a terrible pain to deal with if you don’t already get all the cultural cues, and very exclusionist-one of the reasons why these cultures can come off as xenophobic. It’s not magical or mystical, just clique-ish. You know, entirely made up of in-jokes like in teenage highschool subcultures for example. If you don’t already know the background, you can’t “get it”, and it’s all “Haha yea that baka gaijin, can you believe it? It was so obvious and he had no clue.” You probably feel this more as an american because western cultures are generally low-context cultures, you say things directly more often and get frustrated when people don’t. Reading this might help if you wanna understand more. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low_context_culture

  • Carol Matsubara

    Someone’s pulling your leg a bit. ‘Otearai’ (‘hand-washing place’) is the formal word for the washroom. You’re talking about ‘benjo’ I guess, it’s considered vulgar, and it’s not polite in mixed company, its the equivalent of ‘the crapper’. I’ve seen Japanese men guffaw and women say ‘Maa, hazukashii! at signs for the ladies’ and men’s rooms in Hawaii, which are often labeled ‘benjo’, even at high-end hotels.

    I completely agree with your first and last paragraphs. English speakers are naturally unaware of how many euphemisms etc are difficult to understand for a non-native speaker…English as a foreign language is pretty confusing.

    In a similar vein, I hear people go on and on about honne and tatemae like it’s a new concept, but what is it but ‘little white lies’? Do you really go about telling people exactly what you think about everything, uncensored? Of course not, but because the Japanese are super-vague it’s really striking when first encountered. I would like those who peddle ‘honne and tatemae’ as a totally unique-to-Japan mysterious/dishonest concept (look around any Japan-based board) to try ‘Wow, hate your haircut’ ‘Your cooking sucks’ instead of the normal social tap-dancing you usually do, and see how it works out for them :-D The wish to save others embarrassment is pretty universal.

  • Carol Matsubara

    I don’t know……’inconsiderate’ would be close to most situations I see ‘KY’ used in.

  • sachi

    maybe,The first photograph is a Chinese.

  • John

    Thai, actually.

  • Aya Sofya

    Ambiguity is kinda common in my culture as well (I’m Malaysian) so I can really relate with this article.anyway, that’s not really the case in younger generation as they are more straightforward.
    i enjoyed reading this. thank you

  • Elisia

    why would you want to insult them? if you are direct, they will understand you better, no need for getting mad

  • MrsSpooky

    I tend to be very indirect until someone ticks me off or doesn’t take hints. I’ve had people so clueless they don’t even get it when I’m direct, then I’m afraid I have to go medieval on them. I know exactly how frustrating KY people can be. I get even more annoyed if they make me go to that medieval place. No fun for me OR them. :

  • MrsSpooky

    Thanks so much for that Bible link!! Bookmarked that puppy!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Personally, I’d be thrilled to go to Medieval Times.

  • MrsSpooky

    LOL, if you’re talking about the theme restaurant like the one we had around here, then yeah, me too! xD

  • http://twitter.com/DiscordantFlesh Silent Agony

    I have a learning disability called non verbal learning disability I am extremely direct and though I am much better than some with it since I usually understand sarcasm some people with it cannot even grasp that. Does that mean going to Japan is out of the question for me? I am also curious what happens to people native to Japan who have it, since it is completely a neurological condition you are born with and therefore can affect people of all cultures.

  • Ann

    If I understand that someone is telling be something he doesn’t like me in a subtle way, I can assure you that my feelings will be hurt the same way as if somebody tells me directely. So, because the indirect person expects me to decode his words (“I can’t go, I’m washing my hair that day) into “I don’t like you”, I don’t see how that would be polite at all.

    The way I see it, it’s just complicating everything with the side effect of making the subtle person think he’s being more polite or friendly (when he’s actually not).

  • Ann

    sorry, I mean “If I understand that someone is telling me he doesn’t like me…”

  • Kim

    Would really ambiguous people be called KY?

  • http://tiferet.dreamwidth.org Tiferet

    It’s actually easier sometimes to deal with Japanese body language than American. It makes more sense some how. I am pretty KY in life overall but I am less so among Japanese people than Americans. Maybe it’s because I expect Americans to say exactly what they mean because they so often do but I think actually it’s because they stare right at you and expect you to produce the desired response instead of creating the space for it to happen in.

  • CAT ヽ(*・ω・)ノ

    As a Japanese-American, I find both extreme to be frustrating to deal with!

    I can appreciate straightforward style of the American style of communication, but when it’s too excessive it can come off as rude and very careless. In the extreme, it seems like some people are so eager to have their voices/thoughts heard that they don’t take into account how their words may affect other people’s feelings, etc.

    I can also appreciate the care/consideration that comes with Japanese style of communication, but when it’s too excessive it sort of seems like they are just trying too hard to save their own face to come off as a nice person, when really they might be keeping their darker/meaner/honest thoughts to themselves.

    Of course, those are just the worst case scenarios! Most people are not that bad, and at the end of the day I think the right balance of both American style honesty and Japanese style tactfulness are needed for the best type of communication (^_^)