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

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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

  • 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

  • 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?

  • 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 (^_^)