People like to ooh and aah about the differences between Japanese culture and their own. A few things in particular—language, food, history—are usually the first things catch peoples attention.
The biggest differences between cultures aren't usually so tangible; the real distinguishing features are the ones you can't quite put your finger on, the ones that exist in people's minds.
In my eyes, the greatest difference between Japanese culture and most other cultures is communication. I don't mean in terms of the spoken language, or kanji or any of the visible markers of communication; I'm talking about the style of communication, the undercurrents that flow beneath the spoken and written language.
For some people, communication in Japanese culture can seem like a labyrinth, with dead ends and puzzles at every turn. You should look up the phrase kūkiyo 空気読めない, or "can't read the air," which refers to people unable to interpret a social situation. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to miscommunication in Japan.
The kinds of miscommunication that can happen between cultures makes misunderstood teenagers look like they have freakin' PhDs in communication.
High and Low
Academics love to come up with models about how the world works; it helps to simplify complex situations, and makes things more understandable to your average person. One model in particular has helped me better understand more about communication in Japan. In the late 1970s, anthropologist Edward Hall introduced the idea of "high context" and "low context" cultures.
The differences between high and low context cultures is all about communication. A low-context culture communicates in very explicit, plain terms; a high-context culture, like Japan, makes the assumption that people have a shared set of knowledge, so things don't need to be outright explained.
Obviously, both of these styles of communication have their advantages and disadvantages. While everything is spelled out very clearly in low context cultures, allowing even outsiders to easily understand what's going on, some of the communication can be painfully forthcoming and blunt. Subtlety is a rarity in low context cultures.
Communication in a high context culture like Japan is efficient in many ways, since there's a lot that's left unsaid; but unfortunately, that means that if you're not in the "in group," you won't fully understand what's going on, and coercing a full explanation out of somebody seems worse than pulling teeth.
Some of my favorite posts from the blog This Japanese Life are about the kinds of miscommunication that happens in a high context society. Stories like "On Awkward Acts of Generosity in Japan" or "On Japanese Probability" illustrate the kind of communication breakdown that can happen when people make really broad (or even not-so-broad) assumptions.
Many of the side-effects of living in a high context society aren't as lighthearted. For expatriates living in Japan attempting to assimilate, or for even Japanese people who live inside the culture, these differences in communication can have far-reaching consequences.
Last year, we wrote about Japanese doctors who fudge the truth in big ways, like neglecting to tell patients that they have cancer. A doctor and patient may think that they have a mutual understanding when, in fact, their interests run at odds with each other.
When the people in a high context society mistakenly think that they share the same assumptions, the results can be catastrophic.
"What the Mind Thinks, the Heart Transmits"
The paradigm of high and low context cultures can seem like a simplistic view: anything that divvies up the world into two discrete units is a little suspect. There are reasons to have doubt about this model: it's a general theory about cultures around the world with nothing specific to Japan that was developed decades ago, and it comes from an outsider who might not have a complete grasp on Japanese culture.
Fortunately there are, in my eyes, several things that back up the ideas presented by high and low context cultures. Edward Hall studied Japan specifically in some of his work (including the admittedly dated Hidden Differences: Doing Business with the Japanese), but the most convincing evidence for me is native theories that more or less confirm the same thing.
In Japanese, there's a four kanji idiom that really confirms this theory for me: ishindenshin 以心伝心. One of the more accurate translations of ishin denshin is something like "what the mind thinks, the heart transmits," but what does it actually mean?
Some people call ishin denshin a kind of telepathy which, while dramatic, is functionally similar. While the end result of telepathy and ishin denshin may seem similar, the process is obviously different.
Whereas telepathy uses some kind of unexplained (or poorly explained) supernatural power to probe another person's mind, ishin denshin is fairly lazy; it works on the premise that everybody's on the same page. You don't need to read somebody's mind because the two of you have a shared set of assumptions, as anybody in a high context culture would.
Ishin denshin isn't the only concept like this in Japanese culture—another, similar similar concept, haragei (haragei 腹芸) covers many of the same principals, but has different applications. Different martial arts use this term to refer to anticipating your opponent's next move.
(Haragei can also, as I learned while researching this post, refer to "stomach art," i.e. painting faces on your gut. The more you know!)
What Can We Really Know?
I'll be the first to admit that this sort of analysis of Japanese communication seems kind of dubious. Even if we feel better by rationalizing and classifying things that we can't quite understand, these models will always contain generalizations and flaws.
Unfortunately, the social sciences aren't able to precisely quantify things the same way other fields are able to. Sociologists, anthropologists, and linguists can measure certain, very specific factors of communication—things like word frequency, and lengths of sentences, —but other elements remain distant. How can you really quantify a concept ishin denshin? You can't exactly dice it up and measure its atomic weight.
Not to mention that culture is a moving target. While all cultures have defining traits and unshakable historic roots, culture is always changing, shifting, regressing, and jumping forward.
There's no denying that ishin denshin exists in Japan, nor can you completely dismiss Japan as a high context culture. But just as there are people in the West who practice ishin denshin by a different name, there are also Japanese people buck all the stereotypes and are blunt and straightforward.
It's these variations that make studying Japanese culture interesting. Understanding these structures and systems is cool in itself, but finding the variations in the pattern, the outliers—it's enough to keep you interested for years to come.