Why Japan Has High Context Culture

When communicating with Japanese people, many foreigners are feeling confused such as “I can’t understand what they are really thinking.” or “I get the feeling that they’re saying things they don’t truly think.” The concept of “Low/High Context Culture” is a useful reference for such communication gaps.

What is Low/High Context Culture?

It was initially proposed in 1976 by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his book “Beyond Culture”. The concept describes the characteristics of communication styles in each country or region. It refers to the difference in types of communication, whether the emphasis is on words (Low Context) or on non-verbal meanings (High Context).

Here is the graph showing the differences of low/high context by language.

A graph of langueage with low or high context culture

There are many graphs on the Internet showing countries with low/high context cultures. They are all slightly different, so this is a combined general idea.

Western countries such as North America and Europe are categorized as relatively low context cultures. In contrast, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, especially Japan, are in the category of high context cultures.

Here is a table that summarizes the contrasting characteristics.

Low ContextHigh Context
Direct expressions are preferredIndirect expressions are preferred.
All information is presented in wordsInformation is conveyed not only by words but also by situation and context
Based on wordsBased on the common understanding
Silence is uncomfortable as an interruption of communicationSilence is fine
Passing on skills as explicit knowledgePassing on skills through body and experience
Easy-to-understand reactionsModest reactions
Open and flexible group formationClear boundaries between inside and outside the group

This is just a typical example to clarify the differences, so it does not apply to everyone. But these are the general characteristics.

Why Japan Has High Context Culture?

So why is Japan called the world’s highest context country? There are two major factors: the nature of the language and the history.

Linguistic factor

There are many homonyms in Japanese. Therefore, the meaning of a word or phrase cannot be conveyed accurately by itself; it is necessary to consider the context before and after the word is spoken.

For example, the Japanese word “せいかく (seikaku)” can mean either “accurate” or “characteristics”. And the word “いし (ishi)” can mean “doctor” or “will”. A lot of other Japanese words have the identical pronunciations but different meanings. The most common of which is “こうしょう (kōshō)”. It has whopping 48 homonyms. Even I, a native Japanese speaker, have never seen some of those words before.

In addition, Japanese grammar is designed in such a way that we cannot tell whether the sentence is affirmative or negative until we listen to the very end of the sentence. Therefore, it is necessary to listen carefully until the end in order to understand the speaker’s claim.

As mentioned above, due to the structure of the Japanese language, it is pretty tricky to communicate accurately with the language itself.

Historical factor

Another major factor would be the historical background. Japan was formed as a racially homogenous nation in an isolated island with no interaction with other countries for a long time. Perhaps, this can also be the reason why the UK has a relatively high context culture among English-speaking countries.

Furthermore, since Japan has no absolute single god, like a monotheistic religion, there is no clear code of conduct for everyone to follow.

These two factors led to the creation of the Japanese symbolic value system “Kuuki wo Yomu” (= Read the air), according to a Japanese critic Shichihei Yamamoto in his best-selling book “A Study of Kuuki”.*

In a country with a high context culture like Japan, it is essential to have the skills to understand the other person’s intentions based on the situation, their facial expressions, and gestures. For a while, the word “KY” was popular to describe people who cannot do this.

*Shichihei Yamamoto (1983). A Study of Kuuki. Bunshun Bunko.

Real-life Examples Of High Context Culture In Japan

A view of Tokyo from the sky

When we live in Japan, we will encounter various situations in our daily lives where communication is based on the premise that we share a high context culture. Here are a few examples.

Unclear instructions from superiors

Although the Western work style has recently become more prevalent in Japan, there is still a high context of Japanese communication in the workplace. A typical example of this is the vague instruction from the boss saying, “Do it well”. Therefore, the subordinate has to imagine what the boss wants by understanding his/her true intentions. If the employees cannot do so, they will be labeled as “incompetent”.

Saying Yes to No

In all countries, sometimes people say things that they don’t really mean. Considering the atmosphere or the relationship, they say things that are contrary to their true feelings. In Japan, however, I think this tendency is particularly strong.

I once had a Japanese subordinate lady. When I asked her, “Is everything ok?”, she answered “Yes” with a strange smile on her face. You can be sure that there is something wrong in such a case, but people hesitate to say what it is. There are many Japanese phrases that should not be taken literally. And we actually hear them frequently in our daily lives in Japan.

Indirect claims

Many Japanese people do not like to make direct demands or point out to others even when they are dissatisfied or need improvement on something. It’s ok if they just keep silent. But some people take out their frustrations indirectly. This is what causes the insidious office bullying in Japan, where people talk behind someone’s back or attack individuals in groups.

How To Communicate With High Context People

A woman showing ok pose with smartphone in her hand

So, how do we deal with Japanese people who have a high context culture?

Don’t judge by words alone

As mentioned earlier, many Japanese say “Yes” although they actually meant “No”. Therefore, awkward facial expressions and being at a loss for words are important signals to judge.

Incidentally, it is famous that Japanese people express their emotions not with their mouths but with their eyes. If the corners of their mouth are up, but the smile is not sincere, their eyes are not smiling. In other cases, they might be genuinely enjoying themselves even if they are not expressing much emotion. This may be the main reason why all Japanese people can wear masks and still have no trouble in their daily lives.

I know it is difficult to get used to, but try to pay attention to their eyes when communicating with Japanese.

Avoid Yes or No questions

The easiest way can be not asking yes or no questions. If you ask a Japanese who is obviously not feeling well, “Are you okay? they may reply, “I’m fine”. Even if you ask again, “Are you sure?”, they would just say “Yes,” and the conversation will end.

If you are really worried, how about the approach that says, “You look feeling unwell, and I’m worried about you. So please tell me if I can do something for you.” If they’re looking for help, they’ll probably start talking to you. Or if they just want to be left alone, they will tell you that.

Don’t be too direct with negative feedback

Japanese people are not accustomed to having things pointed out directly. So if we are too direct, some people may feel hurt. They would take it as if they got denied their personality. It is perfectly fine to directly give instructions or positive feedback, but we should be careful when giving negative feedback. For such sensitive people, it may be better to say, “If you improve this, it will be better,” rather than pointing out, “This is not good”.

Communication Between Different High Context Countries

One of the blind spots is communication between people of different nationalities with high context cultures. Low context and high context cultures have a clear difference in style, so it is easy to see the gap in perception.

However, if two people from different countries with high context try to communicate with each other in a way accepted in their respective countries, that can be a problem. They will continue to share with slightly different perceptions. By the time they realize it, a huge misunderstanding may have been created.

For instance, Japan is famous for its punctuality and values of being on schedule. China and India are also high context countries, but they are relatively more flexible with time schedules.

Moreover, here is my own experience in India. My colleagues used words such as “I promise” and “I’ll make sure” rather casually to give a sense of security to the other people. On the other hand, Japanese people tend not to make promises lightly when the possibility is not 100%. As I said, I was also confused until I got used to it.

What Do Japanese People Think?

Question mark next to the human shadow.

Lastly, I will also introduce how Japanese people try to deal with foreign people with low context cultures. For Japanese people, when they think of foreign countries, the first one they come up with is the United States. Therefore, when dealing with people from the overseas, typical way the Japanese follow is the American style of communication.

Here are common pieces of advice given to the Japanese.

  • Give priority to conveying your intentions properly rather than being polite
  • Mention the conclusion first
  • Explain logically and concretely
  • Eliminate ambiguity and ask each time if you do not understand
  • Clarify and agree on essential points

One piece of advice I hear particularly often is “Mention the conclusion first”.

In Japan, when speaking or writing something, the concept of “起承転結 (Kishōtenketsu)” is crucial, which is to divide the talk into four parts and tell it as a story.

  1. 起=Introduction
  2. 承=Development
  3. 転=Turn
  4. 結=Conclusion

As a result, Japanese people have an ingrained habit of storytelling. So, they tend to use this style even in situations where urgency and clarity are required, such as in the workplace.

Conclusion

Suppose you are having trouble communicating with Japanese people by any means. In that case, you may tell them that you would appreciate it if they would communicate based on the above points for smooth communication without misunderstanding.

Of course, not every Japanese is used to being pointed out directly. So it is also important to communicate softly or indirectly with the high context in mind.

I hope this article helps you understand Japan!

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2 thoughts on “Why Japan Has High Context Culture

  • August 15, 2021 at 6:41 pm
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    Excellent discussion.

    For foreign tourists, this is one thing to keep in mind when visiting Japan.

    I’d like to be able to visit someday, but cultural nuances such as this one kinda raises some anxiety.

    Reply
    • August 16, 2021 at 12:11 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you for your comment.
      Yes, it may sound a bit complicated to understand this kind of unique Japanese culture.
      But I believe most Japanese people are friendly and do not unnecessarily expect foreigners to follow that customs.
      Hope you can visit Japan someday and enjoy the time.

      Reply

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