The Language of Silence

As most of the crowdiest big cities in the world, it is difficult to avoid Tokyo`s every day hustle and bustle, specially the one happening around the commercial streets, train stations and little alleys full of bars and restaurants where the non stop announcements, the music and the greetings coming from the stores will put to work all your senses on your very extreme.


However, there is a completely different way of living where the silence is a mayor value for the locals. And the deeper you get into the culture the more you will realize how important the non-verbal communication for the Japanese people is.

Of course, silence expresses emotions and points of view, shows personalities, values, ways of living and traditions.

Silence can avoid conflicts, engage respect and create distance. It can be ambiguous and sometimes misinterpreted, specially for those like me, who come from abroad. But, like everything else related to cultural differences, getting involved and willing to understand it, is always helpful.


Here, some of the facts that may bring you closer to appreciate and embrace (why not), Japanese silences. Yes, even the awkward ones.

Historically, in Japan, silence was related to truthfulness and was encouraged, since a very young age, because it was believed that enlightenment could not be reached by talking about it. So, even tiny big factors like silences are not casual in Japan. Nothing is.


There are two traditional Japanese proverbs, which highlight this belief: “Kiji mo nakazuba utaremai” which means “Silence keeps one safe” and “Mono ieba kuchibiru samushi aki no kaze” which means “It is better to leave many things unsaid”.

Even in politics or in a corporate environment, nowadays, silences are judged as virtues rather than oratory skills like in the western contexts and countries.

Other very important figure is the listener`s ability to comprehend what others are implying, even in their silences. Easy to achieve? Probably not. And much harder for foreigners who were raised in a completely different atmosphere and with different rules and traditions. But as everything else that is complex, it is a phenomenon that is important to be able to notice first, and learn to deal with it later. In particular for those who are living or working (or both) in a Japanese environment where having the feeling of an outsider is part of the daily routine, where is hard to achieve the comfort zone or as I usually call it, your common sense, is no longer a common sense. I am not sure if others feel the same way, but at least, those are all very usual feelings to me.


I also know by first hand and from personal experience, that learning the language is of course a great step to shorten distances and to build bridges, but even if you are able to understand the language, there is something much deeper than that. And as someone who lived in Japan for a very long time once told me: “When you feel you know them (by them meant the Japanese people), you will realize how little you do”. And that is probably the best and the most accurate thing that someone ever said to me during my period living here. And as time goes and days pass, I discover that every day is a new opportunity to do it better.

I usually do not like giving advices, because, who am I anyway? But today, I feel that with these words, I might be helping someone to, at least, feel better if by any chance, is going through the same or similar process, stage or experiences than me.

For those who have recently moved to Japan, I will encourage them to explore, read, get involved with the locals and with their many traditions, history, culture, food and even with their drinks and popular sayings. And please, avoid comparing what happens or how things are managed in your own region or country. I do not think those thoughts will lead you to anything positive.


Like everything else, things get much better with the time, even the silences. The ones you understand today and the ones you do not.

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