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Those unspoken Japanese words

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“My wife is Japanese.” This is a very useful phrase that I use whenever the children say something inappropriate or I pay with coupons. I think it has become my personal tag line. It frames the beginning of so many of my misadventures; often starting with miscommunication morphing into misunderstanding and finally ending in missed my head by three inches. Of course it also frames many wonderful adventures.

One thing that many Japanese do, is communicate via silence. They have a name for it: “mokusatsu” (黙殺), literally: death by silence. The idea behind it is to allow time to dissolve awkward or unpleasant issues. The most generous interpretation is: “Waiting for wisdom before speaking.” But there are many connotations, running the gamut to the dismissive: “Waiting until there is something worth talking about.”

Recently, I came across several articles documenting how this cultural affectation contributed to the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July of 1945, the allies sent an ultimatum to the Japanese government. It read as follows: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

The Japanese imagined they were debating an invasion of troops and were divided on the subject. The military and its supporters were strongly opposed to a surrender, but others were strongly in favor. Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, it is said, favored surrender but was sandwiched between powerful and opposing forces, within his own government. It is thought that he sought to appease both sides and slowly tease out a consensus. His official reply was: “No comment.”

“Mokusatsu,” but which connotation? In Japan, it is generally reported, the government and the population both felt that they were still in negotiations. In their view, the answer was clearly: “We're thinking it over.” Ten days later, a nuclear bomb obliterated Hiroshima.

The same thing used to happen all the time, at my house. Tourists still come by to take selfies next to the craters.

My wife is an extreme practitioner of “mokusatsu” and it frustrated me, for years. But then I realized that without numbers you cannot talk mathematics. Without Latin, you cannot talk medicine. Without bureaucratic jargon, you cannot talk with government. And without the proper Japanese vocabulary, you cannot communicate properly to a Japanese person.

I have studied Japanese, and learned enough to make the kids laugh whenever I attempt to speak it but I had never been taught that one, most important and unspoken Japanese word... silence. And now that I have learned it, you’d think I could start filling in those craters.

But, being stubborn and verbose, I still don’t always accept silence as an answer. Foolishness like that will run you smack into another interesting Japanese cultural norm: beating around the bush. This follows from a centuries-long societal love affair with politeness and propriety. The Japanese prefer to talk around a problem without stating anything that might possibly be offensive, or awkward—most especially, if it regards feelings. It’s a tricky skill to master; almost an art form. To function efficiently among the Japanese, one must learn to make, what might seem to us, great leaps of deductive reasoning.

When my Japanese wife says... • “Maybe.” That’s an emphatic “No!” • “What would you like for dinner?” means she’s not hungry. Make yourself a sandwich. • “No problem.” It’s a problem. • If we’re wandering through a furniture store and she says, offhandedly, “I kind of like that book shelf.” It means that the bookshelf that I handcrafted six months ago for the kids’ room was the wrong color, size, shape or style; at any rate, wholly inadequate and possibly offensive and next time buy one that looks more like this one.

I was once gifted two weeks of stony silence because when she said, “The sun melted the butter,” I put the butter in the fridge instead of getting a new blind for the kitchen window.

Often, I have no idea why she has gone silent and I’ve learned not to ask. Asking only deepens the offense because if you have to ask, you haven’t been paying attention. I only find out on those rare occasions when she completely loses it—usually over something extremely trivial and completely unrelated.

ME: “I picked up a new shower curtain, like you asked.” JUNKO: “How much?” ME: "I got the next-to-cheapest: $6.99" JUNKO: “Why didn’t you just get the $1.99 one? Now I will have to clean it four times before we can throw it away! Why do you always get the wrong thing?” ME: “But, yesterday I got bread. I thought that went well...” JUNKO: "This is just like that ugly milk crate bookshelf in the kid's room..."

Aha, and there it is.

So, to recap: Getting a Japanese person to express an explicit opinion can really only be achieved by marrying them, then making them extremely angry. If only we’d known all of this in 1945—or, really, any time before I built that bookshelf.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

35 Comments
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Very funny article. Can really relate.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Mr Dean appers to be living in Canada so I can only imagine the cultural nightmare when your wife adopts her 'mokusatsu' cultural bias! She must be a hoot to bring to parties........

4 ( +5 / -1 )

"I was once gifted two weeks of stony silence because I put the butter in the fridge instead of getting a new blind for the kitchen window."

Lordy, she sounds like a piece of work! I sure hope there are other compensations in your marriage.

Nothing could compell me to stay with a partner who sulks for two weeks over a block of melted butter.

9 ( +11 / -3 )

Sounds insufferable.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

The rest of the article was funny, but even though PM Suzuki declared "mokusatsu", how can it be "mokusatsu" when you're publicly telling the press that the "mokusatsu" is really outright rejection? The press wasn't going to keep it a secret or anything.

On July 26, the United States, Britain and China released the Potsdam Declaration announcing the terms for Japan's surrender ... On July 27, the Japanese government considered how to respond to the Declaration ...

In an attempt to manage public perception, Prime Minister Suzuki met with the press, and stated:

"I consider the Joint Proclamation a rehash of the Declaration at the Cairo Conference. As for the Government, it does not attach any important value to it at all. The only thing to do is just kill it with silence (mokusatsu). We will do nothing but press on to the bitter end to bring about a successful completion of the war.[73]"

The meaning of mokusatsu, literally "kill with silence," can range from "ignore" to "treat with contempt"—which rather accurately described the range of reactions within the government.[73]

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I think this guy should forget about 1945 or saying "my wife is Japanese" as a catchphrase. 2 weeks of cold shoulder over butter, rage against the bread, stony silence.... They should go to marriage counseling, but can you imagine the rage she would bestow upon him if he suggests it? He picked his poison.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

When my wife gives me the silent treatment for disagreeing with her I go out and meet a lady of the night and pay up. Satisfies me. Silence invites destruction.

-1 ( +8 / -9 )

Dude , this is not about being Japanese or mokusatsu. This is because she is a woman!!!!!

17 ( +22 / -5 )

Funny article in some ways; in others, I have to agree with some other commenters that their relationship needs some real help. Communication can help solve problems; 2 weeks of silence just makes it worse. I have a Japanese wife too, but I certainly don't suffer such periods of mokusatsu. The Japanese have many wonderful traits, but sometimes dealing with intimacy, physical or emotional, is not one of them.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Well, since he lives in Canada and the family courts there won't decide he can never see his own children again in the event of a divorce, I suggest he get rid of this joyless woman and perhaps marry someone who doesn't criticize every dam thing he ever does and doesn't want to inflict the joylessness of her existence on him every waking moment. It's not because she's Japanese that she does this, it's because she's a misery with no communicative ability and is intent on making his life a misery. Get rid of it!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

By the way, getting a Japanese person to give an explicit opinion is achieved by getting to know the person in question properly. This is not only a Japanese trait. Many North Americans open up way too early for us Brits and Europeans too. They ask us for a range of opinions and they furnish us with stacks of private and uncomfortable information well before we are ready. It is absolutely not the case that you have to marry a Japanese or make them angry to get a real opinion. You only have to get them comfortable, which is far easier if you speak some Japanese, but they often express themselves quite readily in English when they know you well enough.

I have Japanese friends and in-laws that I can discuss almost anything with. But you can't become close friends with a Japanese person in 5 minutes unless you're also Japanese. We non-Japanese need to be a bit patient and invest in relationships here. If we do, we move into a trusted position, and once that happens, we get all sorts of opinions. But when you don't know a Japanese person well, you only tend to get the Japanese opinion, because they are not yet ready to open up to you. This is simple to understand and is not uniquely Japanese.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

I have every sympathy with the writer and admire his ability to try to put a humorous spin on the joyless, destructive behaviour so many Japanese women seem hell-bent on bringing to the lives their chosen husband has made for them.

2 ( +8 / -6 )

Readers, please refrain from making disparaging remarks about the writer or his wife. That is not relevant. The story is a humorous piece, written tongue in cheek. Please respond in the same spirit.

Lighten up folks! This sounds like a mostly happily married loving couple! We've all made bloopers, and suffered misunderstandings, and gotten on each others nerves at times (especially in the dead of winter!) My wife of 44 years still remembers and won't let me forget the time I bought her an ironing board for a Christmas present! The silent treatment isn't unique to Japan, I expect it is a human rather than a cultural trait, that speaks louder than words. True love is much deeper than the ego games we play in our day to day lives, because true love is the unconditional feelings we have for each other.

1 ( +6 / -5 )

I get the feeling I'd fit in quite well in Japan, at least with regards to mokusatsu. I don't like to talk unnecessarily, only when there's something worth saying. I also prefer to give the cold shoulder than shout and scream. The latter doesn't do much to encourage personal reflection. If the offending party doesn't reflect upon their actions and think about why I'm being frosty with them, they're never going to figure it out and they'll just make the same mistakes again. I've tried spelling things out in the past, to no avail. They reject the notion of their wrongdoing.

When my Japanese wife says… • “Maybe.” That’s an emphatic “No!” • “What would you like for dinner?” means she’s not hungry. Make yourself a sandwich. • “No problem.” It’s a problem.

I do the exact same thing usually. It's only when I'm genuinely furious that I'll skip the subtlety and be blunt with anyone. At all other times, you'd best read the tone, and the atmosphere.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

Tongue in cheek. Fun.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Completely agree with mountainpear. If you think it's a cultural thing, you're going to be in for a real shock when you marry someone from your own country!

4 ( +4 / -0 )

The silent treatment isn't unique to Japan, I expect it is a human rather than a cultural trait, that speaks louder than words.

This is absolutely true from what I've seen and experienced. But the writer refers specifically to his Japanese wife and to Japanese history/culture, on a site that is specifically about Japan. So naturally we are are going to approach it from the Japan-hand angle.

Also ... ironing board?

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This is typical JT. What you do is publish an article about a bloke disparaging his difficult Japanese wife for being Japanese and difficult, invite comments from the readership about said article, then delete any comments that are disparaging in any way, shape or form, even when they point out that being difficult is not necessarily a Japanese trait. Comments must agree with the bizarre opinions of a moderator who has presumably not even read the article he or she is deleting comments from, and must agree that Japan is indeed culturally superior to all other nations, which is the only possible explanation for a Japanese woman behaving like a petulant child. Honestly, this type of moderation and the idea that any opinion that doesn't agree with the moderator is irrelevant, off topic or offensive is actually culturally offensive. Don't publish these types of articles and invite comments if you intend deleting anything you don't agree with. You are wasting everyone's time and making sure there can be no discussion. You are also annoying people who take the time and make the effort to post the comments you need for your site to be successful.

Moderator: The article is written in a humorous manner, so there is absolutely no need for anyone to insult the writer and his wife, which a few readers have done. A very poor contribution from you.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

'They have a name for it: “mokusatsu” (黙殺), literally: death by silence.'

My partner is English. I don't know if death by silence is worse than death by nagging. At least with the former you can watch the footy in peace.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Nothing could compell me to stay with a partner who sulks for two weeks over a block of melted butter.

It wasn't about the butter; that was the point, hahahaha

3 ( +4 / -1 )

sounds like all women everywhere. that's just how they operate. that's why us men have beer and bbq and sports and poker.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It is a funny piece and I enjoyed reading it however...

@mountainpear

Dude , this is not about being Japanese or mokusatsu. This is because she is a woman!!!!!

I was just about to say that behaviour explains a lot about my (ex) Japanese husband... It is NOT only a "woman" thing...

@uniden

sounds like all women everywhere

You men have such a high opinion of yourselves...

1 ( +3 / -2 )

'You men have such a high opinion of yourselves...'

We need this to retain a modicum of self-worth after marriage. Without it the nagging and criticism from our wives would grind us down to the level of believing we are no better than cockroaches. When I said this to my wife she told me cockroaches don't have the unforgivable vices of moving the bog seat or crawling into the house pissed.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

someone here made the right comment: You Men have such high opinion of yourselves

ROTFL

yup- this is classic men (mars) women( venus or whatever wonderful planet they came from)

Great article!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I was once gifted two weeks of stony silence because when she said, “The sun melted the butter,” I put the butter in the fridge instead of getting a new blind for the kitchen window.

The morse code your wife is using to 'communicate' cannot be explained by the Japanese language or culture.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"In July of 1945, the allies sent an ultimatum to the Japanese government. It read as follows: “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

"The Japanese military and its supporters were strongly opposed to a surrender"

This was four months after the near utter destruction of the capital city of Tokyo. Incredible...

"ME: “I picked up a new shower curtain, like you asked.” JUNKO: “How much?” ME: “I got the next-to-cheapest: $6.99” JUNKO: “Why didn’t you just get the $1.99 one? Now I will have to clean it four times before we can throw it away!"

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@FightingViking I am a woman! I was laughing to myself as I read this because I could see my husband and I having the same 'conversations'! Except I would never succeed in not talking to him for 2 weeks;)!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

'Except I would never succeed in not talking to him for 2 weeks;)!'

If he's like me, a pity for him. I'll put my mortgage on the bet that the expression 'silence is golden' was not coined by a woman. I love my partner and she's one of the good guys but sometimes I wish she'd just shut the...erm, be quiet.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"In Japan, it is generally reported, the government and the population both felt that they were still in negotiations. . . . If only we’d known all of this in 1945—"

Perhaps silence would have been appropriately illustrated with a less confused interpretation of history. JT points up that this is meant as a humorous piece. Sadly, there seems little humor in Mr. Dean's conclusion.

On a lighter point, silence isn't unique to Japan. Silence is one of the most effective methods of shaming and degrading a speaker. The purpose is to show contempt and that the speaker's words are beneath recognition. The general term is passive aggressive.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

if you have to ask, you haven't been paying attention

This isn't a uniquely Japanese thing, it's more a Mars/Venus thing. I've made more or less the same point umpteen times to Mr cleo. He still doesn't get it, of course.

cockroaches don't have the unforgivable vices of moving the bog seat or crawling into the house pissed

True, dat. And the cat makes short work of the roaches anyway.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@uniden Perfectly said.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Agree with the woman/man idea.

This is universal, not Japanese....

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It is indeed a funny thing having a Japanese life partner, but not funny enough to make you wanna read all this personal relationship stuff to the end...i mean really, how unique do you feel? And how far can we go in saying that people are the same or people are unique..seems to me that...never mind. So are all Asians or maybe all buddhists, or maybe all born again christians, or maybe I'll just shut up...

The article did give me a chukkle, and i gotta approve, right...i think it is a guy thing, and i approve. how do ya spell chukkle?. chuckle? And here we have it folks! In a word! If you don't know; are not well versed in the various shades of chuckle, then you will perish. As deep as the Asian thing, you cannot truly comprehend the Canadian chuckle without being , well, truly Canadian. And without giving it a chuckle, how ya gonna even start. It's like the very subtle flavour of rice...you just will never know the true nuance of the word/feeling. Just like there is all that is uniquely Japanese, and therefore things uniquely incomprehensible to outsiders, there will be an equal level of daftness vis a vis anything from your super unique homeland...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I can relate, but even if it's probably more common than in the States, it doesn't seem to be the case for every Japanese, and is not (what your article doesn't seem to take in account) a fatality.

Americans also tend to do more of some toxic behaviors, such as getting angry and bursting out, making the situation unlivable and the exact opposite of helping solve it, installing fears in the partner which complicate the relationship, etc. Not every American does it, but you could say that it's a cultural thing. I don't agree however. These behaviors are toxic and as such don't have to be tolerated. They are not "a part of you" (because you're American) more than practicing the silent treatment makes someone Japanese. They are not even a core value in either culture. They are just bad habits which have another root cause and can be changed.

Japanese who are practicing silent treatment are just doing the most common and learned behavior when they want to hurt someone. And they'd actually be lucky to find another Japanese national to tell them that this behavior is unacceptable. Whatever, as a non-Japanese, you don't have to put up with it either. Beware of cultural generalizations. Silent treatment is ranked among the worst ways to handle any situation, it's harming both parties a lot, and as such it has no place in a couple where the two people have self respect, anywhere on the planet. Empathy is a core value though, and it means that you need to also understand the other, and why he or she resorts to such an extreme behavior, validate them, instead of just telling them to stop.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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