“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