Thursday 26 March 2015

Those Unspoken Japanese Words

(First published on Feb 19, 2015)

"My wife is Japanese."

This is a very handy phrase that I use whenever the children say something inappropriate or I buy something 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, but I don't generally write about my sex life.

One thing that many Japanese do, is communicate via silence. They have a name for it: "mokusatsu." 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 favour. Prime Minister Suzuki, it is said, favoured 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 popularly 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 can not talk mathematics. Without Latin, you can not talk medicine. Without bureaucratic jargon, you can not talk with government. And without the proper Japanese vocabulary, you can not 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. And, just to elevate it to an Olympic event; what they consider potentially offensive can be as small as: "Jam or jelly?" 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 hand crafted six months ago for the kids room was the wrong colour, size, shape or style; at any rate, wholly inadequate and possibly offensive and next time buy one that looks like this one."

I was once gifted two weeks of stoney 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 looses 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..."

A-a-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.

PS: For those men out there married to a mokusatsu-Japanese woman, I want to let you know that I have found a work-around for the silence-to-evasion-to-silence-to-evasion type of argument-cycle: Fight Japanese with Japanese. Use mokusatsu.
     It seems to short circuit almost any argument. If you tried this with a woman from another culture, she would probably assume that you're giving her "the silent treatment" and things would escalate. But it's something that the Japanese understand and accept as a concluding statement. It takes some getting used to and it's not completely satisfying because new-age men have been encouraged to talk it out. But it's much less frustrating than wading through a long list of your errors and omissions while skirting a completely separate issue, over and over.
     Let her talk. Stay silent. When she stops, walk away, think things over, but never bring up the subject again.
     Happy wife, happy life.

PPS: Just to clarify, Junko and I get along very well. She's no monster, but there are extremes in her personality that sometimes challenge me. What is not presented in this article are all the things she does that balance these extreme traits, like her sense of humour (you should see her laugh when I stub my toes!) or how she home schools our kids, manages the household and supports me in my writing.

All in all, as good a packaged deal as any marriage could be.

As well, some of this article is exaggeration... there are no craters in my front yard.  


  1. Look up the story of the Japanese man that ignored his wife for 20 years....and she put up with it. All cos he was a bit jealous....

    1. Thanks for the suggestion...definitely an interesting story with some relevance to our situation. My wife now freely admits that she is an extreme type of person who acts either 100% or 0%, and rarely anywhere in between. I now understand her a lot better and have learned to accept, and to not take her behaviour's not something that I have any influence over. And, judging from feedback from other readers married to Japanese people, I don't think I'm alone.

    2. Thanks for the reply. You're certainly not alone. I've read plenty of posts in blogs and forums from men and women commenting on the behavior of their boyfriend/girlfriend etc. Sometimes they'll cut off for good with no explanation. In some cases, extreme, a wife will disappear with the kids. My case is a lady who hasn't gotten to be a girlfriend yet although maybe she saw differently after only meeting up a few times. My directness I'm sure offended her Japanese sensitivities and since then, the big chinmoku or maybe mokusatsu over something I thought would be resolved in 48 hours. Two months later, just two terse replies. Such a shame as we have so much in common but she can't get over the 'offence' Maybe it's a pride thing. I had a similar experience with a Korean friend years ago. Here's the story I mentioned

    3. Thanks for the link, though I managed to find the story and read it, yesterday. Differing cultural expectations regarding silence is definitely a thing when it comes to the Japanese. I have persevered for almost 20 years with my wife and have learned that there is some wisdom to not talking everything out as we "woke" North Americans tend to want to do. So, for that, I'm thankful. But the connection between silence and intimacy is a tougher one to endure. Basically, even after all these years, there is a much deeper, richer human within her that I will never have access to and this leaves an emotional hole for me because I've had such depth in every previous relationship. As I've got older, though, it’s forced me to become more self-reliant (which is amazing as I was already a very independent and self-reliant individual) and so can still find a great degree of happiness but at the cost of a closeness and a certain form of comfort that I still miss. I have also observed that intimacy-reluctant (opposed? impaired??) people do not change easily...I've only ever witnessed it in response to an overwhelming disaster and emotional breakdown—and even then, it was temporary. So, I am learning not to hope for more. Sounds depressing, but so much else is right in our relationship that, at this point, I wouldn't trade it. However, if I'd known, going in... I dun'no, man.

  2. Could that pic at the end be explained, please?

    1. Unfortunately, not by me. Sorry. But thanks for reading.