Japanese Concept of Ambiguity

Even being an international student who’ve just been in Japan for only one year, I could sense that Japanese relatively prefer to speak their idea not in a clear way in Japanese. The latter point is important to note since different languages are often embodied with a different way of thinking and grammatical looseness. Learning Japanese for one year, I was amazed to know how Japanese people are very adept in finding “workarounds” in saying their ideas or even in requesting something. Regarding this, I think the Japanese concept of Aimai (曖昧), which translates into “ambiguity” in English, explains this well and I believe that it is essential for everyone to understand this cultural difference in our globalized community.

Let me give you some cases when Aimai was simply too hard to digest for me. The first time I have a teamwork with Japanese, most of them would start by a preface such as “I do not clearly understand this, but…” which gives me a big question because of two contradictory points. First, I believe that if one does not know about something well, researching it and thinking about it before one speak would always be a better choice. On the other hand, their ‘argument’ is also well-thought, diminishing their necessity to say such phrase. Moreover, I even cannot recall I am being corrected directly by Japanese friends with phrase that starts with “No”.

There are several viewpoints in response to this concept, but I guess social values in Japanese society play a big role on this. I may oversimplify this but I cannot agree more that Japanese has a very nice society, in which everyone is tolerant and unselfish. People tend to think about other person’s right, needs, and opinion as something not to offend in every possible way. This leads them to think that speaking something sharply against other’s idea will give an undesirable nuance – which they are cautious to be mistranslated as “you know nothing about this”.

It is easy for someone to slip into questioning, why Aimai concept still exists in this modern world that demands fast information transmission. Besides its socially rooted reason, I find that Aimai concept also offers something good. By not plainly negating to someone’s idea, this concept is very useful in building a supportive and positive relationship with others. Frankly said, people like to know that they are not incorrect, and who wants to take direct hits, say, in front of many peers. Language learning exemplifies this better than anything since I experienced this myself and I know that the Sensei’s ambiguous way in correcting me give me free space to question whether I am plainly wrong or the correction is simply a better Japanese sentence than mine. But regardless of which, it helps me to accelerate my learning and encourage myself to take risk of making mistakes in my learning progress. If you think this more generally, then you will realize what part of our life that is not learning process.

However, I could not deny that there is price to pay to preserve this intriguing concept. Basically, finding the workaround to say one’s opinion or disagreement would take more process and time, which erodes efficiency and precision (something which is also Japanese’s integral part of life) of the communication itself. Furthermore, without broad cultural mind, people will demand everyone to use this Aimai way of communication, regardless of others’ culture, personal preference, language proficiency, and other limiting factors. In long run, this will make a self-forced uniformity in society, ostracizing people with unique communication way.

In conclusion, I learnt that Aimai concept is part of Japanese language and culture that let Japanese be themselves. Nothing is wrong about this, since it has its advantages and disadvantages. I personally find this Aimai concept to be so fascinating, especially the way Japanese respect others’ idea and the art of how Japanese could find the way to say their opinion.


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