Reading the Air: Invisible Rules That Stifle Japanese Companies

Kuuki ga Yomenai, or “K.Y.” is a term that became popular a few years ago in Japan. It means a person “cannot read the air.” 

K.Y. is often used to deride people who do not understand the unspoken rules of a group. The term itself is used mainly by young people but the ideas behind it often trouble Japanese companies when hiring foreigners. 

Japanese society has traditionally valued implicitness. This is still obvious in everyday life; when you go to a restaurant in Tokyo, you might see a common scene where a group of diners all order the same dish for lunch; or a round of beers for the first drink of an evening. Group consensus, often unspoken, is very important. 

In a business setting, if a supervisor says, “I don’t know what others would think” or “this might be a bit difficult,” it could mean they are flat-out denying your ideas—albeit very indirectly. 

Other terms such as Aun No Kokyu, meaning “being perfectly in unison,” or Anmokuchi, meaning “tacit knowledge” are valued positively or considered as something requiring high levels of emotional intelligence. Thus, someone unable to catch an unspoken message could become an object of scorn. 

As this is an unspoken language, many Japanese companies worry that potential employees from abroad might not be able to cope. This is even more acute when considered alongside other hurdles such as the language barrier and differences in corporate hierarchies. 

Today, however, many Japanese people realize that Aun No Kokyu is no longer applicable in a global setting and may even be detrimental to business. Understanding unspoken communication requires a good knowledge of context and the assumptions that others have. Both of which are extremely difficult to grasp in a new or foreign culture. 

Why is this? First, reading an atmosphere may be done only after a considerable amount of time spent studying or assimilating into a culture. 

Even when it is possible, the biggest problem is that the common ground is often based on accumulated past experiences. 

The reading of an atmosphere might have been useful in the past when environmental shifts were more gradual, but not in today’s ever-changing world. 

So the next question is, if people know that unspoken communication is ineffective, why can’t people change? The answer is simple: the “atmosphere” is invisible. It is hard to change something if you don’t know exactly what you are trying to change. 

Then how should we deal with this problem? 

I once thought the answer lay with “A.K.Y.” (Aete Kuuki Yomanai) or, “not reading the air on purpose”—i.e., being deliberately provocative. 

But this carries the double risk of just being considered as K.Y.! The best countermeasure I found is to make the unspoken tangible, by labeling it with words. 

The “air” or “atmosphere” is best viewed as a shadow shaped by the consensus of a group. The consensus is the actual substance and the atmosphere is a by-product. 

Thus, if you shine a light on the problem by verbalizing it, it disappears. You can then outline what each party’s concerns are and clearly identify the issues at hand. 

This might be difficult for Japanese people, especially in a corporate setting. Verbalizing why they are concerned about something puts them at risk of being labeled as “resisters” or “conservative.” 

In this case you can make an educated guess by putting yourself in other people’s shoes. For example, setting out the pros and cons from a different perspective. Once you shed some light on the different ideas and opinions a group has, you can start to discuss them. 

GLOBIS University trains its students thoroughly on verbal discussion techniques and logical thinking through a range of courses. This enables students to bring creation and innovation to areas where it is most needed. 

I sincerely hope all GLOBIS students go out there and start to “visualize the air” to help change stagnant and ineffective corporate culture. The old ways of thinking may have worked in the past, but not anymore. 

This is a revised version of a previously published article.

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