The term “wa” (和) literally means peace or harmony, and is the fundamental building block of Japanese society.  It implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, in which members prefer the continuation of a harmonious community over their personal interests.  Easy to define, but extremely complex in usage, it is elusive, ethereal, and almost always hidden behind (in)sincere smiles, nods of affirmation, the often uttered “chigaimasu”, and promises never intended to be kept.

What is Harmony?  According to the dictionary, it is compatibility in opinion and action, and is the mantra of Japanese society.  Preserving the harmony is the one and only goal in just about every interaction in Japan.  Don’t be fooled, it is easier to define the sound of one hand clapping than to fully understand this concept, but hopefully this article will shine a light on what “wa” means.

Two Stones in a Zen Garden

You might have passed Level 1 of the JLPT, have the lyrical Enka stylings of Jero (he’s the first, and so far only, Black Enka singer) when you go to Karaoke, can quote entire passages from Genji no Monogatari (The Tales of Genji, 源氏物語), and can even catch flies with your chopsticks, but when it comes to interacting with the Japanese, most people have the grace of an Elephant let loose in a porcelain store.  Even for the Japanese, the subtle nuances of “wa” are sometimes difficult to grasp.

Fear not, we will try to shine some light on this issue for you….

At some point during your stay in Japan, you might have noticed that people here tend to  talk around a problem, whether it’s in the office, in a relationship, or even at the bar after work.  They do this to preserve the harmony between people, especially in their immediate surroundings and their in-group.  Why do they do this?  It’s all about not losing face or bringing shame or discomfort upon another person, especially in one’s in-group.

This concept is so deeply ingrained in the Japanese Psyche that it’s very natural, almost subconscious for the Japanese, but as unnatural as Daikon (horse radish) Ice-Cream for anyone who wasn’t raised in Japan.  For example, you might be invited to a party in the following way: “I know you’re probably very busy with your life, but if it’s not too much trouble (and the moon is a particular shade of blue) could you possibly stop by a little party after work? But I understand if you can’t make it because you’re too busy or too tired to come”.

For the Western mind, due to the indirect language used, this situation doesn’t appear all that important at the moment, but if you responded with something along the lines of: “Maybe I’ll stop by if I’m feeling up to it”, you have just confirmed your attendance to that party and are expected by the Japanese Code of Conduct to make it there (come hell or high water), lest you take the full brunt of your Japanese friends’ or coworkers’ displeasure at your inconsiderate rudeness for standing them up.

For men, your interactions with Japanese women will also be peppered with “wa” since Japanese women are generally quite indirect about their true feelings.  To uncover what they are really saying:

  • listen carefully to the exact words they are using
  • try to read between the lines of those words
  • ask simple questions to get specific information out
  • most important of all, look at her body language for subtle clues about her intended meaning.

Got it?  Ok, let’s do a quick test to see if you really understood the Gist of it.  Imagine an interaction between you and a girl (or guy) you’re seeing.  You might ask: “Are we exclusive, or are you seeing other people?”
Most likely, she will not look at you directly and give you the “shy eyes”.  Does this mean:

A) “I like you, so I’m not seeing other men (but I’m embarrassed to say I like you)”.


B) “I really want to see other guys (but I don’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you)”.

In either case, she will probably avoid direct eye contact with you.
So what’s your choice?
If you answered “A” ….. Good job, you did pay attention! Her slight smile will reveal that she’s really just shy.  In the case of option B), she will probably not smile at all.  Very slight difference in the interaction, but a huge difference in meaning.  These subtle differences can be a source of endless frustration for non-Japanese so you have to develop mystical, Uri Geller like mind-reading abilities in order to really understand the inner mysteries of Japanese social interactions, which for the most of us is a goal just as unattainable as finding the Holy Grail.

If there is any message to be taken away from this it’s that in Japan, not only do you have to understand the language well enough to know what they’re saying, but you have to also read between the lines and look for very subtle clues of behaviour to get to the true intended meaning.

Two men playing GO

I will leave you with a little bit of parting advice: In your daily interactions with Japanese people, keep in mind that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and try to do as the Romans would do; or you could just unleash your inner elephant.

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