Reading the Air

In Japan, there is a custom called kuki wo yomu, which literally translates to “reading the air.” It is used to refer to Japan’s indirect culture, where a lot of communication depends on nonverbal cues. As a result, people often make inferences about what another person is thinking or doing by interpreting stuff like the atmosphere of a situation or the vibe of other people. They also make small adjustments depending on how they interpret that atmosphere or vibe. Kuki wo yomu is also used to describe a kind of “sheep culture” in Japan. Japanese people tend to want to be in the majority, and constantly interpreting what others are thinking and doing is a way to make sure one doesn’t move too far from the majority. People who cannot do this well are often called kuki wo yomenai (abbreviated “KY” and meaning “people who cannot read the air”) and are often disliked.

Not only is the custom of kuki wo yomu is evident in the daily lives of the Japanese, it is also evident in the world of politics. For example, in 2013, while MP Taro Yamamoto was making a public speech for his first campaign, he stated “an idiot like me who can’t read the air is needed in the world politics” and after his election, he said “I would like to tell the truth without reading the air.”

In Japan, MP Yamamoto is often regarded as strange politician in the media and the public. Whenever, I say that Yamamoto is portrayed as being “strange” in the Japanese media, foreigners often express confusion about why. Usually, I have to explain the custom of kuki wo yomu and once I do, then they understand why he is seen as weird in Japan. I find it interesting that his behavior is often viewed as perfectly normal behavior for an MP outside Japan. In my mind, Japan’s culture of kuki wo yomu and Japanese perceptions of MP Yamamoto are connected. Even though I don’t often think it’s useful to ask “what if” questions, it seems clear that if he were born in a country with more individualistic culture and became an MP there, he would be better off.

Before Yamamoto became an MP, he was an actor and a TV personality. He began to advocate against nuclear energy after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, and soon after lost many of his scheduled appearances in drama shows. He found it more and more difficult to find work in show business as a result of his anti-nuclear activities, and he eventually quit his agency and began working for a company selling solar power. Soon after, he pursued a political career.

After he began advocating against nuclear energy, he received encouraging calls from some of his fellow actors. They said they admired Yamamoto’s courage, but that they didn’t think they could do the same since it would affect their jobs. In Japan, entertainers are generally expected not be political. This is especially true for those who appear in commercials, since their political activities could affect the image of the product that they are advertising. Moreover, energy companies are one of major sponsors of Japanese TV shows, so criticism against them is considered to be taboo. Yamamoto has said that his fellow actors were “reading the air” in order to survive in show business.

In 2011, French TV crews followed Yamamoto for a documentary on his anti-nuclear advocacy. The producer of the show commented that in France, political advocacy does not damage the careers of actors. So it was not well understood in France that the Japanese entertainment industry would blacklist an actor who protested against nuclear power.

In addition to his anti-nuclear work, he has been called weird for taking solitary positions, far outside the mainstream. For example, on February 6 of last year, when the Upper House was voting on a resolution to condemn ISIS for murdering two Japanese hostages, he abstained from the vote and walked out of the chamber in protest. He was the only member of the Upper House who did so, and the rest of the members supported the resolution. Afterwards, his actions were criticized and he was even told that he was supporting the terrorists. Some members of the entertainment industry also said that he used to act strangely when he was in the entertainment industry.

According to Yamamoto, he abstained from the vote because he proposed an amendment to the resolution, which was not accepted. Specifically, he wanted to include a provision asking the House to do a more thorough investigation into why ISIS emerged in the first place, looking as far back as the Iraq War. He also said he abstained from the vote because the incident was a direct result of Japan’s support for the coalition force. He felt that by walking out in protest, it would decrease the risk that Japanese nationals would be targets of terrorism.

Doing something that contradicts what most other people are doing, as Yamamoto did in this situation, is considered to be a demonstration of “not reading the air.” If something like this were to happen in a school or at a company, it would become very difficult for him to succeed among his peers because such actions would isolate him from the group.

When I recently spoke to a couple of Americans about this, they were not able to understand why such an action would be considered strange and criticized. Even before they verbalized their own opinions of Yamamoto’s protest, I was able to tell that they felt a sense of respect for him. This underscores what I think is a very big cultural difference. In western cultures, speaking one’s mind in an assertive manner is often considered to be a respectable form of self-expression. Moreover, if one MP does something different from the rest of the members, it is not generally seen as a significant event.

Another person in politics who is described as not being able to read the air is Shigeaki Koga. On a live news broadcast in March of last year, Koga suddenly revealed that his regular appearances on the show would be ended as a result of political pressure. Koga himself acknowledged the controversy over his ability to read the air. He said that was not that he couldn’t read the air, but rather that he prefers to destroy the air after reading it.

This was not the only time he challenged authority, even when there was little chance of prevailing. Because of his approach, he is often referred to as “Don Quixote” in Japan. Referring to him as Don Quixote is meant to evoke the famous character, who is often thought of as behaving in a foolish manner. In Japan, the stunt at Hodo Station was obviously seen as a foolish thing to do if he were thinking about his own success. In fact, after the incident on Hodo Station, he was no longer invited to appear on any major TV networks in Tokyo. He now only appears on local TV broadcasts.

Many commentators in Japan have begun to refer to recent media incidents as “suppression of free speech” due to the political pressure that the Abe administration has applied to major media outlets. Even some in the foreign press, such as The Economist, have raised concerns over the issue.

I would argue that self-censorship did not suddenly appear during the Abe administration. It has always been in the background of Japanese culture, since people constantly need to read the air in order to curry favor with the wider community. The widespread practice of reading the air has caused many Japanese to act sheepishly, constantly making adjustments to their behavior in order to cater to the preferences of the group. This is something that they do in order to survive, and it has created a repressive context for many commentators. Evidencing this, Shigeaki Koga pointed to the fact that lower-level employees of major broadcasting companies find it difficult to express public disagreement with the executives of those companies, who are actively seeking to curry favor with the government. This is despite the fact that there are plenty of lower-level employees who have good intentions and a genuine desire to practice good journalism. Those employees simply cannot survive if they do not read the air in their workplace.

It is possible that the current focus on repression in the media can become an opportunity to reconsider the relationship between media and government in Japan. I would also argue that it poses a unique opportunity to shed light on the downsides of the Japanese custom of reading the air. It is also possible that specific acts of defiance—examples of not reading the air such as the incidents involving Yamamoto and Koga—are necessary to alleviate repression of free speech in Japan.

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