Can You Read the Situation in Japanese?


Can you read the situation in Japanese? This is something that becomes more important as you develop your Japanese ability. Most people agree that Japanese is a highly contextual language. Culturally, it is uncommon for people to be straightforward or blunt when they communicate. Rather they rely on atmosphere, feeling, social cues, etc to get their point across.

You may be interested in our other posts on which you can find in our Japanese Tips section.

In contrast, English is generally a lower context language. People who speak English tend to depend on word choice to illustrate their ideas. For example, we explicitly select our words to clearly communicate your intentions or motives.

The high context nature of Japanese can be similarly illustrated through its culture and social hierarchy. Hierarchy and social status play a huge role not only in the Japanese language but also work culture and how people interact with each other.

Let’s take a simple work situation. In traditional Japanese companies, it is common for most junior staff to show respect to their senior staff by speaking in the more polite or formal language. From the senior member’s perspective, they will generally speak in less formal language, however, it does not mean they will speak directly. It is still quite common to speak vaguely, especially when providing instructions or feedback. A similar situation may occur when speaking with customers or clients.

It is the same when people meet for the first time, there is a general level of politeness and etiquette used. People exchange bows and always remain civil with each other.

If you’re interested in our FAQs Section, you can check our Life in Japan FAQ or our Exploring Japan FAQ.

Can You KY?

Reading between the lines is so crucial in Japanese, they even have their own expression for describing it. Take the expression「空気読めない」(kuuki yomenai) which means ‘Can’t you read the air?’. These may seem a little abstract when directly translated to English, but it is a fundamental part of comprehension. The expression is essentially used to question people’s ability to completely understand other comments, opinions or ideas. The expression is so common they even created their own acronym for it, ‘KY’, as it is popularly known.

Versatile Vocabulary

Clearly then, it is important to be able to decipher the situation to truly understand a person’s real intentions or speech. In recognition of this fact, we have provided a general list of important phrases, commonly used in Japanese, but which have a broad range of meanings. Versatile in that their nuance will differ depending on the scenario it is used. Here are some key phrases to be aware of:

すみません (Sumimasen)

This is generally used in a similar way to ‘excuse me’ in English. Yet, it can also be used in a number of situations to express a general apology or confession of guilt. It may even be used as part of an excuse for why something wasn’t completed. It is considered even more polite by adding「でした」(Deshita) to the end.

お疲れ様です (おつかれさまです or Otsukare sama desu)

This phrase is one of the many versatile phrases of Japanese, highly polite and respectful too. This phrase is too difficult to translate in English, basically because the custom of using it or exact expression does not exist. Of course, if we try it could be likened to ‘thank you for your hard work’ or ‘you must be tired’. But even these phrases don’t capture the full flavour of the expression. You can also use the past-tense version of the phrase by saying お疲れ様でした (Otsukare sama deshita).

Typically, the phrase is used when greeting people after work. Your boss will say it to you after you finish work. You can use it as a greeting at work functions for the first drink of the night, almost like ‘cheers’. It has multiple uses and with each situation, the nuance or meaning will vary.

よろしくお願いします (よろしくおねがいします or Yoroshiku onegai shimasu)

This expression can be used in many kinds of situations too. When used as a greeting it is similar to ‘Nice to meet you’ or ‘Pleased to meet you’. When used as a message for some else, it could be like ‘give (name) my regards’. You might use it as part of your new year greeting, and so it becomes ‘please treat me well’ or ‘please be kind to me’. If you use it at the end of a request it can even mean ‘I’ m counting on you’.

It is probably the most versatile phrase in the Japanese language and one of the hardest to translate at the same time.

やばい (Yabai)

This is a simple word that has evolved over time. The meaning has also changed as the more recent younger generation began to develop their own slang. Generally, it was historically used to describe a terrible, dangerous, risky or generally unwanted situation. However, these days it can be used in both a positive or negative light. When used in a positive light it can mean cool, amazing or a very desirable situation.

Casual forms of the word extend to the negative version, which is asked like a question やばくない? (Yabakunai?). There is the impolite or rude version やばくねえ? (Yabakunee?). Some people also shorten the phrase to something like やば! (Yaba!) or やべ! (Yabe!)

めんどくさい (Mendokusai)

This word means ‘a hassle’ or ‘troublesome’ and perhaps more versatile than its English equivalent. It can also be used to express laziness and reluctance to do something. Additionally, it can be used to describe an overly complex or convoluted process. Furthermore, it could be used as an adjective to describe people who are difficult to handle or deal with.

The shorter, casual and more impolite version of the word is めんどい (Mendoi).

ちょっと… (Chotto …)

Its regular meaning is ‘a little’ when used as an adjective attached to another word. However, when it is expressed as a single word, in a slightly begrudgingly way and with a little pause at the end, it can become a somewhat negative response. In these scenarios, it is used to express doubt, disappointment, anger, frustration or even sadness. It is usually said in response to a statement that could be considered ‘a little’ too rude, inappropriate or misleading.

So how do you feel about the list of words above, are there any other words you think are quite versatile? Do you think it’s hard to read the situation in Japanese? Feel free to post your comments below.

If you’re planning your travels in Japan, we invite you to join our rapidly expanding Travel in Japan Discussion Group via facebook.

You can also catch up on all our latest articles and photos via our Facebook and Instagram pages.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.