The Japanese are notoriously vague, and that vagueness, called aimai in Japanese, drives most Westerners up a wall. Most people know that you need to live in Japan a very long time before you have any idea what people really mean, because it is usually not what they say. In fact, once I was at a meeting and the Japanese members were talking about some decision to be made. I don’t even remember what it was, but I do remember that my American friend, who is fluent in Japanese like I am, heard something totally different than I did. I am still to this day not sure what happened at that meeting. It was surreal; I understood the words 100% but had no idea what they really meant.
Most textbooks will talk about how this vagueness affects daily life. For example, “What do you want to eat?” “Oh, anything is ok.” Of course, anything is not ok, as that person probably hates ramen or whatever, but hey, it is selfish to put that out there so they end up saying that anything is okay. The head tilt is my all-time most annoying habit of Japanese kids (and American kids born in Japan like mine). If you live here you know what I mean. You ask a question like, “What do you want to do?” And the head instantly tilts, usually to the right, followed by an expressionless face and no words. I broke my kids of the head tilt many years ago when I grabbed their heads, straightened them up, made them make eye contact, and forced them to use actual words.
Things in Japanese don’t mean what you think they mean. Every Japanese textbook will tell you that muzukashii means “difficult.” Well, to me, “difficult” means well, “difficult”—not impossible. But in Japanese if you ask someone if they can do something for you, and they proceed to the head tilt, followed by sucking air through the teeth, followed by, “Sore wa muzukashii…” well, what they mean is, that is impossible and will never happen in a million years. The only thing worse is to be told something is kibishii, or strict or severe. That is way worse than muzukashii, if that is possible.
There is nothing worse than taking your kid to the doctor and being told, “Hmm… I wonder what that bump is…” or “Hmm. I have never seen something like that before, but well, here is some medicine,” or “Let’s see, what should I do?” Japanese is full of terms like dou shiyou kana (what should I do?), naze kana (I wonder why…); nande yaroo? (I wonder why, part 2) When you are dealing with a health problem, the last thing you want is a doctor who is asking you what he should do, although it is probably a rhetorical question. Once Abby had a mysterious bump on her arm that was getting bigger and hurt. The dermatologist (pay attention to the bold) seriously said to us, “Hmm. I have never seen anything like that, but oh well, here is some medicine. You should take her to a specialist if it doesn’t get better.” We gave up and went to an arrogant doctor in our former town, who took one look at the lump and said, “Aww that is nothing.” I asked him how he knew that and he replied, “Experience.” I love that guy. There is not an ounce of vagueness in his body, and that was comforting to me. And like he said, it really was nothing.
I have found that this aimai affects even the Japanese worldview. If you ask most Japanese if they believe in an afterlife, or what will happen after they die, or if they believe in God, you are likely to hear answers like, “I sure hope there is a heaven,” “I want to believe that I will see my father in the next life,” or “”It would be good if there is a God.” There is zero assurance in Japanese religion of any kind of heavenly reward or comfort in the afterlife. They will never really know if they have been good enough to get into heaven if there is one, or if they can really meet their loved ones in the afterlife, if there is one. And while it may be hard for a Westerner to understand, that is fine with most of them. They are comfortable in their vagueness, and having anything too defined or too certain makes them feel uncomfortable in many ways. Perhaps that is one reason, until recently, many cancer patients were not told of their diseases. Perhaps they are more comfortable with not knowing.
So while this idea of aimai is very hard for foreigners to understand and very frustrating at times, it is one of the core concepts that forms both the Japanese worldview and their method of communicating with each other. So rather than criticize it, perhaps we should try to understand the good points of it. For example, many times they are vague because they don’t want to be selfish or to hurt someone’s feelings. Of course, if a crazy doctor is trying to give you medicine for a sickness he has never seen, you need to put your foot down, but I have found during my 16 years in Japan, that few things are entirely “good” or “bad,” There is good and bad in most concepts in most cultures, and I want to find all the good in aimai that I can.