Japanese People and Their Ten-ten Culture


One of the nose pieces of my glasses fell off. I went in the store where I bought them from to get it fixed. I didn’t know what it is called in Japanese(I did not know how to call it in English either, I had to ask my sister about it). So, I went into the store and said “sumimasen, korewane…. In translation, I said: “excuse me, this is…” I pointed at the nose piece and dragged the last word of my sentence. “Hai, shosho omachi kudasai“, the clerk quickly responded. He understood exactly what I wanted, told me to wait a minute while he tried to fix it for it.

‘Ten’ means dot in Japanese. Therefore, ‘ten ten ten’ in Japanese just means ‘dot dot dot’ in English. I moved to Japan about three years ago. I signed up for a upper-beginner class at a Japanese language school when I first got here. I could speak Japanese somehow due to years of TV-watching, but I was far from being fluent. After taking a displacement test, the upper-beginner class is where they placed me. I was placed in the uppser-beginner class with a number of classmates. My classmates and I always hang out after school, eating, drinking and doing homework together. None of us spoke perfect Japanese and somehow I naturally became the one who sounded out everyone’s order when the waiter or waitress approached us.

Maybe it was because I was often the only Asian person sitting at the table. Maybe my classmates just had a whole lot of faith in me, although we were all at the same level when it came to the Japanese language. Maybe, my language ability is excellent – I acted like I knew what I was doing and somehow any Japanese waiter or waitress would magically understand what I was trying to say. Please read on to see how it done.

Japanese people have a culture of avoiding confrontation – a tendency to avoid conflict. I have known this for a very long time. I wrote an essay and made a presentation about this in my Asian Studies class. I don’t know I noticed this in the first place, but by know I have heard enough people talk about the lengthy meetings they experience at Japanese companies to be able to tell you that it is not just my own speculation. Japanese people in general don’t like making direct comments and it appears that many of them appreciate the beauty of vagueness very much. I was told that the reason behind this is that because Japan has a big population density, they do so that everyone can live in peace and run things more efficiently.

Let’s talk about the lengthy meetings first. I think Japanese meetings become extremely lengthy for two reasons: Japanese’s people’s detail-oriented personality and their tendency to avoid conflict. Japanese workers are in general very detail-oriented. In a western country, more expensive items are often of much better quality than items of much cheaper price. In Japan though, although high-priced products often do come with superb quality, even the low-priced products come with more-than-decent quality – Convenient store foods, 1000 yen lunch combos, Daiso are just a few examples. Japanese product designers would notice the littlest problem that a customer may have and design a product to solve it. A clerk in a Japanese department store is taught to bow(even when no one is looking) before he or she goes inside the employee-only space and respecfully back into the entrance. You can often find stools in the elevators for the elderly. And let’s not start with the butt-washing toiletry. As a customer, I love Japanese products. They are great; their quality are superb; but no one said anything about the processes of coming up with those amazing products being short.

Like I mentioned in the above, Japanese people don’t like confrontation. Especially at meetings, people are expected to express their opinions without pushing others’ buttons. What happens in a meeting is that people have to master a skill called ‘air-reading’. ‘Kuuki o yomu'(空気を読む) literally means ‘reading the air’ in English. In a more proper translation, it means to be sensitive to a given situation. This is probably not a foreign concept to other East Asians. Being a Chinese child, I grew up having being told to always read my parents’ faces in order not to get myself into unnecessary trouble, though I have not mastered it all at, not after 29 years. If reading the air is a unfamiliar concept to you and you live in Japan, I’d tell you to start learning. It is a survival skill that you need in Japan. If you come from outside of Japan and are somewhat familiar with this concept, you should know that the Japanese take it to the next level because being detail-oriented, they can’t help noticing your every little move. Again, I see the beauty in this concept, however, I can’t exactly say it is the most time-efficient way of making communication.

Back to what I was talking about initially. Because Japanese people are so well trained in their ability to read a situation, you don’t actually need verbalize your conversation entirely. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you want to ask a Japanese waiter for something and don’t know how to say it in Japanese, just first, excuse yourself with a sumimasen(because you are a polite person who deserves his or her attention); second, lift, point, or make whatever gesture to imply what you need(because he or she will be reading your every move); and third, begin your sentence and then gradually mute yourself before you get to the vocabs you don’t know how to say(because you don’t have the 5 seconds to waste on looking it up in the dictionary on your smartphone). Oh! Making a I-need-help facial expression helps, too. Your waiter is then likely going to respond by filling your sentence.

For example:
You: sumimasen……(lift your cup a little and make a I-need-help facial expression, don’t forget the mute).
Japanese Waiter: kohee wa irimasuka(would you like coffee)?

If your waiter didn’t guess it right, the first time:
You: Ah….(tilt your head, make a not-that-one facial expression, mute the end of your sentence).
You can continue with the above action while he tries to fill the end of your sentences. Move on to the next step when he gets it right.

Japanese Waiter: ocha desuka(tea)?
You: Hai, arigatougozaimasu(say yes and thank you with a smile).

For those who have an interest in learning more about simple non-verbal Japanese language or for those who do know know how to make a head tilt properly, the video below will give you a pretty good idea:

A little note here. I hope that I did not make myself sound sarcastic. My boyfriend often says that I do. I am not kidding about the ten-ten magic. It really works! Japanese people do this also, though they clearly don’t do so because they don’t know how to say something in Japanese. They mostly do it when they want to reject you. Maybe ‘no’ is considered too straightforward and confrontational in Japan, when a clerk wants to tell you “sorry, we can’t do that”, he or she would likely say “sorewa chotto…(with a mute at the end)” or “muzukashiidesune…”(also with a mute at the end). The first typical answer means “that is a little…” and the second one means “difficult…”. You will almost never hear the word, iie, the actual word for ‘no’ in Japanese. Travelers to Japan and dear fellow foreigners in Japan, I hope my article helps.


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