How to Argue in Japanese

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 70 Comments |

In a recent scuffle over the controversial whaling issue, I managed to seriously offend a couple of Japanese friends. Political and ethical issues are volatile topics, but add to that cultural differences when arguing and you have a recipe for disaster. So here’s some insight to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

See the end of this post for a light-hearted video collaboration illustrating the points I explain here!


My friend Hikosaemon is a learned, friendly guy who has been living in Japan for around 10 years or so and pursuing the Japanese language and culture for much longer. He’s often remarked how my views remind him of himself at my age and he offers great insight into often misunderstood aspects of Japanese culture. He’s also quite a dab hand at the old debate, clearly and eloquently making points while acknowledging the position of the other person.

So for two pretty relaxed Westerners like us, frank discussion is quite a normal thing. Subtle humour flows, opposing viewpoints are exchanged and logical debate prevails. And I use ‘Westerner’ in a very loose sense – he is originally from New Zealand and me from the U.K. As close as our cultures are on the surface, they are still somewhat different underneath. But arguably not quite as different as when compared to East Asian countries, especially Japan.

I fear I will only be able to touch the tip of the iceberg in this post and risk running aground of the notorious problem of lumping countries into general categories – namely ‘East’ and ‘West’ – but please bear with me. This isn’t a studious, academic essay, but rather based on the observations and experiences of Hikosaemon and myself (and much more from the former!)

Guided Questioning

Let’s begin by thinking about a style of speech, in particular the dialectic method present in both Eastern and Western philosophy. The old Greek philosopher Socrates was famous for using this method and took to the streets of Athens with his unique form of persistent guided questioning. The method is a way to illuminate ideas and expose the cracks in the other person’s arguments, thus strengthening one’s own position.

Here’s a good example of classic Socrates in Eurythphro.

It’s widely regarded that this style of questioning – the Socratic Method – is one of the best ways to help people to learn the skill of critical thinking. Alas, used the wrong way it has the tendency to completely piss the other person off, especially when they aren’t familiar with the technique or are good at using it themselves.

Debating with Japanese People

Now this dialectic style of conversation is not unique to the West, although it does seem to me to be somewhat more ingrained. Or perhaps it would be better of me to say that the confrontational approach it inevitably brings with it is more tolerated in the West. One can go forth and express views, ask questions and raise counterpoints quite frankly. Of course, not everyone will be quite the placid philosopher when having a discussion, but in my experience most people can keep a level head even when faced with viewpoints directly opposed to their own. In short, there is less of a need to show empathy for the other person’s views and try to keep the discussion harmonious when arguing with a Westerner.

With Japanese people however, there is a perceived need to recognise and comment on the validity of the other person’s views almost as readily as expressing one’s own views. It’s simply not acceptable to listen to your opponent, consider their argument and then fire back a question exposing a weakness or let loose with a contradictory counterpoint. No. The moment the other person feels like you are dismissing their opinions, the conversation is pretty much over. This is the big lesson that I learned recently, despite having been warned in advance by Hikosaemon to be careful when having debates on controversial topics with Japanese people. I slipped right into the trap, went into debate mode and fired piercing questions that exposed logical inconsistencies in the other person’s views. Basically, I was an asshole.

Hikosaemon notes that constantly reinforcing your own viewpoint is seen as self-centred (自己中心) in Japan. For me, explaining my argument with absolute clarity has always been the utmost important thing to do. It has been drilled into me over 6 years of Philosophy education. Lack of clarity almost always makes for bad arguments. But in Japan, showing understanding and a sense of affirmation about the other side’s views is more important. What may seem like a painfully lacking argument to you is still the opinion of your opponent, and no matter how wrong you think they are (or how wrong they may actually be factually), there is a necessity to recognise the possibility that they may be correct. To not do so is akin to slapping the other person in the face.

Now you might wonder, as I did, what you can do when you reach an impasse. What if the other side states their argument, you state yours and both sides show understanding and appreciation for each other’s opinions. How then to dissolve the deadlock in the views? The answer, it seems, is that you cannot, at least not easily.

Hikosaemon again lends his expert advice. In Japan, once this sort of deadlock is reached, the nemawashi begins (根回し). Both sides look for a hint of common ground to begin upon and take it slowly, building up as far as possible. If after that no further progress can be made, both sides (if they are of typical Japanese thinking) will seek to compromise their own position in order to meet the opponent halfway out of politeness. This politeness was gained in the previous session when showing appreciation for one another’s views. The mutual pursuit of harmony, in other words.

Even so, this method tends to be short on results. Implacably opposed views come to a standstill when both sides avoid the confrontation as long as possible until the situation changes in a way that they can agree on it or they are forced to clash.

Controversial Topics are Not for Everyone

Another important consideration is that not everyone is ready for or even wants a debate. They may spout off controversial opinions blissfully or be so self-assured of their position that they honestly do not expect to be criticised for it. But this is the internet, and that great cloak of anonymity emboldens even the meekest of us. Those who wouldn’t dare to even bat an eyelid in ‘real life’ discussion let loose on platforms such as Twitter, Blogs or Forums. 2chan, that infamous collection of message boards only for people in Japan holds this as a golden rule. Everyone is anonymous.

A recent University graduate myself, I was quite rightly put in place when Hikosaemon explained to me that coming out of the grand oak doors of higher education armed with 4 years knowledge is like stepping out with boxing gloves on. You feel empowered, eager to try out all those years of book-learning on someone. You’re looking for a fight, in a way. Most people don’t wander around wearing boxing gloves and certainly aren’t always ready for a duel of the mind. There’s gardening to be done, taxes to pay and life to live. A prod or two with one’s boxing gloves is enough to irritate and alienate people who do not wish to have a discussion.

I’m quite likely guilty of making this mistake, even though I’ve always been naturally prone to devil’s advocate style antagonistic questioning even before entering University. Thus, the message here is to make doubly sure that your opponent is kitted up and wearing their gloves before you take a swing. Some people are naturally always ready, but many aren’t and you may even find yourself losing friends or co-workers through an offhanded political comment or ethical quip.

Be very, very careful when bringing up these sorts of controversial topics with Japanese people, especially if you are not quite sure about how to manoeuvre the conversation skilfully enough to avoid treading on the other person’s toes. It’s all too easy to think you are having a pleasant, intellectual discussion only for it to suddenly turn bad and leave deep-rooted grudges.

The Video

So below is the collaboration video Hikosaemon and I made with the help of a couple of other J-vloggers ElevenColors, Hanafubuki and GimmeaBoneDog.

Skit 1 shows two Westerners having an argument. Both really get stuck in and express their opinions, but neither is deeply offended by the other’s (crazy) views.

Skit 2 show a Japanese person and a Western person having an argument. The Westerner clearly refutes the Japanese person’s views and the conversation falls apart, most likely with the Japanese person never wanting to speak to the Western person again.

Skit 3 shows what a typical argument between two Japanese people would look like. Both show a painful level of consideration and appreciation of the other person’s views and basically end up not getting anywhere at all, still believing the same thing they started even though they verbally show warming to each other’s position.

I hope they illustrate the things I’ve been talking about in this post! Please do let me know if you have had any experiences like this yourself :).

Take care and happy (peaceful) debating!

(P.S. This post is also an entry into this month’s Japansoc Blog Matsuri hosted over at NihongoUp!)

Get the Gakuranman Newsletter!

Greetings, fellow Adventurer!

For a limited time, subscribe free and get:

Just enter your name and email below: