How to Argue in Japanese

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 72 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!)

72 comments on “How to Argue in Japanese
  1. Myles says:

    Where’s the video?

  2. Glen Pearce says:

    Did somebody say Japanese whaling issue? ^_^ a funny thought I had back in 1997. ^_^

  3. Paura says:

    As a professor once put it to me, the primary difference in arguing between two American people and to Japanese people is the Americans will say, “No, your argument is 100% wrong, here is why.” while the Japanese will say, “Well, your argument is 10% right, but let me tell you about this other 90% I have found to be true.” :)

  4. elisabel says:

    Yes, I think they did, at least with the initial building of just the affirmative constructive speech. They realize more quickly that some of the things they write don't make sense. For example, one simple practice resolution was “it's better to travel abroad than domestically.” Several students wrote, “if we travel abroad, we can make many friends.” I said to them, “Can you not make friends in Japan?” That was enough to get them to realize that they need to think about what they write to create reasons that make sense. They were able to say, “Oh, we need to say, 'we can make friends from other countries,' otherwise it's weird.” It's a small step towards understanding debate, but one I'm glad they made.

    • Derek Blais says:

      I teach at a junior high school in a small, wealthy village. The kids at this school get opportunities that other publicly educated kids in Japan cannot get. We have a debate event once a year where an outside teacher (debate specialist?) does a debate lesson which is followed by an actual debate (done by students). It seems that every year the students fail to come up with good, logical arguments. As Hiko said, it’s hard to think critically when the social forces of Japan have been discouraging such things to maintain harmony for 300 years.

      I forgot to mention, the debate is taught and done in Japanese.

  5. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks for your detailed comment elisabel. Always nice to hear from people working in the field. Did your Japanese students show any improvement on their debate technique or in their logic once you switched over to Japanese?

    Good point about the social expectations on how to speak as well. I reckon you're right that men and women can get away saying certain things and speaking a certain way that would be unacceptable for the other sex.

  6. elisabel says:

    The school I work at has an English Course, and Debate is actually part of its curriculum. I work at a low level school, which makes teaching debate that much more of a struggle.

    For one, most of the kids simply do not have logic. At all. It's just not there. To top if off, the textbook is entirely in English, and their English ability is low. The kids don't really understand the point of anything beyond the affirmative constructive speech. Last year we explained things over and over, in English and in Japanese, and couldn't get much out of the kids. (Though to be fair last year's ichinensei were an extraordinarily lazy bunch.) At the end of the year I told the JTE in charge of debate, “I think they should debate in Japanese first,” and was told that “It's very hard for us Japanese to express our opinions in Japanese. I can't do it even though I can do it in English.” I was pretty exasperated by this response because our kids' English isn't sufficient to say what they ate for lunch in a complete sentence, much less begin to express anyone's opinion; plus they write all their work in Japanese first anyway. I was honestly too flabbergasted to do anything other than say “oh.” Thankfully, the JTE seems to have had a change of heart; so far she's had the kids do at least very basic drills in Japanese to make sure they understand the point of each section of a debate.

    I think I've ticked some of the JTEs off because I do have a problem with being very direct and honest. I mean, all of the long conversations I've had with JTEs are in English, and they're usually leading the conversation, but since I tend to answer questions directly such chats are like traps for me. I need to learn how to put the brakes on my mouth! Luckily most of the JTEs at my school speak very good English, several studied abroad at least briefly, so when things have been shaky it never lasts more than a couple of days; I think they understand that I'm not trying to be a jerk.

    I'm also noticing more and more how English between people who aren't super close friends tends to be indirect. I say things very directly and it bothers people. I don't insult them, I just say the bare facts. For example, some JETs were complaining that they were never told something or other, and I said, “that information is actually in the General Information Handbook.” They looked at me like I was a jerk. Maybe if I had said, “Oh! I wasn't told that either, I had to go looking in the GIH to find out!” it would have been okay. Also, another commenter noted that men are more likely to use the Socratic Method, and I think it's spot on and would add that it rubs many people the wrong way when women speak that way. There's still a ton of double standards in Western society.

  7. Hi,

    I liked this article, and it reminds so much when I have been to Japan;).This video is funny and well done and clearly show us the different ways to argue. I think that if I always liked so much this country is because I guess in some way I feel more comfortable with the Japanese way better than the westerner. My experience in Japan is very limited compare to you of course(I went there “just” 4 time as a tourist which is so different than working there)), but don't you feel that in Japan the communication is more non verbal(with eye, way of moving,smiling…), very subtle, and that you can get what the other think or feel just by looking at his/her reaction without a world coming out of his/her mouth? (and then when you get it the emotion is even stronger than with words) .In western world we are probably more bla bla people, more direct and even sometimes with some acting performance:). Nevertheless at the end I wonder that if it's not after all easier to get what a Japanese person feel or think(and stronger) than a westerner, simply because there is less embellishment in the conversation that can kill the real meaning of something(yes we are good comedians:). Well I am not saying that one is better than an other,but at the end I believe that it's just a question of culture understanding, and once you get it, things are much easier. Moreover each of us react differently on a certain situation.

    But, I got an other question. With my past experiences I often had this feeling that I was making the effort to understand the Japanese culture and so to do my possible not to be in harmony with the people.I had some Japanese Gf, an well the feeling I had is that this was a one way effort. So 1/ I was unlucky, 2/ they were actually trying to understand my culture bit it was so subtle and hidden that I did not see it or feel it, or 3/I was simply a selfish ignorant bastard;)…I still ask myself this question today, as I am not sure to have the answer.Strangely even if I was frustrated sometimes, I never felt this attraction with any other culture… Related to your experience what is your feeling on that?(sorry if you think it's too personal, you can choose not to answer;)

    I have to apologize for writing so much bla bla,(and with i ma sure many English mistakes) but after all I am a westerner..!!:)

    Anyway I like your blog, it's very instructive on many different subjects.Keep going on



  8. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks or your comment. I'm not sure whether you are talking half in jest, but I'll assume you're being serious…

    1) Is a huge stereotype and not true. I'm sorry, but views like this are what increase the divide between cultures.

    2) Every Japanese person is an individual living within the broader community, much like any other society. Certain levels of social protocol are expected and it is true that, very generally, group consensus and harmony takes precedence over individual opinions here in Japan.

  9. anonymous says:

    There are two other rules to remember:

    1) As a gaijin you and your opinions are at best an object of initial curiosity … but after that you are wrong. Do not confuse this initial curiosity with real “like” or actual value of you and your opinions.

    2) All Japanese think the same about everything … even when they patently obviously do not … because they are told they do. Never challenge this assumption.

  10. Structure says:

    This is good information – things that I realized in my business is that when facts are involved it is a bit easier to avoid nemawashi and correct the person. Also, feigning stupidity or feigning a joke works very well also but you have to be well aware of your current standing with the person whom you are speaking with before you decide which method to use.

    When talking to a good friend you can usually directly call them out on something as long as you are both lighthearted about the subject at hand.

    On the contrary to this post, though, there are some seriously direct and blunt Japanese people in business but they are usually the more senior people at a company.

    As one of the posters below explained, Japanese meetings and projects can go awry due to nemawashi. More than that, the projects often go nowhere after a 2 hour meeting turns into a nemawashi complaint session. In these cases I sometimes wonder if it would be best to just leverage my English-speaking roots and illuminate the points that everyone is avoiding… but I have quite a few superiors above me and have not had the courage to try to interject in that way during a meeting.

    Also, if anyone knows how to get a point across when you know an answer but just cannot explain it due to lack of information then I would be happy to be enlightened. A lot of times someone will simply keep pressing with questions even if you've given them the correct answer already but cannot explain how you arrived at it and I have to drop the topic.

  11. Highly insightful! I was going to comment on Socratic method but I see it has been discussed at great length below, so instead I will just say great work that and I wish more visitors to Japan could see some of your articles (and similar articles/videos) that have a lot of valuable insight on cultural exchange and interaction here in Japan.

  12. somnyad says:

    It takes at least nine months to realize that the smiles on the clerk's face is not genuine, another three years to realize that you know nothing at all, and another year to realize that you actually have very, very few friends. At least, that was the situation for me. Most women don't last more than one year. The social pressure is amazing, and the inability to make real friends is oppressing. In my company, out of 100 permantent residents, 95 are men and 5 are women. I think this has more to do with women not being able to deal with the cold…

    • Fabrizio says:

      I TOTALLY agree with you.
      I’ve been living in Tokyo for almost 5 years now and it’s getting frustrating as hell.
      To be honest, I got fed up with it.
      Besides the fact that it’s really hard to bond with almost anyone here (and I speak japanese very well), when you start debating with a japanese person…it’s like a waste of time.
      Some even gaze at you thinking “he’s not japanese…he’d never understand what I’m talking about but let’s smile to him anyway”.
      When I walk inside a shop (any kind of) I feel like there’s this “hateful” energy all around me.
      I don’t want to start talking about women because I’m sure we could go on forever.
      It’s funny when you say the simplest thing like “yesterday I ate sushi in Hiroo” and they’d go like “eeeeeeee hontoooo?! sugoooi!” while clapping their hands.
      Well I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
      I believe there’s also a LOT of ignorance here. I have met people thinking that the sun was a planet and that New Zealand was in Italy (since I’m italian).
      Or phrases like “do you have street lights in Italy?”, “is english the main language in italy?” and so on.
      This is pure madness.
      I have loved this city but I believe that for us western people it’s too alienating and stressful.
      Where do you live in Jap?
      Follow my blog and you’ll have some nice laughs :)


      Fabrizio –

  13. somnyad says:

    Wow, the video is great, and it led me to your blog. Thank you so much for putting out your feelings clearly. I am just beginning to learn how to deal with the culture I'll probably have to live in for the rest of my life. I'm on my sixth year in Japan, and married to a Japanese man, and just last year started to even realize that this was a huge issue in my life. 変わるのは不可能かもしれないけど。。。It is so hard to live here, I feel like I always have to beware of stepping on anyone's feet. And there is no way to make deep friendships when everyone is worrying about everybody else's feelings. No matter how much I say, “It's OK, you can tell me how you feel”, the Japanese tendency is to look at me as though I am an alien being who must be watched out for after the first time I say a negative remark. This means that in my tiny town of 1000, and an hour away from any other town, I have almost no friends, and work is a bit stressful all the time. The argument between the two Japanese made me realize that if I were Japanese, I would probably be one of the very abundant hikikomori. What a pain in the rear. I keep thinking I just want to go back to where people actually show their feelings and communicate, but I have this feeling that if I went back, I would miss the peace and quiet of a false harmony… In the US, I was loved as a caring, loving person, appreciated for my frank opinions and helpfulness when my friends needed me, and respected for my artistic and spiritual nature. Not that I really have a choice on moving back at this point. I had no idea that it would be this hard to make real friends, and lead a relaxed daily life at work. I am wondering how I can learn how to deal with life in Japan without going nuts.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Great post! Thank you.

  15. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks for your comment takataka! Interesting observations from your time in Japan and America. I haven't yet had a lot of experience in Japanese (or British) business environments yet, but I have heard similar stories to yours about the differences in work ethic. I think you're absolutely right that a balance should be struck to allow plentiful time for individual critical thinking and debate and also teambuilding with a dose of nemawashi. I imagine implementing both these strategies would be tricky, but I'm motivated to give it a try in the future and research it more :).

    Debate seminars would be a good idea. I did actually take a class with mostly Japanese students while studying abroad at Akita International University where we had our teacher Soho Machida (町田 宗鳳 lecture us on Religion and Bio-ethics and then divide us up into two sides to practice proper debating techniques. Needless to say, the Japanese students were significantly weaker at expressing their opinions in this sort of situation, especially given that the debates were in English. They did show progress as the course went on though, suggesting it is a skill that can be taught and improved upon!

  16. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks for the comment! I agree that the antagonistic style in the first skit is not a good way to talk to strangers anywhere really. Some people might have enough self-confidence and humour to roll with it, but you are right that it is best reserved to conversations between good friends. But having said that, even people you may feel close to in Japan may not be happy with this style of discussion, whereas an equivalent Western friend may be. As you said in your last paragraph though, there are rare times when you can develop a level of closeness with a Japanese person enough to let loose. Just be sure to let them start that sort of conversation, or break it in very slowly :).

  17. Gakuranman says:

    Good point. Throwing the other guy a bone with a counterpoint that is seemingly supported by his own arguments is a great way to try and open up the conversation!

  18. hikaruhana says:

    Gakuranman, Hikosaemon,

    Thank you for this entertaining look at the differences in arguing styles between the Japanese and those of us who are from Western countries. I found it funny and spot on. Thinking back on my own experience, I would say that I rarely use this type of debate style (I'll call it the “What is wrong with you?” style for lack of a better term) but I recognized it right away. I only use it with close, close friends. In that situation there are no barriers of politeness getting in the way of our debate and our bond is close enough to weather disagreements. Knowing each other as well as we do, each of us knows the other is coming from a place of good intentions. That way the gloves can come off and it's all good, spirited fun. My best friend, an American like myself who I met as an ALT on JET over ten years ago now, has carte blanche to launch those grenades when we get into a debate because of the closeness of our relationship and I give as good as I get. It can be pretty funny but could appear rude to someone looking in from the outside.

    I would venture that this is a style of debate more commonly used by men than by women in the West. I've seen it mostly used by men rather than women, particularly younger men, and even in the States I have seen that style of debate end up seriously offending people. We're more likely than Japanese to pipe up when we're upset about something like that, however, so there's more of an opportunity for the emerging conflict to be aired out and resolved before it leads to severing of relationships.

    I had an opposite encounter once during my time in Japan. I got into spirited debates with a close Japanese friend on a regular basis with whom I had that rare level of openness. There was one time, however, he casually said “That was stupid of you!” and it really shocked me because I was working within the Japanese context and totally didn't see it coming. Had it come from a Westerner I don't think it would have zinged me the way it did but it took me a minute to adjust and realize that he was doing just what I do, assessing the comfort level of everyone involved and making a zesty but not mean-spirited observation. No harm came of it. Threw me for a loop, though, and I still remember it years later. Ah, the mine fields of human communication.

    Anyway, thanks again for the clip. Quite inspired!

  19. Todd Cooper says:

    This clip and the following comments mark a great divide between those who truly live in Japan, and those who are here are guests or aspire to visit from afar.

  20. takataka says:

    Excellent observation.

    I’m a Japanese, educated in Japan and had worked over 10 years for Japanese companies. Last 7 years, I’ve been in the United States.

    “Nemawashi” is one of the best ways to involve particular persons into a project with strong motivation, good teamwork and responsibility. Alas, used the wrong way it has the tendency to degrade its original idea, especially when the project size is big and you have to involve many sectors. On the other hand, because “nemawashi” is the way to avoid critical thinking, so the project approved through “nemawashi” often includes many defects and the project team does not figure out potential risks, and no effective contingency plan.

    Some foreign persons notice that Japanese company’s staffing level is excellent, but management is incapable. I would like to say that one of the biggest reasons is “nemawashi” without debate skill.

    On the other hand, I had some deals with American companies. Every time, I felt that managements looked good, they could make a decision quickly and logically, well analyze potential risks and had relatively good contingency plan. But staffing level was poor in terms of teamwork, responsibility or motivation, so they often hopelessly repeated to fail delivery.

    Probably, the best way would be seen by integrating the Socrates Method and “namawashi” method.

    By the way, regarding debate, how about starting “Debate Seminar” at universities or city hall? These days, many Japanese people think that debate sounds something important. But, as you mentioned, they don’t know what it is because schools never teach it. So, I think potential needs exist. You have knowledge and skill. You are now under Jet-Program, aren’t you? If so, you can propose your advisors and get some support. “Real British Debate Seminar” must be a great output from Jet-Program. And you can enjoy debate about controversial topics there.
    Killing two birds with one stone.


  21. nakamayu says:

    Great Video! 思わず笑っちゃった^^日本人の特徴をよくつかんでるね!
    今回はWesterner とJapanese の比較だったけど、他の国の特徴とかすごく興味があります。例えば中国人と日本人の大きな違いがあるのかな?とか。

  22. shockerz says:

    Now, I learn a tat more about the Japanese and how they roll while having a debate over some topic that may create conflict. I think this also apply to Chinese in Malaysia from where I live they too try to find common ground or if unable they'll just leave. It's hard to really grab a hold of them just to sit down & have a logical and reasonable debate or discussion with them. Maybe that's why I don't hang well with the Chinese fellows although I'm one.

    This may due to my western thinking but at times I try my best to just go along. It never really does as my other side of me keep coming out to state their fact, belief or view are unreasonable with skew view of the subject at hand.

    Thanks for the great article and at least I learn something today that I can apply in my life or maybe some day in Japan as well.

  23. Simon Cozens says:

    Thanks for the great examples and the video – this is spot on! I tend to explain the same thing as “yes-disagreeing”. Someone (I think it's probably Chie Nakane) said that discussion and debate amongst Japanese, particularly between junior and senior, is basically vigorous agreement, but with the occasional counterpoint thrown in there as though it supported the other guy's argument – which gives him a handle for compromising. Straight-out contradiction is a big no-no.

    “Yes, I see what you mean, dog-fighting is an important cultural activity. It's such a shame that some people think that it's cruel and barbaric.”

    There's always a way to tell the other guy he's wrong by telling him how correct he is.

  24. Gakuranman says:

    Apparently some thought it was a monkey…

  25. Lance says:

    I'll need to favorite this video. It was a useful video to learn from.

    Also, was that really a dog or a cat? :)

  26. hikosaemon says:

    Sorry for the long delay commenting here. First up – epic post. Wow. Much longer and better thought out than my idea for a picture of a monkey.

    Here are my thoughts as I read your post:

    I'm no expert on this, but while Socratic Method may be useful for critical thinking, I think you will find it generally stinks for consensus building. I think it is interesting that you insightfully trace the origins and bases of “western” critical thought and discussion, but don't really look at the equivalent cultural origins of the aversion many Japanese have to conflict and debate.

    Again, I'm far from an expert on Shogunate social history, but whenever you read any treatise regarding the origins of Japan's extremely low rates of litigation, many Japanese commentators trace the trend toward favoring conciliation and mediation back to Tokugawa Ieyasu who instituted draconian social controls in Japan to unify and stabilize the country. He did everything from restricting freedom of movement, to banning many weapons, even to the growing of facial hair. His solution to resolving civil disputes and ensuring community based social order was simple – quite often when parties were unable to resolve a dispute and required the intervention of a judge, or where villages were unable to restrain the illegal conduct of one of their citizens, regardless of any legal decision made, everyone involved was often forced to commit ritual suicide. Hence, everyone had significant incentives to avoid any appearance of any kind of significant dispute, or to allow significant disputes to reach any kind of impasse. One party being too stubborn can result in both parties ending up catching it in the neck.

    Here's an article mentioning it:

    I recall Taiichi Sakaiya and others mentioning this practice as well. What it translates into is that when you get a lawyer in the UK or the US, you are hiring a boxer to argue your case zealously, beat the other guy and win for you. In Japan, non-transactional lawyers are first and foremost mediators and negotiators. To actually get a court decision, even in your favor, is considered shameful by many Japanese corporations.

    Now, not everyone is a corporation, lawsuits and disputes happen in Japan, and they are increasing. All this doesn't mean that Japanese necessarily have a biological fear of arguments for some genetic memory of great great great great granddad who had to cut open his abdomen in a dispute over a property boundary with his neighbour, but it reflects a deeply rooted set of values that have permeated Japanese society through law, administration, religion, and other forms of social control for 400 years now. It sets people up with fundamentally different viewpoints when it comes to disagreements, and I think goes a long way to explain the behaviour of Japanese in disputes or tight negotiations that I know westerners can find baffling.

    I think things that Japanese do that confuse westerners in arguments are:
    – Japanese say “yes” a lot. It means I hear you and I understand you, but they say it and react a lot like they are saying “I AGREE with you”. This isn't accidental – the acknowledgements are intended to keep things harmonious, but it can be baffling for someone to think the other person has agreed with them all through a meeting, and then get an email the next day with a counter-proposal proposing something different, or rejecting some of the earlier proposals made.
    – Many Japanese will shut down discussions or walk away as soon as you make some kind of strong or contradictory assertion. When some passive aggression is added, they might throw in a “it's pointless going any further talking about this” or “you obviously don't know enough about this” as they go, and it can be completely exasperating, because they usually won't spell out to you where they think you are wrong or why, or with any idea of what went wrong. I think this can be culturally traced back to the fear of being trapped in an intractable argument, or stuck in an argument with someone who clearly doesn't want to compromise. In the old days, that would mean both your necks. It seems that somewhere along the line, the culture adopted an approach of not getting involved in any trouble. They will treat you like they would someone they think is from a gang – so long as you have nothing to do with them, nothing bad will happen. It is like this that people wil often not talk to you any more (because they think you are unreasonable) although they will also never tell you this.
    – You'll often hear about how ready Japanese are to settle claims even when they know they can win. Scamsters and “atariya” in Japan make a living off this trait. Japanese have it so drummed into them that going to the police or using the courts in a dispute is more trouble than it is worth that they will willingly pay cash just to “avoid” disputes that they see them selves as being to blame for, for allowing themselves to get involved. This happens a lot in business as well. Japanese companies are well known worldwide for overpaying with cash in corporate acquisitions, and generously settling court disputes. Japanese companies (and people) hoard huge reserves of cash partly for this purpose – it provides an instant means of avoiding conflict.

    It goes on and on. These are all broad generalizations, but they underpin how things here are working in fundamentally different ways, and people think in ways completely detached from ideas of “socratic method” and so on when they get into arguments about dogs and monkeys.

    Personally, while I see many positives of this mindset, and recognize that dealing with people that think this way has made me more like this as well, and changed me in many positive ways, truth be told, I also like to have a good debate for fun every now and then, and miss often not being able to do that when I want to (it is fine with friends where you have an understanding that it's cool, and the topic is okay). I think it is fair to say that the education system and government fosters this kind of passive conciliatory mindset and suppresses genuine critical thinking among the populace, and this is why Japanese are so apathetic about things like politics, which I think is a real problem.

    Still, on a small island of 120 million people, you've gotta learn to get along.


  27. Billy says:

    This was very well written.

  28. RichardRNewton says:

    Your site to my blogroll later this evening! Really, it's a great and interesting and provocative site. Thanks!


  29. Gakuranman says:

    Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts in the future! Nice site by the way :).

  30. RichardRNewton says:

    Dear Gakuranman,

    I hope I get the door prize! Just giving you a hard time. Wonderful piece. Thank you. Really. If I may . . . I'm over at, and But I rarely-to-never do this kind of wonderful analysis and spur so much discussion. I'll be visiting here often.


  31. Gakuranman says:

    Good to hear from someone else with a bit of a Philosophy background :) I've definitely learnt that attacking what one deems to be the other person's irrational belief structure is not a good way of debating in Japan.

    I was intrigued by your comment about clashes with your (Japanese?) husband. The そうだね statement is one heavily used in Japanese in order to maintain the peace and show empathy towards the other person. Although it does literally imply agreement (translating to: Yes, you're right), it doesn't always mean two people are agreeing. Very often it is used merely as a filler to show you are listening or understanding the other person (the same way Japanese people nod when they are listening, but which doesn't mean they agree with what you saying).

    I suppose you can appreciate where your husband is coming from though – as you said yourself, challenging the other person on every little point all the time makes for an everlasting battle. Sometimes it is easier just to agree and pick the important battles and I suppose that for many Japanese people, this harmony is what makes a couple husband-wife relationship. Personally though, I tend to agree with you on wanting to bring a deeper level of understanding and communication to the relationship by talking differences out in depth. This is very likely due to my upbringing in the U.K, but I dislike agreeing just for the sake of harmony, especially when it involves people very close. As a very loose statement, it seems to me that many problems in relationships could be solved with some in-depth and calm heart-to-heart discussion. But I'm way out of my depth here – I would love to hear from some married international couples on what they feel is the best way to resolve differences! :)

  32. Gakuranman says:

    Cheers for your thoughts Franzi :) Good point about people from Kansai being slightly different to people from other parts of Japan, particularly in the 'standard' areas like Tokyo. I too have generally felt that people from Kansai are able to speak their mind more directly, although this does vary from person to person.

  33. Gakuranman says:

    Thanks Loco. Go forth and bring peaceful debate into your life ;)

  34. Gakuranman says:

    Haha, somebody noticed ;), I was searching for a good Japanese-style royalty-free image for use in the title image of this post, but couldn:t find a better one. But since Bodhidharma was the founder of Zen Buddhism for which Japanese is well known, I figured it would be good enough :)

  35. Locohama says:

    Wow! Exceptional article and the video is off the charts. I don't know much about Socrates and the art of debate. i just go on gut which fails me as often as it aids me. Your article has actually encouraged me to look into it. Not that my Japanese is strong enough to actually get into a debate in nihongo, but simply for use in debate with other English speakers.
    Well done Michael!

  36. RichardRNewton says:

    Remember: DARUMA-san was Indian, not Japanese. Which is a whole different kettle of fish: Thus, while tuna (over)harvesting would be an issue, whaling would not. I just suck a lot of wind and say “That would be difficult” and “I understand,” right back.

  37. RichardRNewton says:

    Remember: Daruma-san was Indian, not Japanese. Which is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. Which, of course, would involve tuna harvesting, but not whales.

  38. That was interesting. I also vaguely have Socrates and my A-Level philosophy swirling in my head as justification for why I debate / discuss / whatever the way I do, and the problems I also encounter in Japan. These are my thoughts.
    The non-confrontational style that I have most acutely experienced in Japan has taught me something really valuable. Separating the need to be right from the need to fix the problem. There are in fact a number of different ways to approach a problem that side step attacking the person's personal irrational belief structure (And after all, we are all guilty of irrational belief structures to some degree or another). It is almost always better to respect the person and deal with the problem (such as a whaling problem). Or to coin a euphemism, choose your battles. With most of my friends in Japan I prefer to keep a sheen of harmony and strengthen relationships minus the drama and debate. I think speaking in Japanese facilitates this much better than trying to speak in English, the nature of the language seems to pacify my approach to speaking… but maybe that is just my impression.
    One thing this does not work with is my other half. We have classic Socrates-Confucius clashes all the time and he frequently says something like, why can't you just say 'sou da ne' (instead of picking holes in his logic I guess). For me it is personally really important to search a serious issue with reasoning and information, not perception and belief…. even if those ideals cannot be achieved, that is the basis of my culture and with the person closest to me I long for someone who can understand my cultural background as well. We speak in Japanese so usually he has the upper hand, but it would be nice if it wasn't always me doing the cultural understanding….

    • somnyad says:

      Hello onafloatingbridge, I am also married to a Japanese man. We had huge fights for about a year, and recently I think we have just given up fighting because it was so taxing.
      One thing that both of us have worked on is
      1. I recognise what he has said. I am sure that we have had similar discussions to yours. One of them already mentioned. What is important to him is that I tell him “so what you believe is …” as my initial response. And that subsequently, I don’t get angry, but state my point.
      3. He doesn’t tell me I’m wrong, he tells me he doesn’t agree.
      4. I don’t get angry when he doesn’t do something that would be expected of him in my culture.
      Instead, I ask him to do it nicely and/or playfully, and give him a time frame, like 15 minutes.
      There are other things, but I don’t remeber them at the moment. I don’t know how long you’ve been married, but my recommendation is to stick to your guns about things that matter in your living situation, because if not you will be ultimately unhappy, like so many other foreign wives, and Japanese wives. If you stand up for yourself in the present, he might ultimately understand how important certain things are to you, what you really need, and what makes you happy. Be sure to express these things, because most Japanese men are not used to having women in the house who share household responsibilities or have any sort of autonomy. I am now very happy with my husband, and after a year and a half of constant fighting, have now had relative peace for about five months. We have gotten used to eachother. I love him so much. He is adorable. We just had to get past our differences.

  39. Franzi says:

    Very insightful article and great video! I clearly prefer the last kind of discussion in this case ^^
    And I noticed something else in this particular example: Japanese love to compare and evaluate things. They can talk on for hours about the features of something and just like in your dog-cat example compare it to other things without really deciding what it IS in the end. You showed this very well.
    Actually, I like the Japanese way of discussing because I think that in most cases there is not a clear answer. Of course, facts should stay facts and at least the Japanese I spoke to accept that and are able to say just “no” to their opponent, which might be due to the fact they were from Kansai.

  40. Gakuranman says:

    JapanInterCultural has some good stuff on their blog!

  41. AlexandreC says:

    Great article; very informative. Does anyone know of other similar articles on that topic? Such cultural differences are hard to decipher and articles like yours are very valuable!

  42. Gakuranman says:

    Interesting points! Thanks for commenting :). The part about people who deem themselves to have established knowledge is particularly intriguing. I have a feeling I've seen this in action once or twice where, as you say, the person almost takes it personally that you would dare to raise a question against what they have said. I have heard some Doctors and other high-ranking people sometimes act like this, but I can't recall any good examples right now myself. Anybody else out there have any?

  43. Gakuranman says:

    Haha. The topic is very delicate right now, isn't it :p. Unfortunately I'm not going to go into any more detail about that here, but I will be more careful with whom I raise controversial topics with in the future.

  44. reesan says:

    Great article and cool vid. Interested to know more about the “whaling debate” that led you to decide to document the cultural debating differences. I just have to say the word “whale” in a sentence, that could be totally unrelated to “whaling”, to my missus (Japanese) and am either instantly isolated (Japanese way) or up against the ropes trying to block a barrage of punches (she schooled in US). :-)

  45. ryanlayman says:

    Oh, right. I forgot another important point about the ALT teachers. Unfortunately, the way power structure is often distributed, ALTs rarely get much say in how the class is structured for a number of reasons. The first is that ALTs are grade school teachers often directed by their Japanese partners. Also, the curriculum is heavily influenced by the Ministry of Education, and there is sadly little on the books for that kind of thing, since the academic culture is so exam heavy (A year ago a place where I worked had a quiz or test every single class from the second class all the way to the final).

    That's actually one of the reasons I started blogging. I wanted a means to talk about a new way of doing everything.

  46. ryanlayman says:

    In my experience, I`ve noticed a couple of situations where Japanese will let fly. Unfortunately, one of them is generally when they feel they`ve been pushed to the edge, so we`ll have to rule that one as an unacceptable “normal” occurrence. In this, case, I've noticed double-negative gets employed fairly frequently.

    Japanese who have done higher ed in other countries or who have lived in other countries during their formative years are also more likely to be aware that different rules apply with different people (being in a sense, not just bilingual, but bicultural). Once again, rare, and not in common occurence.

    The other issue is one where the Japanese person believes that they have clear and established domain knowledge. Reporters, researchers, teachers, executives, etc. do this because it`s considered a part of their job. The issue here, of course, is that it`s one-directional. I thankfully work in a private university department that's pretty equal in population distribution between Japanese and non-Japanese, so I get to witness people of both groups switch cultural roles quite frequenly.

    I`m interested in seeing what happens when Japanese make the full switch to the Net 2.0 generation in response to economic pressures. If everybody walks away with some authority, then perhaps they`ll start speaking with it, too.

  47. Gakuranman says:

    Don't worry about it too much. It's part of the learning process to make mistakes, although it would be better if you can avoid some of the disasters I've had like in this case ;)

  48. Gakuranman says:

    That's some great advice Orchid! I have nothing at all to add. Wonderful examples :)

  49. Crowbeak says:

    Thank you — all three of you, though Hikosaemon and the other fellow may not see this. Please excuse me while I go facepalm over my poorly conducted conversations during my time spent in Japan.

  50. orchid64 says:

    I think a big part of what tends to make it “work” and not confrontational is phrasing, tone, and expression. The pacing is also very important. The slower the pace, the less confrontational it feels as the other person thinks you're both thinking it through. It's also important to let them fully express themselves at whatever length they want without interruption so you show you are paying attention. And it's important to acknowledge the validity of their ideas. Japanese people have not seen a lot of support or encouragement in their lives for expressing themselves, so they need more than the average Westerner to reward them for their efforts.

    For instance, in a discussion of the death penalty, which in my experience the vast majority of Japanese people support and I personally do not, I won't say, “don't you think killing is wrong?” and then ask how the state's killing people can be “right” if killing is wrong (because they will all say killing is wrong). Instead of doing that, I'll ask if they endorse an “eye for an eye” thinking. This question actually gives them a chance to further support their viewpoint initially. Once they answer that, I tend to extrapolate from their replies by asking questions about other situations where we're looking at equivalent responses for various offenses. They start to see that equivalence doesn't always apply or mean justice is done (like a rapist shouldn't be raped as punishment). This sort of process opens their eyes to the path that supports their thinking rather than facing the main issue head on. In the end, when it comes to the question of the death penalty, I usually conclude with, “would you be willing to pull the lever/push the button/give the order,” to hang someone who is publicly executed since you believe the punishment is just. When they say, “no”, I'll ask if they'd do it if their loved one was the victim of the crime, and they still say “no.” That question is about as confrontational as I get (and comes at the end of a long process). No one is willing to be the executor, but they all support the execution. This tends to make them reconsider the validity of their position. If they personally won't do it, they realize that on some level they think it's not really the right thing to do and that's why they are unwilling to do it.

    If I'm asked directly what I think, I answer honestly. Unsurprisingly, I'm rarely asked what I think. Perhaps the questioning leads them to understanding what I believe, but most of the time, I think they don't want to “risk” conflicting opinions.

    As for how I know they understand, they usually spontaneously say what I'm thinking at some point. You see a light go on over their heads in their expressions and they say, “ah…(their version of my point).” It's always a very overt situation such that I know they “get it.” They may not agree necessarily, or “come over to my side”, but at least another viewpoint has been understood and I think that's the best you can hope for in any discussion of this sort.

  51. Gakuranman says:

    Excellent point. I was wondering too when writing the article about mixing the use of the words 'argument', 'debate' and 'discussion'. I tend to lump discussion and debate together most of the time, because I (perhaps naively) assume that the other person is capable of exchanging opposing opinions in a calm manner.

    Actually, the approach you are describing here is very similar to the dialectic method Socrates used. It wasn't clear from your explanation whether you ask your friends questions when you discuss with them or if you talk about controversial topics, but assuming you do ask questions frequently to lead the other person to your conclusion, you are doing an excellent job of using the Socratic Method :). Doing this in a way that does not anatagonise the other person is especially tricky (Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth with his methods and killed for it!), so overall I reckon you must be hitting just the right spots.

    I suppose whether or not this method is judged confrontational or not will depend on the skill of the speaker and the respective listener. Some people will kick up a fuss over anything that even remotes suggests contrary to their own opinions and others will have a much stronger threshold to put up with more obvious and direct contradictions. Essentially you really are 'confronting' the other person with possible viewpoints and feeding them morsels of thought to lead them on towards your way of thinking – you are just doing it in a very subtle and skillful way. 'Confrontational' as we tend to use it though would be giving much more direct and obviously opposing viewpoints, which you are clearly not doing. So I'd agree the Socratic Method, when used properly can be non-confrontational :).

    One thing I am conscious of though is the tendency for Japanese people to nod and agree when in fact they don't actually agree. How can you be sure that you have led your friends to 'understand'? That is, how do you know the other person has had a change in their way of thinking or in their views on a particular topic?

    Thanks for the interesting discussion so far!

  52. orchid64 says:

    This is going to seem like I'm quibbling about semantics, but please accept that that's not what I'm doing. I said I wouldn't “debate” them, but I would “discuss” things with them. I've had plenty of discussions and generally explore topics carefully with them (almost daily, actually). Mainly, I make sure not to try and score points for my “side” (which I see as debating) or trying to prove that I have a better point or more supported perspective. What I tend to do is ask questions to spiral outward from what a Japanese person expresses until they reach a conclusion. That conclusion is the point I want to make, but they get there thinking its their realization, not my viewpoint. I don't usually assert anything about what I think or feel actively, but just try to lead people along a line of discussion that will help them be open to other ideas. In the end, they “agree” with me because they've not been challenged or even asked to agree. They've just been lead to “understand”. It's absolutely non-confrontational and is more about educating than debating.

    So, discussion, yes. :-) Debate, no. ;-)

  53. Gakuranman says:

    “For once it would be nice to hear a Japanese occasionally toss a dialectic hand-grenade in to the mix…”

    This made me chuckle :p. It would be something of a shock to the system to hear a Japanese person let loose with a Western style approach! Perhaps one way to help young Japanese people to improve their critical thinking skills is to practice it more in the classroom, particularly with foreign ALT teachers. I imagine it would be easier for ALTs to introduce Western style debate than their native Japanese teachers. But as you note, the deep-rooted striving for harmony is something not dictated purely by the educational system.

  54. Liam Garvey says:

    I like it. Another aspect of these differing strategies, is that sometimes it can be rather frustrating to get Japanese to provide input or express their own view on certain topics. I wouldn't blame the Japanese education system, the fear of upsetting The Harmony is deep rooted, as is our confrontational approach. This has its pros and cons but for once it would be nice to hear a Japanese occasionally toss a dialectic hand-grenade in to the mix…

  55. Gakuranman says:

    Cheers Poppy! Interesting to hear that your English husband argues like a Japanese person! Any examples of times when he has been debating and these sort of clashes have occurred?

  56. Gakuranman says:

    Hey Orchid. Thanks for your comment :).

    Yea, I agree that in certain situations no amount of education would level the playing field for debating with Japanese people. As you rightly say, differences in levels of rank and respect required in Japanese society hinder the ability to engage in frank discussion and on an everyday basis, debate is probably best avoided.

    However, I don't think it's possible just to not engage Japanese people in discussion. One needs to be sensitive to their opinions and situation and be prepared to take things more slowly than usual, explaining these sort of cultural differences and critical thinking as you go. Of course, this won't be successful with everyone, but just giving up on having debates with Japanese people just tries to avoid the problem, especially where open discussion is a necessity (for example, in business negotiations or politics). With an increasing number of foreigners entering and living in Japan, in my opinion these culture clashes will only become more frequent, so they do need to be dealt with.

  57. Gakuranman says:

    Excellent point Tiffany! The “what, are you stupid?” statements were indeed just for added humour. You definitely wouldn't want to insult the other person so overtly, be they Westerner or Japanese :p. You might be right that we should add a little disclaimer there to make absolutely sure people don't misunderstand.

  58. orchid64 says:

    My feeling about debating with Japanese people is, “don't”. They aren't taught critical thinking in school and are discouraged from engaging in opinion-based arguments. They're at a disadvantage because their cultural priorities are different. They're supposed to consider not only the other person's viewpoint, but also their relative status. If you're a guest or a teacher or a person of higher rank in your company, they are unlikely to disagree with you overtly anyway. It's not a level playing field, and it feels like taking advantage for some sort of person ego gratification to try and debate with Japanese folks. So, I simply don't. There are plenty of foreigners to have such discussions with, and we're all operating on from the same cultural perspective and were educated to have such arguments.

  59. The only problem I see with the video is the usage of things like “what, are you stupid?”. I don't know too many Westerners that would take that well (even close friends) and people are not usually open to reasoning when offended. I'm assuming that was added for humor, but we don't want Japanese viewers thinking they are supposed to insult Westerners during an argument either ;)

  60. PoppyNero says:

    Very interesting article – and how true and correct what you and Hikosaemon says! I enjoyed the skits too.
    I argue/discuss in western style despite having lived in Japan for 15 yrs, but then I learnt my style from my Mum who is very un-Japanese and feisty. Probably one of the reasons why she didn't marry her compatriot and opted for an Englishman. And my husband who's also an Englishman argues like a Japanese…

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