Personal space dictates how one communicates, works and lives in Japan far more than in any other country worldwide.

The Japanese are notoriously shy and private and are regarded as much more reserved than Koreans or Chinese. Privacy is important in Japan. People can have their names removed from phone books if they want. Windows are designed so people can’t look in. Asking a lot of questions is regarded as pushy and rude. People are often expected to be quiet such as no talks on mobile phone while on public transportation.

Many school children have said they have never seen their parents kiss. Young adults don’t talk about their boyfriend or girlfriend or lack of one, and generally don’t like to be asked questions about their private life. In one survey Japanese university students said they considered a good friend to be someone who respects their private life. Japanese generally don’t like to stick out in public or talk to strangers unless there is some necessity to do so. Many Japanese are very shy about meeting with foreigners. They feel embarrassed if they make mistakes speaking English, and thus avoid saying anything. They also feel a lot of stress if they perceive foreigners as being aggressive and pushy.

Travel writer Pico Iyer, who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, said there is a passionate reverse side to Japanese restraint. He wrote: “The people I know in Japan are extraordinarily intense and devoted to their passions precisely because they tend to be self-denying and restrained in public.

Why Japanese loves personal space

The Japanese historically lived in close-knit farming communities that valued collective goals over individual pursuits. People lived close together in wooden houses with walls that were literally paper thin. It was common for communities to bathe together in sento baths. You saw your neighbours naked and lived in close proximity to them.

As a result, privacy became a skill. The Japanese have an incredible ability to establish their own personal space in the most crowded of conditions. Even in the crush of a rush hour Tokyo train, people seem to enjoy a little quiet time in their own little bubble of privacy.

If you’d like to have a bubble of privacy of your own there are several techniques that seem to work for the Japanese:

  1. Masks

In urban areas of Japan people wear a hygiene mask at the first sign of cedar allergies or a cold. On the surface, this is all for practical health reasons. However, most people will admit that they enjoy the sense of personal space that masks provide. Japan has a rich culture of masks for battle, ceremony, ritual, theatre and celebration. Such masks have always doubled as a tool of privacy and anonymity.

Personal space

  1. Naps

Japanese culture strongly respects those who work hard. Japan’s post war generation were incredibly hard working and led the world in average hours worked per capita for more than 20 years. Such workers spent all their time at work and often took short naps. As a result, naps became a telltale sign that someone is working hard. In other words, naps get some respect in Japan and aren’t particularly frowned upon in public or work situations. It’s common to see people sleeping on the train or in the office. In many cases, people also fake a nap in order to close their eyes and exist in their own personal space for a while.

Personal space

  1. Book Covers

It is common to see people reading in crowded trains or cafes in Japan who look completely absorbed. As an additional level of personal space, books are commonly sold with paper covers in Japan so that nobody can see what you’re really reading.

The non-disclosure of intimacy

Privacy in the form of the “right to be left alone” is clearly practiced in Japan. But on top of this, from a western perspective, it can sometimes seem that personal privacy is closely guarded through a practice of nondisclosure of any nonessential information. Some years ago an American man, lets call him Andy, and worked together with a Japanese man, Takeda-sensei, on a project for three years. About halfway through the second year, Takeda-sensei casually mentioned that his wife had had a baby. His announcement was low-key that Andy almost missed it, and when Andy realized what Takeda-sensei was actually saying, he was more than surprised; he was hurt and angry. Andy had met with Takeda-sensei once a week for more than a year and had worked together closely during those sessions. Andy couldn’t believe that the man had never once mentioned his wife was pregnant. He viewed the concealment of such a major life event as a slap in the face of the friendship he assumed he shared with his Japanese co-worker.

But while the onus is strong in American friendships to notify others of important life events, the concept of privacy in Japan can make it difficult for Japanese people to know when exactly to bring up such intimate matters. Many Japanese people say that they are not averse to some personal details being known by friends, but they just don’t find the right timing for such announcements. The equivalent of “Guess what” ”Ne, ne!” is only used in very close relationships. Many instead wait for the “Jitsu wa”… (Actually…) moment: a question, often innocuous, asked of them for which truthfulness demands revelation.

In Japan it is also common when three people meet, and though two don’t know each other, there is often no effort by the third individual to introduce the others, nor divulge any personal information about them to the other. On top of that if two of the people are engaged in quick chat it is regarded as polite for the third person to retreat a little, allowing the other two some privacy. In Japan, in many situations, the default position is one of discretion, while western standard operating procedures dictate openness bar any compelling grounds for reticence.

Through understanding how a Japanese perceives personal space and greatly assist a Westerner in effectively navigating Japanese relationships – be they business or friendship. Japan is a society built upon an understanding of personal space where the comfort and sensibilities of the other outweigh those of the self.

Personal space
Personal space during rush hours – this man was wondering why a camera had suddenly appeared above everyone’s heads.

Next time Talkabout Japan will examine Ma – the idea of the space between all things – vital to personal as well as group harmony.

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3 comments

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