Living in Japan’s traditions: Enkyoku
One of the greatest advantages of a stay in Tokyo or Kyoto, Japan, is that of interacting with the locals. Whether it be as a foreign language students speaking with your teachers, as an intern or foreign worker having a nice chat through lunchbreak with other colleagues, or chatting and having a small conversation with a neighbor or shop attendant, these shall all allow for a further understanding of the language and its people.
On the daily activities of life in Japan, it becomes noticeable that certain things are left unsaid or communicated indirectly. This is part of a very delicate custom that takes its roots many years ago. We are talking about “enkyoku”.
“Enkyoku” (婉曲) can be translated as “indirect way of speech”. Its most noticed example is that of not directly negating a sentence. It is used, for example, when mentioning that we are on a rush and can not comply with what we are being asked to do. It is a way to protect human relations and friendships while avoiding confrontations.
Its origins date back to the old Japanese everyday life. Back then every action was about protecting the “wa” (和), or peace. This was done to ensure that society runs smoothly. It is also strongly related to the rice cultivating culture. Since most of the farm work was impossible to be done by just one person, having the help off peers was a necessity in order to succeed in a good harvest. Likewise, Japan being a country propense to natural disasters, it is of great need to have the help of those around to overcome all difficulties.
This whole concept “enkyoku” is the reason why you may not hear much of “iie”, the word for no, in Japanese. But it is not only restricted to this. Many phrases are also smoothened by a gentle beginning, such as “I’m sorry, but…” or “I hate to disturb you, but…”. In Japanese, these are commonly known as cushion words. These words are used to soften the imposed meaning of a request or piece of information. If planning to work in Japan with a working holiday visa or have already been recruited from overseas, “enkyoku” is a concept to certainly keep in mind, as it is very much used in the workplace.
This whole idea of keeping the “wa”, the peace, in a relationship has taken a deeper usage throughout the passage of time. One of these are the avoidance of using certain words during special events. For example, at a wedding, it is best to avoid the use of words like “ending” or “cutting the cake”. These words imply a negative meaning to the whole happiness of the occasion. Cutting the cake can be seen with the meaning of separating, not being in union or breaking the circle, the peace.
A more noticeable example of “enkyoku” is the use of alternative words to refer to something. For example, the word for “toilet” can be replaced with “washroom”, “restroom” or “lavatory”. This helps avoid the dirty image that the word “toilet” may imply.
Seeing it as a foreigner, it can be a very delicate cultural aspect to notice. However, practice makes perfect and the more one is able to interact, hear and use “enkyoku” the more it shall become a natural part of conversation.
This and many more aspects of life in Japan are best lived and experienced, rather than read and heard. If you are ready to begin your life experience in Tokyo or Kyoto, for a long term stay or a short term stay, feel free to contact our multicultural team of experts to find your home away from home. Let’s begin the plans for your next stay in Japan!