Japanese haragei

Posted by on March 23, 2010

cartoon

Our Japanese focus continues with a guest post from Jag Bhalla, author of I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears from National Geographic Books, featuring 1,000 intriguing and amusing expressions from around the world, plus related light-hearted essays on linguistics, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience. The book is illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits.

______

In Japan it’s not what you say; it’s also very much the way that you say it (or not) that matters. The Japanese prefer to trust haragei, which means “visceral, indirect, largely non-verbal communication.” As Howard Reingold explains in his excellent book They Have a Word For It, in Japan:

Direct verbal communication the way we use it in the West is generally shunned. Nuances, silences, gestures, facial expression are much more important. … One Japanese can understand what another is trying to communicate by closely observing posture, facial expressions, the length and timing of silences, and the various ‘meaningless’ sounds uttered by the other person.

Their greater reliance on non-verbal expressions also makes it into the language they express verbally. For example the expression to “lower the outside corners of your eyes” means to be pleased. For us that doesn’t seem to make sense. But it turns out that smile-ologists confirm the wisdom encoded in that turn of phrase. The only reliable indicator (i.e.  non fake-able sign) that a smile is genuine (called a Duchene smile) is the involuntary (can’t be controlled consciously) contraction of muscles around the eyes, causing laugh lines and pulling down the lateral border of the eyebrow. Laugh lines on their own can be caused by moving cheek muscles, which can be consciously controlled and hence can be faked (as when we force a smile,  also known as a Pan Am smile). The Japanese language makes explicit this fact that’s been hidden in plain sight. And that most of us, despite having seen countless smiles, are totally unaware of.

The literal meaning of haragei is “belly sensitivity” and it turns out that Japanese bellies are more significant than ours. The Japanese think of the stomach area as the place where their true feelings and intentions lie. References to similar sentiments survive in English, for example in phrases like gut feeling and gut instinct. However while we downplay our intestinal intelligence, the Japanese are far more interested in gut reading. And it’s not just their own; they’re interested in reading the state of the intestines of others. When the Japanese say “your belly is transparent,” it means that you are not hiding anything, your true intentions are clear. Hence when the Japanese say “there is something in their bellies,” they don’t mean they have eaten; they mean they have something up their sleeve. Where we set our minds (or hearts) on something, an equally resolute Japanese would “tighten his belly.” If we don’t achieve what we had set our hearts on, we might be broken-hearted, whereas, a similarly afflicted Japanese’s “intestines are torn.” Being heartbroken we might need to unburden ourselves, whereas a Japanese would “open up his liver and gall.” When we finally learn the inevitable lessons of disappointment by taking something to heart, the Japanese more alarmingly “chisel it into their livers”!

______

This post is based on material from I’m not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and is used here with permission.

Email this Post Email this Post
Comments (5)
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Macmillan Dictionary, ハイツセンター and Rochelle Kopp, Jag Bhalla. Jag Bhalla said: Japanese prefer “visceral, indirect, largely non-verbal communication”-more trust worthy than words http://bit.ly/cg3u5u @MacDictionary […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention Japanese haragei -- Topsy.com on 25th March, 2010
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Macmillan Dictionary, ハイツセンター and Rochelle Kopp, Jag Bhalla. Jag Bhalla said: Japanese prefer “visceral, indirect, largely non-verbal communication”-more trust worthy than words http://bit.ly/cg3u5u @MacDictionary […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention Japanese haragei -- Topsy.com on 25th March, 2010
  • Your article has aroused my curiosity for reading “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on your Ears”.
    While reading here Howard Reingold’s explanation on how the Japanese trust non-verbal communication, we suddenly remembered two Japanese colleagues we met in England at a Teacher’s Course. They really were good observers, at times they were silent, smiled a lot and used facial expressions in a very polite way. We enjoyed meeting them. By then we simply didn’t know the word “haragei” and what it meant.
    Thank you very much for your interesting, clear article.
    Best regards,
    Maria

    Posted by Maria do Céu Costa on 25th March, 2010
  • Your article has aroused my curiosity for reading “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on your Ears”.
    While reading here Howard Reingold’s explanation on how the Japanese trust non-verbal communication, we suddenly remembered two Japanese colleagues we met in England at a Teacher’s Course. They really were good observers, at times they were silent, smiled a lot and used facial expressions in a very polite way. We enjoyed meeting them. By then we simply didn’t know the word “haragei” and what it meant.
    Thank you very much for your interesting, clear article.
    Best regards,
    Maria

    Posted by Maria do Céu Costa on 25th March, 2010
  • It’s why the old Samurai used to cut their bellies open performing seppuku – it’s where they believed their true spirit or ‘heart’ was.

    Posted by Max on 10th November, 2015
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields