Five Things About Haragei: The Japanese Business Language

Even if you have lived in Japan for many years, communication in the business world can often make you feel like you’re playing a constant guessing game. Messages can be hazy, details not specific enough, and questions sometimes seem to be forbidden. You are probably aware that the style of communication in Japan relies heavily on non-verbal cues. However, are you familiar with one of the driving forces behind this implicit style of communication?

Haragei. Haragei literally means ‘Art of the stomach’. Think of it as an elaborate style of intuitive communication. Almost like a ‘sixth sense’, Haragei drives people to exchange thoughts and feelings – ‘belly to belly’ – without using words. Instead, facial expressions, timing, sounds, and even silence convey messages, mask true emotions, and influence business meetings.

Let’s look at five notable ways in which Haragei is used below.

  1. Prolonged Silence.
    During a business meeting or negotiation, prolonged silence can be quite painful for non-Japanese. After about four to six seconds, you feel the urgent need to break it. In Japan however, up to 40 seconds of silence is not uncommon; it is often viewed as the most productive time during a meeting. As a form of Haragei, silence can imply a positive response, such as ‘Yes, I like what you’re saying, let me have a minute to think about it’. Or, it can carry a negative message and be used as a social buffer to avoid confrontation. In either case, it is best to be patient and let the other person continue the conversation when they are ready.
  2. Hissing Sound.
    The audible hissing sound made by drawing air through the teeth and lips is a technique used by Japanese to show their displeasure or disagreement without having to explicitly state it. Again, Haragei is at work here in an attempt to avoid open confrontation. In this situation, the listener should understand from this sound that the ‘hisser’s’ true thoughts are: ‘That’s going to put me in a difficult position’. If you are confronted with this sound, it is best to recognise the difficulty for the other person and perhaps offer an alternative option.
  3. Vague Questions.
    The mutual understanding that Japanese gain from non-verbal cues and context frees them from having to constantly clarify and specify with questions. In most Western countries, there is a need to make everything clear, and questions are often used to eliminate vagueness in conversation. In Japan however, Haragei enables people to ‘read between the lines’, and to rely less on words and less on questions. If at some point clarification is necessary, expect a statement that implies the question they truly want to ask.
  4. Counterintuitive Statements.
    The Japanese do not like to directly say ‘No’. Instead, they will use a variety of techniques to imply ‘No’ and to avoid potentially giving offence. Silence, the hissing sound, and even statements, such as ‘That will be a little difficult’ or ‘I will do my best’, are typical examples of Haragei at work. In each of these instances, the speaker is concealing their true thoughts and feelings, yet the listener understands them. If you are confronted with Haragei in this way, interpret it as ‘No’.
  5. Modest Gift Giving.
    When you offer somebody a gift in Japan, it is customary to accompany it with a statement such as ‘This is insignificant…’ (つまらないものですが). The giver most probably does not think their gift is insignificant (a Japanese person would never offer a gift they thought to be trifle), but they use this type of statement to show modesty. The receiver does not think they are getting an insignificant gift either, but they can sense the modesty of the giver. Haragei is at work here because the receiver can feel the true feelings of the giver without them being explicitly stated.

Haragei is an important and powerful concept in Japanese business communication. Even though it takes many years to learn, grasping Haragei offers you insights into that ‘sixth sense’, so you can begin to intuitively understand what your Japanese business associates are thinking and feeling.

You can follow Kara on Twitter here @execimpressions.
Kara runs Executive Impressions, an International Business Etiquette Training and Consultancy. You can find out more about Executive Impressions here