Aimai - Ambiguity in Japanese Culture


Japanese are generally ambiguous, and often surprisingly vague when stating their opinion. This can be seen either as a sign of humility or a practical way to handle sometimes difficult topics. The word aimai generally means ambiguous, obscure, vague, double-edged or hazy. It has also other meanings such as doubtfull, non-committal, questionable or shady.

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Why Japanese are don't feel expressing their opinion?

Especially when there is older person present, Japanese don't feel like expressing their own feeling. They feel saying so would break the harmony. Now this has nothing to do with trying to please the older person, and they can truly disagree.

But the communication generally is one-way rather than two way. For example, one could hear two sarariiman chatting in the train, sitting next to each other. One would keep nodding and offer "so desuka" (is that so?) or "so desu ne" (I agree) on various intervals, to display his (genuine?) interest.

It generally does not happen that one would offer totally different idea when one is explaining his feeling, or suggest another perspective. Japanese feel one must respect the other's point of view, even if they would silently disagree with it.

If the person would totally disagree, he might at most express "eeeh.. hmm"? or maybe "I wonder..".

I believe it is safe to notice that Japanese conversation rarely take form of dialectic development, counter argues or counter statements won't happen. The two way tennis exchange works in different way, often non-verbal. Body language is often much more importan than spoken words in Japan.

The Japanese do tend to think that the one that expresses themselves openly and clearly are childish. Instead, adult way of conversation is sublime, and respectfull to others members. The rules of discourse are very important.

It is interesting to realize that on the other hand, how we choose words in Japan is important, but the words themselves are often not. It's the actions that matter more than words, unlike in America.


There are a lot of examples of this aimai. Words such as "chotto" or "demo" or "kangaete-okune" are often heard. This may irritate us foreigners, but we should pay attention to the meaning behind this. It is just that Japanese people have chosen to communicate this way. It is not like they are not trustworthy.

On the other hand, if the person would say his opinion out loud, it would be HEAVY STATEMENT, something what he or she truly has thought about long time. However, this kind of heaviness isn't usually part of Japanese culture, Japanese prefer always to make things and simple and light as possible.

Aimai is also visible in Japanese aesthetics and art. For example, Japanese tend to think that moon, hidden by clouds is more appealing than direct moonlight. Haiku poems, also, are very suggestive and often rather obscure, in which beauty their mystic appeal lies.


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Japanese Mind | See also: Ikuji, Childbearing in Japan, aimai, gambari, shoganai, mottainai , Sempai-Kohai, Lifestyle of the Japanese, Silence of the Origami, katachi, ikiru

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