What is “kuki(空気)” in Japan?

Hello. Today, I talk about “kuki(空気, kûki) ” in Japan. “Kuki” means “air” originally. It also means”situation” or “atmosphere” in some cases. Japanese people “kuki wo yomu(空気を読む)” every day. This means “people read between the lines or read the situation”. This is one of the characteristics in Japanese society.
I introduce this characteristic Japanese way of thinking or problems of an organization from the book “cho-nyumon kuki no kenkyu(超入門 空気の研究)” (Hiroki Suzuki, December 2018, Diamond Co., Ltd.). This title means “Introduction of kuki research”.

The outline of the book is as follows.

Kuki” is a certain kind of premise in the Japanese community. The Japanese in a group are easily influenced by the way of thinking based on that premise. Japanese-style organizations publish new facts in an interpretation that is consistent with “kuki” that was established before. They create fiction, and people act according to it.
※Hereinafter, this writing style of the above indicates the contents of the book.

The reason why I decided to summarize this book this time was because I felt that measures against the COVID-19 infection in Japan were based on the “kuki”.
Currently, Japan government requests to refrain from going out and requests for suspension of business for the spread of the COVID-19 infection. However, unlike other countries, there is no legal force or penalty in Japan, and the government takes a self-restraint request to the people and the people act accordingly. It means that they need to feel the “kuki” of self-restraint and take action. Therefore, even in the current situation, in Japan, trains are crowded on weekdays and some people go out on holidays, so the non-Japanese should wonder if Japan is OK. But that is Japan. Now we have to do what each person can do.

What is the book “cho-nyumon kuki no kenkyu(超入門 空気の研究)”?

First of all, I will introduce “cho-nyumon kuki no kenkyu(超入門 空気の研究)”, which is the book referred to this time.
This book is the digest version of “kuki no kenkyu(空気の研究)”(=kuki research) by Shichihei Yamamoto, published in 1977. “Kuki no kenkyu” is a great book. The characteristic of Japanese people is written from the viewpoint of “kuki” in that book. The author describes the problems of Japanese thinking and organization from the history of Japan, such as Japan’s failure in World War II.

What is “kuki(空気)”?

“Kuki” is a kind of “premise” in a community in Japan. In the community, “Pressure to conform” is created to share “kuki”. Those who do not follow the “kuki” will be criticized.

The skill of “Kuki wo yomu(空気を読む)” is needed in a community in Japan. It means understanding and following unwritten rules and premises established in society, schools, and workplaces. This is very important in Japanese society. Failure to follow that premise will result in criticism within the group.

The Japanese are more likely to be influenced by the way of thinking in a group

Individuals are tied down to the viewpoint of the group created from the “kuki”. In particular, if the way of thinking in the group have an authorities approval, you will be governed by that idea in the group. School bullying is one of the Japanese social problems. In the class, assailants determine how to bully victims by reading the faces of the teacher and other students. If teachers do not control the “kuki” correctly, the idea of accepting bullying becomes a group ethic. Internet lynching has a similar structure.

I thought the structure of bullying in Japan is just as it’s written. I often hear a teacher pretend not to see bullying at school. What about in the world?

Japan’s “self-restraint mood” that began in the latter half of this February is exactly this. I’m afraid that many people fear to have a criticism, and have stopped going out because of the mood of self-restraint created by the government. Foreign countries are forbidden to go out, but it is only in Japan that they can voluntarily restrain themselves to some extent only by the mood.
On the Internet, the complaints about the administration’s COVID-19 response are currently noticeable. With the addition of anonymity, one-sided criticism of the government on social media has become a collective ethic, and many people are speaking out. People are in extreme situations of emergencies and more people feel like they are dominated by this mood. Some people attack other people who don’t do self-restraint and go out on social media.

Japanese are bound by “common sense”

The Japanese throw cold water to wishful “kuki” from the viewpoint of “thinking with common sense.” For example, though one student wants to an elite school, adults around him say that it is impossible for him to aim for an elite school because they do not have good grades. This is an example. In addition, the Japanese think that the essence has changed in spite of having not changed, and change foreign things into their own common sense. Historically, they are Buddhism, Hiragana, and Confucianism.

Regarding the measures against the COVID-19, the government was worried about a drop in economic activity, and there was a situation in which the coordination of requests for suspension of business with Tokyo Metropolitan was not immediately established.  There is, of course, the problem of leave compensation, but the fact that the government has thrown cold water to the measures of the capital may also be an indication that the government is obsessed with common sense before the COVID-19 disaster.  Is it because Japan’s peculiar “kuki” and “water” are in the cultural background that the judgment and decision of measures are generally slower than in Europe and the U.S.?

And, It was interesting to be able to recognize the relationship between the history of Japan and the way of Japanese thinking. I often hear it is said that Japan is out of the global standard as seen from overseas. I think this is both an advantage and a disadvantage in Japan.

Domination by “kuki” in Japanese society and organizations

In Japan, new facts will be published in an interpretation that matches the premise of “kuki” so as not to be disadvantageous for the Establishment, and it creates “fiction”. If everyone shares the same point of view through this fiction, they think that is right and act. People who depend on this fiction blame those who refute and criticize the “fiction”. Depending on which the kuki is created inside or outside the society or organizations, the future will be changed drastically. That is the turning point for tragedy and a leap. Considering the history of modernization in Japan, it is clear that knowing the outside is a foothold for leap and success.

In the past, the power of mass media was so great that we had to act according to the fiction, but now we are in the age of the Internet, where individuals can collect and transmit information. At present, individuals can freely express their opinions through the Internet. I think people that have been critical of the Establishment in their hearts has finally become possible to speak up. In a series of the COVID-19 measures, some people suspect the regime deceive citizens from past experience, some people support the regime. Sometimes, both attack each other on social media.

Also, I think it is still difficult for companies and organizations with so-called Japanese organizations to get out of the “fiction”. Even today, it is difficult to change the premises at company meetings, and I hear a lot of employees who cannot talk to anyone and are troubled by their Power Harassment boss. In Japan, the inside of a company is not open, and it is difficult to criticize “fiction” without a great deal of preparedness. From now on, in order to break away from Japanese-style organizations, it is necessary to know the world outside Japan.

Overall impression

This time, I thought that the “kuki ” is exactly related to Japan’s COVID-19 infection control and people’s actions, and summarized what remained in the impression. I was able to sort out the view of thinking unique to the Japanese. I have no point of contact with foreign countries other than travel so far, so I think that there is something that can be more objectively seen from an outside perspective when staying overseas.

You may be able to feel Japanese “kuki” by watching this movie.

Review of Shin Godzilla


rice (Japanese OL)

Japanese OL. (OL means “office lady”. Women who work in offices.) I was born in a rural part of the Kanto area in the latter half of the 1980s. I  live and work in Tokyo now. I live with my husband. I study English by writing this blog!

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1 Response

  1. Peter says:

    Where do we get this book?

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