The other day, I had a talk with a friend of mine about certain feelings that cannot be expressed outside of the Japanese language. It was a subject that didn't cross my mind, simply because those feelings came natural to me, having both a background in both Japanese and American culture. Today, I'd like to highlight just what those feelings are.
Most traditional Japanese believe that maintaining harmony with everyone is essential to keeping peace, so many will go out of their way to make sure that no commotions are started. People will intentionally create space between two people by use of honorifics (respectful language), withdraw from stating their opinions on a subject, or not divulge too much personal information about themselves. To avoid creating any disruptions to human relations, it is natural for most Japanese to use this tactic with others to create "walls" around themselves. If someone were to be in this type of a situation, they would hope the other person can "read the air" (or "read their feelings"). Since Japanese people would likely refrain from expressing their feelings openly, they'd hope the other person can feel the "tension" or sense the lack of response.The term to describe one who is unable to sense feelings is called "KY" - 「空気を読めない」/ Kuuki wo yomenai - or "unable to read the air." This type of expression, although very recent in Japan, is lost in translation amongst people outside of Japan.
Another expression that is undefined in the English language, is the word "Koi" / 恋, or "passionate love." The Japanese word for "true meaningful love" is the word "Ai / 愛." The English language does not have words to accurately describe the differences between such feelings, but rather lumps both into the word "love." The Japanese typically refrain from using the word "Ai," instead using the words "Koi" or simply just saying they like someone very much. Afterall, if that love isn't true, its best not to state it - right? After a quick search on the web, I found a rough definition of the two:
"Koi" is a love for the opposite sex, or a longing feeling for a specific person. It can be described as "romantic love" or "passionate love." While "ai" has the same meaning as "koi," it also has a definition of a general feeling of love. "Koi" can be selfish, but "ai" is a real love. Koi is always wanting. Ai is always giving."
Perhaps the closest the definition to "Koi" and "Ai" could be "Lust" and "Love," but the word "Lust" only implies a sexually driven attraction.
Although not directly related to feelings, I discovered recently that the word "selfish" or わがまま is also different across cultures. In Japan, the word selfish can translate as someone who:
- Does not work well in a team with others.
- Has an independent personality.
- Has strong opinions.
- Does not appease others.
In contrast, the definition for selfish in the US (or how 'selfishness' has evolved) comes closer to someone who:
- Has excessive/exclusive concerns with one's self.
- Has great disregard for others.
- Lacks generosity.
- Greedy / strong desire for possessions and control.
- Shows elements of narcissism, objectivism, solipsism and egotism.
Although the word "selfish" is similarly defined as thinking of one's self excessively, it implies a different meaning in each society. American society already places a high value on independence and having strong opinions, whereas the Japanese society does not. In contrast, the Japanese society believes strongly in the Golden Rule (treat others as how you would like to be treated), but ends up becoming very self-serving (people expect to be treated well in return). Elements that are deemed as "selfish" in both cultures exist as societal norms.
These are just a couple of examples of expressions that cannot be described very accurately in the English language. Both languages embed certain feelings or cultural references inside each word, making sense only to those who understand those societal norms. Although this is just a few of many, I hope that this explanation can open more doors to your understanding of the Japanese culture.