Black and white image of Japanese businessmen walking in a group

The term kuuki ga yomenai, or “KY” became popular a few years ago in Japan. Literally translated, it means a person “cannot read the air.”

Reading the air is important in Japan. KY is often used to deride people who don’t understand the unspoken rules of a group. It’s especially popular slang with young people mocking their friends or complaining about annoying encounters, but the concept of people being KY is one that often troubles Japanese companies—especially when hiring foreigners.

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The Cultural Roots of KY

If you know anything about Japanese society, you probably know that it adheres to some pretty rigid (often unspoken) rules in the name of group harmony. This is still obvious in everyday life. Go to a restaurant in Tokyo, and you’ll often see a group of diners all order the same dish for lunch or a round of identical beers for the first drink of the evening. Group consensus is very important.

In a business setting, if a supervisor says, “I don’t know what others would think,” or “this might be a bit difficult,” it could mean they are flat-out denying your ideas—albeit very indirectly.

Other terms, such as aun no kokyu, meaning “being perfectly in unison,” or anmokuchi, meaning “tacit knowledge,” are valued positively and recognized for requiring high levels of emotional intelligence. Unsurprisingly, then, those unable to catch an unspoken message—the KY among us—can easily become an object of scorn.

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Reading the Air in Business

As the need and understanding of group consensus is an unspoken language, many Japanese companies worry that employees from abroad (particularly those with little or no experience in the country) might not be able to cope with it. This concern is even more acute when considered alongside other hurdles such as language barriers and differences in corporate hierarchies.

How do you explain an unspoken need to someone who doesn’t speak the language?

How do you convey the importance of consensus when someone is used to top-down management?

Today, however, many Japanese people realize that aun no kokyu is no longer applicable in a global setting—and that it may even be detrimental to business. Understanding unspoken communication requires a strong knowledge of context and the assumptions that others have. Both are extremely difficult to grasp in a new or foreign culture.

Why is this?

Reading the air is only possible after a considerable amount of time spent studying or assimilating into a culture. And once you’ve got the ability, the common ground you gain is based on accumulated past experiences. This might have been useful in the past when environmental shifts were more gradual, but not in today’s ever-changing world of VUCA and tech acceleration.

A man obliviously reads a newspaper in a kitchen while rain pours down on top of him; a woman watches from the counter with an umbrella, shocked he's not reading the air and see what's happening
You might not notice when you’re being KY, but your behavior looks pretty silly to those around you! | iStock/AdShooter

Reworking Reading the Air

So if people know that unspoken communication is ineffective, why can’t people change?

The answer is simple: the “air” we’re reading is invisible. Even those who understand it can’t really define it (remember how language is a barrier). It’s hard to change something if you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to change.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I once thought the answer lay with “AKY” (aete kuuki yomanai), or “purposefully not reading the air.” That is, being deliberately provocative. But (perhaps unsurprisingly) this carries the risk of just being dubbed KY! So the best countermeasure I’ve found instead is to make the unspoken tangible—label it with words.

The “air” or “atmosphere” is best viewed as a shadow shaped by the consensus of a group. The consensus is the actual substance; the atmosphere is a by-product. Therefore, if you shine a light on the problem by verbalizing it, the problem disappears. You can then outline what each party’s concerns are and clearly identify the issues at hand.

This might be difficult for Japanese people, especially in a corporate setting. Verbalizing why they are concerned about something puts them at risk of being labeled “resisters” or “conservative.”

If you find yourself in this situation, try putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Use critical thinking to set out the pros and cons from a different perspective. Once you shed some light on the different ideas and opinions of a group, you can start to discuss them.

GLOBIS University trains MBA students thoroughly on verbal discussion techniques and logical thinking through a range of courses. This enables them to bring creation and innovation to areas where they are most needed. I sincerely hope all of our students go out there and start to not just read the air, but visualize the air to help change stagnant and ineffective corporate culture.

The old ways of thinking may have worked in the past, but not anymore.