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One of the most characteristic parts of communication in Japan is the frequency with which people dish out compliments. Travelers and expats, for example, quickly become accustomed to being praised when displaying even the most basic skills with chopsticks or the local language.

Japanese people don’t just have kind words for foreigners, though, but for each other, too. Modesty and empathy are considered virtues of the highest order, so when someone shows any sort of ability, good manners dictate that you should notice and appreciate whatever small trace of talent can be found, as well as the effort that went into acquiring it while leading what, courtesy says you should assume, is a busy life.

Of course, sometimes these compliments aren’t triggered by the speaker being genuinely impressed, but rather just polite, or in some extreme cases, irritated.

Japanese society in general is pretty focused on avoiding direct confrontation. While vague, indirect communication isn’t as omnipresent as some cultural guidebooks would have you believe, the ability to read between the lines goes a long way.

Nowhere is this truer than in Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and reigning cultural center for traditional arts and culture. Even compared to other parts of Japan, Kyoto natives are known for their strict social decorum. This adherence to propriety, though, can sometimes make it tricky to decipher the real sentiment behind someone’s words.

For example, commentators on Japanese website Livedoor recently discussed the following scenario: If you’re living in Kyoto, and an old lady from your neighborhood says, “You’re really getting better at playing the piano,” what is the proper response?

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In many cultures, a simple, “Thank you,” would suffice. Remembering the value of modesty in Japan, though, many would argue that accepting the compliment is too bold, and that what you should say instead is something along the lines of, “No, not at all. I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

According to the commenter who posed the question, though, neither one of these is correct. Actually, what you say isn’t even really important, because the proper course of action is to stop playing your piano so loudly.

Even for people born and raised in Japan, this was taking things pretty far.

“Kyoto is scary.”
“I’ve heard they do the same thing by saying, ‘Oh, your pet cat must be so energetic.’”
“Cold as ice.”
“It’s like psychological warfare.”
“Or a game of Go.”
“Well, it’s better than being told ‘You’re too damn noisy!’”

It’s worth pointing out that this hypothetical situation involves a perfect storm of a polite culture, it’s most refined city, and an elderly individual. Communication conditions don’t get much more indirect than that, so this isn’t exactly the baseline by which to measure all of your interpersonal dealings in Japan.

Nonetheless, with crowded cities and thin-walled apartments, you might want to try to wrap up your practice scales by 9 o’clock or so.

▼ Granny needs her beauty rest.

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Source: Livedoor
Top image: Acoonhibino
Insert images: Coocan, FC2