The other day I was chatting with a friend in the Kyoto International Community House, when its manager came by and joined us. My friend is a Muslim, and the manager is interested in Arab culture, so they can always find a topic to talk about. At some point, the conversation shifted to religious differences and the Yugoslavian war, and all of a sudden the manager asked: “Why is there so much division because of something so simple as religion?”

We looked at him, he was completely serious. Don’t get me wrong, this man is very intelligent and highly educated, speaks several languages and likes to travel abroad. He was indeed serious when he said “I don’t understand.” In fact, he asked a truly Japanese question.

In Japan, religion is a non-topic. There is no state religion and people enjoy complete religious freedom, up to the point where not even the state asks anybody what religion they follow. The traditional religion is Shintoism with lots of local deities and tiny shrines. The main goddess is Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is still worshipped in Ise shrine to this day, and the emperor has been considered a god himself until the Americans took this status away with the new constitution after WW II. In the Heian period, after 800 CE, Buddhism was at its height. It was first introduced from China to the imperial court, and while the emperor was considered a Shinto deity, it was not seen as a optical illusion young/old womanproblem for him or his court to practise Buddhism as well. Today, Christian traditions and festivals become more and more popular, for example celebrating Christmas, despite only about 1% of the Japanese considering themselves Christian. In the life of an average Japanese, a newborn baby is presented to the local Shinto shrine (and later on at several other occasions), a wedding is often conducted using Christian rites (although not always overseen by a real priest) and the vast majority of funerals are Buddhist. New Year’s is celebrated by visiting the local Shinto shrine and the second largest holiday in the country, the festival for the dead, O-bon, is celebrated with Buddhist rites. In short, you can be everything and do everything at the same time, and that although about 50% of Japanese say they are not religious, and only about 25% declare themselves Buddhist. Hence, a certain religious ambiguity is introduced, and the Western idea that we must choose sides and strictly obey the division, sounds strange to Japanese.

This sort of ambiguity is also present in the language. Most of the time, a subject is not used, for example “Eki ni ikkimas – Station to go” is a perfectly correct sentence in Japanese, although it does not mention who is going. From this simple sentence, we cannot even find out if the speaker talks about himself, somebody else, or even a whole group of people. This we can only find out from the rest of the story. Of course, there are also Western languages where a subject is not needed, Spanish for example. But in “Es Austriaca – is Austrian” the verb gives away that we are talking about a single third person and the noun ending -a tells us immediately that a woman is meant, so there is much less left for guessing.

Another form of language ambiguity is that Japanese don’t like to say an open “No, I will not.” Instead, you hear “It’s too difficult, not possible…” which will provoke the Westerner to look for a solution rather than to politely bow out of the situation, and hence, this will considerably prolong negotiations. However, I’m getting sidetracked.

Of course, Japanese people, stuck inside their culture, do not understand when they are called ambivalent by Western people stuck in their ways. I don’t think many of them even understand what we mean by that. I don’t think the manager was very pleased with our ultimate answer that we must choose sides, must make decisions, and can’t be sitting on the fence forever. A typical cultural misunderstanding, partly lost in translation …