Having been in Japan for a total of around 10 years and being able to speak the language with a decent level of fluency I take comfort in the fact that I understand the majority of Japanese social context.
And then out of the blue a friend who does not really speak the language and has not been here for all that long pushed me out of my comfort zone.
In one sentence he completely demystified the concept of 和 which is something that not one of my teachers during my 7 years of studies could accomplish.
和, if you ask a professional means “harmony”. 和 is created and maintained when everyone in a group agrees on something and can accept it. Breaking 和 is generally bad and Japanese people will go to great lengths (i.e. hide their ego) to preserve 和within the group.
This has been discussed through the ages as something typically Japanese where the individual gives up his right for the good of the group. Preserving harmony creates united strength and therefore power to the group in question.
What my friend said was: “The Japanese when they speak with you they are very good at creating 和 and making you feel good but you are never sure if they were actually happy with the conversation”
And that’s when it hit me, the Japanese are simply really good conversationalists. They want you to feel good to have spent time with them and will therefore give you a smile and a positive word and send you off beaming with joy. There is nothing more than that to it.
For my friend understanding if the person in front of him is really interested in what he is saying or just acting out of politeness is obviously one of his biggest challenges. But he is blessed in the fact that he can still enjoy being pampered by these great conversationalists and feel good about having spent time in their company.
After 10 years here the “Magic of 和” has faded for me. Knowing is understanding and thus these days I can usually tell in a minute if the person in front of me is interested or just putting on a show.
So for me this artificial creation of harmony becomes a hindrance and a barrier to push through before real understanding can be reached. Answering the same basic questions a 1000 times can be trying even for those with infinite patience.
But I am grateful that you try!