Understanding Sontaku(忖度): Japan's Indirect Communication

By Yoshi, Japanese career consultant(national license) Published March 26, 2024

"Sontaku(忖度)" is Japan’s buzzwords in 2017.

Even in 2024, it is often said that it is polite for Japanese people to practice 'sontaku(忖度)' towards their superiors.

In the realm of Japanese culture, the concept of "sontaku(忖度)" holds significant importance, yet it can be somewhat elusive to grasp for those outside the cultural sphere. Rooted in social dynamics, hierarchical structures, and the subtleties of communication, sontaku(忖度) encapsulates a nuanced aspect of Japanese interpersonal relations.

At its core, sontaku(忖度) refers to the act of anticipating and fulfilling the wishes or expectations of others without explicit instruction, which is extremely hard to understand for non-Japanese. It involves intuitively understanding someone's desires or intentions and acting upon them proactively, often without direct verbal confirmation. This practice is deeply ingrained in Japanese society, where implicit communication and maintaining harmony are highly valued.

In interpersonal relationships, sontaku plays a crucial role in maintaining social harmony and avoiding confrontation. Japanese society places great emphasis on preserving "wa(和)" or harmony within groups, be it in family, workplace, or community settings. As such, individuals often engage in sontaku(忖度) to navigate social interactions smoothly, preempting the needs and desires of others to prevent discord.

The practice of sontaku(忖度) can manifest in subtle gestures, such as offering assistance before being asked, refraining from expressing dissenting opinions to avoid conflict, or making decisions based on perceived expectations rather than explicit instructions. While these actions may seem passive or even manipulative to an outsider, they are deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of Japan and are considered acts of consideration and empathy.

Furthermore, sontaku(忖度) is closely intertwined with the concept of "amae(甘え)" which refers to the reliance on and expectation of indulgence from others, particularly in interpersonal relationships. In the context of sontaku(忖度), individuals may engage in acts of anticipation as a means of demonstrating their understanding and affection for others, thereby reinforcing social bonds and fostering a sense of interconnectedness.

However, the practice of sontaku(忖度) is not without its complexities and potential pitfalls. While it promotes harmony and cooperation, it can also lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication, particularly in cross-cultural interactions. Foreigners may find it challenging to decipher implicit cues and may inadvertently offend or confuse their Japanese counterparts by failing to grasp the nuances of sontaku(忖度).

Nevertheless, sontaku(忖度) remains a fundamental aspect of Japanese social etiquette and communication. It reflects the deeply ingrained values of empathy, consideration, and harmony that underpin Japanese society. By understanding and respecting the intricacies of sontaku, individuals can navigate cultural differences more effectively and forge meaningful connections in the rich tapestry of Japanese culture.

Here are some examples of sontaku(忖度)

  • "Before the teacher says anything, you might say, 'It's a bit warm. Shall we adjust the air conditioning?'
  • "Before being told by the boss, you ask if they should take their jacket."
  • "Before the customer points it out, you might ask, shall we offer to take their coat?"

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