AIR | 空気
アメリカでは助けを待っているだけではどうにもならないということを学んだ。自発的に動かなければいけない。まず覚えたフレーズは”I need help”だ。授業終わりまで放って置かれないように使った。次に、”This is mine”を覚えた。クラスメイトに貸した日本製文房具をちゃんと返してもらえるようにになった。空気を読むなんてどうでもいい。はっきりと発言しなければ何もできない世界だった。
In almost anywhere in the world, “air” is a synonym for oxygen, a transparent, odorless gas that people notice only when it is lacking. Otherwise, it is just there. But in Japan, “air” has another, additional meaning.
Ku-ki wo yomu, literally meaning “reading the air,” is something you learn to do while growing up in Japan. To read the air is to catch little hints in situations. It’s knowing what to say and what not to say. People gauge other people’s feelings by watching their facial expressions. Subordinates strategically avoid speaking to their boss when he is furrowing his eyebrows and holding his head. Many couples don’t show much affection in public to avoid being a nuisance to others. As a rule, students don’t ask questions at the end of a lecture to avoid prolonging class time. To read the air is to understand the meanings behind subtle gestures and knowing how to act.
I learned the uniqueness of this “air-reading” culture after I left it. I moved to Kansas City during the winter of my first grade year in 2003, knowing no English at all. On my first day of school, I was naturally clueless. Two days before winter holiday break, the classroom was teeming with festive vibes. After I sat through a few classes, the teacher moved from the front of the whiteboard to the door, saying something. My classmates lined up behind her. It seemed like we were going somewhere. The teacher came toward me and said something, with a slightly higher intonation at the end. I blinked my eyes in confusion. She kept on looking at me, eyebrows raised and head tilted. Was she asking me a question? Panicking, I said “yes.” It’s more polite to say “yes” than “no,” right? She smiled, took my hand, and took me to the very front of the line.
I figured out an hour later that my teacher had asked me if I could sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I could barely introduce myself — how in the world would I be able to sing that song? But I had answered “yes.” In a single-file line, my class headed into the gym, where students from all grades were gathered for the annual holiday assembly. The assembly began with a brief speech from the principal. Then the kindergarteners stood up to sing. After the kindergarten song was finished, the students from my class stood up. Startled, I followed. The familiar melody of “Rudolph” started to stream from the speakers and the kids around me began to sing the English lyrics. I was in the front row, moving my lips with no sound, feeling the scorching stares from other students saying, “Why isn’t she
So then, I learned that in America, I could not expect people to come and help me. I had to do that on my own. The first useful phrase I learned was “I need help.” This assured not being abandoned until the end of class. Then I learned “This is mine.” It assured that I would actually get back my stationary that my classmates took. Forget reading the air, being clear and direct was the key to survival.
In 2007, a Japanese media company nominated “KY” as the word of the year. “KY” is short for Ku-ki Yomenai, not being able to read the air. The people popular- ized the term by using it to describe then prime minister Shinzo Abe, who kept on raising the agenda of constitutional amendment on military power when the public clearly wanted him to address other agendas instead. As a leader who couldn’t read the air, Abe became an outcast. Citizens and opposing party politicians called his government the Abe “KY” Cabinet. With a plummeting approval rate, Abe resigned a year after inauguration (he was later reelected). It was due to a sudden case of “gastrointestinal dysfunction.” But the politicians, the media, and the people knew that it was not his physical state that terminated his term, but social, psychological pressure.
When I moved back to Japan in 2010 after six years in the States, I entered a private Japanese junior high school. At this school that had quite a few returnees like me, students were welcoming. All classes were conducted lecture-style, with the teacher droning on in the front and students taking notes or sleeping in their neatly aligned desks and chairs. During class, the teacher would pose a question like, “Does anyone know how to solve this equation?” or “How can we interpret this passage?” Trained by the hand-raising culture of the States, I was willing to answer. Well, for the first few days. I started noticing the subtle signs in the air again; it was a reawakening of my air-reading sensor which had for so long been dormant. After a teacher poses a question, silence permeates the room. Eyes flicker down as students are suddenly more interested in their notes. For a second or two, the only motion in the room is the head-nodding of some drowsy students. The teacher asks again. Some students shrug or hold their head in their hands. They try to appear as though they are thinking, but do not know the answer. The teacher chuckles with a sigh, and proceeds to answer the question himself. On some occasions, a student will answer. All eyes travel toward the speaker. If they say something good, the gazes soften; if not, the air suddenly feels strained.
Japanese society is structured in a way so that people who are eccentric, or different, have a hard time joining mainstream society. The people who are incapable of adapting to this environment leave society. They become incapable of coming to school. Even if they were not bullied, the very thought of school becomes a source of trauma. Some never set foot outside of their own rooms again, refusing to get a job or do anything that would make them get in contact with the world. We even have a proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” On the flip-side, Japanese society is kind to those who follow the tacit rules. If you enter a good university, you can most likely get a decent job. Once you enter a company, you are most likely assured a position for life.
I remastered the art of “reading the air” within a few weeks of Japanese ju-
nior high. I didn’t raise my hand. I stared at the occasional student who raised their hand. Abiding by the will of the majority felt disempowering at first, but feelings numb over time. Within a few months, I found myself a permanent place in a friend group that I would stay with for my next five years in junior and senior high school. I was so happy, so comfortable. I was a fully integrated member of my class community. We participated in the school festival, the sports field day, and the chorus competition in which classes competed against one another. For each of the events, our class united as one, working together before and after school, even during lunch breaks. We won a prize or two in each. We loved our homeroom teacher, and had a birthday surprise for her. She was so touched; she cried. My class was the favorite of many teachers; we were well-behaved and thoughtful. The air was so easy to read, I forgot that I was even doing it.
I didn’t realize until the very end of the year that the empty seat at the corner of the classroom belonged to an absent class-mate.