Aimai: The Importance of Ambiguity

Aimai or あいまい, which translates to “ambiguity”, is one of the cornerstones of traditional Japanese society. Let’s take a look at why.

To Japanese, harmony or “wa” =  is absolutely essential to maintaining their tight communities, and their way of life. How has this come to be so integrated into society?

Due to their small country and low percentage of inhabitable land, Japan’s population was maxed out sometime during the 1600s. Communities were very tightly knit because everyone had to work hard enough to earn their food and provide goods and services for their community, but also be conservative because food supplies were tight.

If one family ate too much, than another family was likely not able to eat as much. Thus everyone became really conscious of how they affected their neighbors and community members. In such tight communities, it was key to get along together and work alongside each other. The Japanese Mind has this to say about the peculiar characteristics of aimai:

People avoided expressing their ideas clearly, even to the point of avoiding giving a simple yes or no answer. If a person really wanted to say no, he or she said nothing at first, then used vague expressions that conveyed the nuance of disagreement.

Such ambiguity and beating around the bush may seem worthless to the Western eye, but the Japanese have a very different take on it. They feel that “to express oneself distinctly carries the assumption that one’s partner knows nothing”, so clear expression can be considered impolite.

How to say Yes

Saying yes or agreeing in Japanese is not exactly straight forward. The word “hai” = はい simply means yes, but in day to day conversation it is not the most common form of agreement. “un” = うん is a common sound of agreement, though it is often used the same way as one would nod in agreement during a conversation.

Asking “are you doing well” will often trigger a response like “ichio” = いちおう, an indirect way of saying yes, which translates as “for the time being”. This is because Japanese understand that in that situation, everyone may not be as happy or doing as well, so they don’t won’t to seem too proud.

How to say No

If saying yes confused you, then learning how to say no may drive you crazy, because the Japanese are far more ambigous when disagreeing or declining offers. There are many round about ways of saying no, but one of the most famous ones is “chotto ne” = ちょっとね, which is about the most vague you can get. “chotto” generally means “a little”, and “ne” is usually tagged on to the end of a sentence to accentuate or reaffirm the statement. So you can see it basically means nothing.

Aimai and Modern Japan

Today aimai is still hardwired in the nature of Japanese people. I spoke with a few of my Japanese friends, and I got some interesting responses. Most young people tend to use it only while they are getting to know someone, or meeting someone for the first time.

“We don’t say our opinions in a direct way because I think we like to…(build our relationships slowly) so we don’t show our true feelings”, my friend said. If you think about it, you don’t exactly know in what ways you may agree or disagree on certain issues, so aimai is a way to carefully dance around those differences.

With Japanese people, aimai still seems to be most prevelent in groups. When a group of friends get together, decisions become difficult. “When we go to dinner, sometimes my friends don’t say I want to go here or there, or eat sushi, so they don’t share their opinion, and use aimai expressions.”

Within Japan, some people are more shy and tend to use aimai more, whereas the more westernized young Japanese may be direct. “In my opinion, I like the more direct way. It’s easier to make good relationships”, my friend says.

I was curious about the whether Japanese are becoming more direct, and it seems that the Internet is playing a role in this. “Younger people use direct commuications with emails and Internet, and they share there opinions directly.”

This could be giving some Japanese more incentive to be direct in everyday life. It remains to be seen how and if the use of aimai will change, and just how much the Internet will play a role in this transition.

Have you had experience with Japanese people with aimai, or perhaps without it? Share your experiences and your questions!


  • Leslie

    This piece is interesting and enlightening. I hope the art of aimai is not lost, since it is an expression of national identity. Is there a separate word for the art of being self-deprecating and apologetic? It is at least very closely related in motive.

    • Andrew Hammond

      I’ve run across some terminology and/or concepts relating to that before, but I can’t recall the facts exactly. I will look into it!