The Five Love Languages of Japan
One of the theories in the U.S. on how to love people well stems from a book by Gary Chapman called The Five Love Languages. It is a book well worth reading, but to summarize it, the basic premise is that each person has one or two ways in which they primarily give and show love. A person may give and show love in different ways or “languages” and more often than not a person can “speak” multiple languages, but is more adept in one or two than the others. The five love languages Chapman lists
are physical touch, acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and quality time.
One of the persistent debates in the social sciences is whether psychological ideas can transcend culture. As someone with a B.A in anthropology, I would say they do and they don’t. I think a lot of the ideas are the same, but the specific way in which they are played out is affected by the culture. For example, in many African countries it is completely acceptable for two men who are
platonic friends to stroll down the street holding hands. In the U.S. that form of touch is considered a sign of two people being a couple, with some exceptions for the female/female expression. In some capacity all five of the love languages are present in Japan. However the ways they are expressed and interpreted varies from the U.S. expression. One can still “speak” all of the love languages here, but how they are “spoken” may need to be….tweaked.
I. Acts of Service
I would argue that the love language most consistently and fluently spoken in the Japanese culture is that of acts of service. Japanese people serve their hearts out, and it is almost impossible to outdo them.
Foreigners, on the other hand, walk a tricky line. Because this love language is so ingrained in the culture, it would be rude for us NOT to serve. At the same time, it is often difficult to know how to serve, for as an outsider in the culture, and therefore a guest, in many situations as soon as we begin to do something we are interrupted by a Japanese person insisting he or she be allowed to serve instead. That said, there are times we are not only allowed to served but in which we are asked to serve. The following are acts of service that speak to the Japanese heart:
A. Fulfill the tasks we are asked to do, even if they seem pointless. If we don’t do it, someone else is required to – A few times a year my teammates and I are asked to show up at the office. The kids aren’t in school, but we aren’t released for vacation yet. I guess one could compare them to American “In Service Days.” These days often fall at the beginning or end of school breaks. For our in service days we come into the office and wash windows, rake leaves, make posters, etc. No, the naked eye can’t detect any dirt on the windows, and there will only be a few leaves on the ground, but what we are doing is a very specific service.
See, if we don’t do it, someone else will. This isn’t work to keep us busy; this is a moment in which the Japanese are asking us to accomplish work they do every single day. Because we served them for a few hours this one day, they will be able to focus on something else, and maybe even get home to their families a little earlier. The window doesn’t look dirty, but the office lady wipes it every day. She also rakes every day in the fall. She also usually puts in 10 hour days. If four times a year I can help her go home after only eight hours, I have just blessed her family, even if I don’t “feel” like I did any work.
In the same way, at the junior highs we are asked to break down our milk cartons after lunch, and in our apartments we are asked to sort our trash. I don’t have good reasons as to why we do these things, but I can tell you that if we don’t, someone else will. By embracing this responsibility, we are serving, and therefore loving, the person who would do it instead.
B. Be on time – yes, this is an act of service. Punctuality serves others by telling them that their time is important. If someone wants to miss a train on the weekend, that is his or her business. But when it comes to work it is vital to be prompt. As in, prompt by the Japanese definition. Which is often 5-15 minutes earlier than even punctual Americans would arrive.
C. Be excellent at our work –
1. When we are the head teachers, it is important that we keep finding ways to engage with each specific group of students. Figure out what they need, figure out how to teach them better, ask advice from and bounce ideas off of other teachers, the internet, etc. By doing we are serving our employers and our students.
2. When we are the assistant teachers, it is important that we review the lesson ahead of time and know which words will be covered. Know the specific grammatical concepts which will be taught. Be mentally prepared with examples. If our teacher allows us to be in charge of a review game, be really excellent at leading that game. It’s so easy to mentally drift in class, because Japanese becomes a white noise in the back ground, and it is rare in this indirect culture for teachers to directly address us. Pay attention to what is going on. In your free periods, the teacher may ask for help grading. Consider this a way to serve him or her.
D. Learn names – this is a key thing in any culture. It is trickier in Japan because there are a lot of names we have never heard before, many of them will sound alike, and a lot of kids wear not only uniforms but face masks, meaning it can be hard to tell them apart at first. But over and over again I have seen kids light up with pleasure when I call them by their name.
E. Keep things clean – I’m not even sure I can explain why this is true, but in some realm when we keep things clean the Japanese feel loved. So don’t wear clothes with holes in them, keep the work desk clean, and make sure the apartment is spotless vacations.
F. Learn Japanese – The easiest way to shock a Japanese person into a smile is by showing adeptness in the language: writing a kanji, busting out a sentence with such perfect pronunciation that they thought it was a native speaker, borrowing a manga from the school library, or chatting with a preschooler about favorite animals. There are a lot of reasons to learn a language, but if nothing else, learn it because it really shows the people love.
G. Find the tasks that no one is doing that need to be done – pick up trash that drifted into the river, shovel snow that no one else has the time to shovel, or pick up the balls flying around the gym at table tennis practice. These are among the activities that everyone acknowledges must be completed but which the Japanese people sometimes don’t get around to doing. Because they speak this language of service so fluently, some of your biggest accolades will come if you find the rare way to literally out serve the Japanese.
If you are someone who speaks the language of service fluently, great, you fit right in here. Keep serving, even if told by Japanese people to stand by while they do the work. For the most part they are being polite. Assuming you have enough of a comprehension of what is going on to be able to execute the task well, dive in and serve, serve, serve.
If you are someone who understands the language of service fluently, great! You will feel loved here! What the rest of us need you to do is translate for us sometimes. For those who don’t yet understand this language well, we can feel stifled by the service. We don’t always register the love and instead feel as if our autonomy has been ripped away. Help us see the service for what it is: an expression of love by the Japanese people in the best way they know how.
If you are not someone who speaks service well I strongly urge you to learn. This love language is so ingrained in the culture that you will come across as rude if you don’t learn to speak service to at least a certain extent, and on at least half of the things listed above Japanese people will call you out.
The second strongest love language spoken by this culture is that of gift giving. However, the way it is spoken in Japan is different than how it is spoken in the U.S. In the U.S. we prize unique, individual gifts that show the receiver how well he or she is known. And for the most part, with the exception of those especially strong in this language, Americans limit our gift giving to
family and close friends and to Christmas and birthdays, with an occasional branch out for anniversaries or Valentine’s Day.
Japan loves giving gifts, but the way they are given is different. Being equal is extremely important. It is rare for birthdays to be acknowledges in a work place. Learning the dates and wishing the person a private birthday greeting on the day will leave him or her tickled pink, but also quite astonished.
In this context the language of gift giving is most often expressed through food. This boils down into two categories
A. Omiyage – Omiyage, the small packets of food that a traveler brings back, are a key part of the Japanese culture. Anyone who works in an office will receive a lot of these. The bigger the office, the more omiyage.
B. Bringing food to a party – If a Japanese person shows up at someone’s home, whether it’s for a movie or an American Thanksgiving dinner, they will bring food. And they won’t take it home with them, as that would be considered rude. The food they brought is considered a gift.
So how can we show love in Japan via gifts?
A. Buy omiyage when we travel – this isn’t mandatory, but it is a good idea. Japanese people will see this as love, and since foreigners aren’t inherently expected to conform to this norm, when we bring it back we are profusely thanked.
B. Give gifts when appropriate – opportunities do exist. The schools I work at don’t allow me to give candy out, but shockingly, my students have been known to ask me for presents. They don’t actually expect me to give them any, but if I do their faces light up. Once I bumped into one of my favorite students while out shopping. She held out her hand and I gave her a package of gummi frogs. I’ve given chocolates to the kids walking by my apartment and simple English books to a student who was motivated enough to try to read them. As part of a grammatical exercise a ninth grader said he wanted me to give him money. The next day I gave him eight cents, and he burst into a smile. Their faces tell me how touched they are far more than their words ever could.
C. Make gifts look aesthetically appealing – In Japan it is just as much about how nicely the gift is wrapped as it is about the contents.
D. Bake for the workplace – for those who like baking, consider bringing in homemade treats for the office. Individually portioned items like cookies and cupcakes work the best in terms of distribution, but cake and pie are completely acceptable too. And because this isn’t a common practice among the Japanese teachers, anyone who goes this route blows them out of the water.
If you are adept at speaking the language of gifts look for the opportunities. They do exist.
If you are adept at understanding this language the rest of us ex-pats need you to gently remind us that love is being shown even when we feel overwhelmed by the food we are given and the pressure to eat more than we can handle.
If you aren’t good at speaking this language you’ll still do okay here. You will need to be polite and thank others for the gifts – usually food – you receive. You don’t have to buy omiyage every time you go anywhere, but 1. Don’t be telling everyone how you went to Tokyo last weekend if you didn’t bring anything back. 2. After long breaks (spring, summer, and winter) people will ask you if you went anywhere. Bring back omiyage from any jaunts out of the prefecture during these work breaks.
Time is a third love language that is quite important in the Japanese culture. Again, however, the way it is played out differs from the U.S. In the states we consider quality time a good conversation over coffee with your bestie or a Fussball tournament with the guys. In Japan time gifts are far more passive. The Japanese feel loved by the fact that we come, even if we just sit there. Sometimes in Japan we are asked to participate passively and other times we are asked to participate actively.
A. Passive Participation
1. Junior High Sports Days – a few times a year there will be sports days where all of the junior high clubs compete against each other. At smaller schools classes completely shut down, and we are often given official permission to attend. Just showing up will make the kids feel loved. Just watch their faces. It is also worth noting that while some students will have their mother, grandmother, and toddler-aged sibling there, with a camera set up to film the entire thing, because this is a weekday, some students won’t have anyone cheering them on, not a friend, not a sibling, not a parent. We may be the only people they know who chooses to be there, just to watch them. They understand this act as one of love.
2. Other Events – every once in awhile there are events happening on Sundays: a band concert at the culture center, or a basketball game in a nearby city, or the local road race in which a good chunk of students compete. We are under no obligation to attend these – it is the weekend after all – but anyone who choose to go will be seen, and students delight in recognition that we chose to engage in our time off.
3. Church – it delights the local church whenever any of us attend. We may not have a clue what is going on, but just our presence is enough.
4. Work – yeah, it’s a camaraderie thing. There are days when we have literally nothing to do. Show up anyway. The time put in there serves as an acknowledgment that to the Japanese people the effort given is as important as the end result. We are there in solidarity with them. It may feel pointless. It may BE pointless. But remember that the Japanese people do feel loved by it.
B. Active Participation
1. Town events – a few times a year we are asked to participate in some local events. It could be performing at a local concert or attending a party for internationals at a community center and leading an activity. Believe it or not, this makes the locals feel loved. They perceive participation as a sign that we love the community and enjoy being here. And because those are two things that it is difficult to convincingly convey in words or gifts, these become key times to reinforce the truth that we deeply love and care for the people of Japan.
2. Club activities – junior high teachers, have the opportunity to be involved in club activities. This can take either a passive or an active form. Just going and watching will in and of itself make the students feel loved. But choosing to actually pick up kendo or run with the track team or get in there and run drills with the basketball team? Massive bonus points. Those students will be the teacher’s buddies, and he or she will have an in with those students over and above the others.
3. Church – sitting in church makes the congregation feel loved. Leading a worship song or giving a testimony communicates even more.
4. Drinking parties – The primary way Japanese people socialize is by after work parties with their coworkers. Some businesses do this multiple times a week. Others, only a few times a year. The drinking parties are optional. But it is one of the only times that anyone casually chats with coworkers. They ask questions from “Where have you traveled in Japan?” to “Why did you come here?” and this is one of the only times they’ll ask you. What’s more, no one is required to imbibe. There are always non-alcoholic options available for people who drove and those who are allergic to alcohol (30% of Japanese people lack an enzyme to digest alcohol and have red faces after half a glass of beer).
If you are adept at speaking this language, wonderful! Take the bull by the horns and figure out what your niche will be in your schools and what events you can attend. And ask for help if you need it. If you’re new and don’t know how to get to the location, ask some other ex-pats. Someone will be able to help you figure out how to get there, or will know a Japanese friend to ask.
If you are adept at understanding this language, great! What the rest of us ex-pats need you to do is to have a positive attitude and to gently remind us of how loved our presence makes the Japanese people feel. At certain times of year many of our weekends and free time will be spent in this love language, and it can be tempting for the rest of us to become bogged down by how much we are giving. Pull as much weight as you can during those times and find ways to refresh your teammates so that they have energy to give at the events.
A word of caution, however: it is typical for Japanese to work long hours six days a week. Even the Japanese friends who really value you may only be able to hang out once a month. Your love tank may not get filled in the way you need to be filled.
In order to have a steady supply of love coming in,
A. Find as many Japanese friends as you can so that even hanging out with each once every couple of months will keep you busy.
B. Be sure to plan Skype dates with friends back home. Again, have either a very committed couple of people or have a large group that you can cycle through.
C. Learn to press into God. There may be some very lonely days when absolutely no one makes a deposit in your love tank. The most valuable thing you can do is to learn to let God fill you. As ridiculous as it sounds, setting out two cups of tea and sitting in a chair, talking aloud to God can be quite comforting. He isn’t an imaginary friend, he is actually there, and something about
making the space for him allows the time spent with him to become more real.
If you aren’t adept at this language, try looking at this as if we are celebrities. Celebrities don’t have to actually do much. People are just happy if they show up to the party, concert, baseball game, etc. This attitude also helps if you catch people staring at you when you are out and about town. Smile and wave, smile and wave. Be the gracious celebrity everyone loves, not the guy cussing people out when he is asked for an autograph. If that mindset doesn’t help, the best advice I can offer is to man up. A lot of times your presence is required at these events and at school. You can either go and have a good attitude or go and have a bad attitude. But you’re going either way. And comprehending how loved the Japanese feel by you showing up can go a long way to making the hours more enjoyable.
IV. Words of encouragement
As love languages go, it is tempting to think words of encouragement doesn’t exist at all in Japan. It does actually exist, but in a form much different than westerners typically see it.
There are two aspects at play here, indirect communication and an ideal of “wa”.
1. Indirect communication – while individuals in the States fall on a range, as a culture we tend to be direct. Japanese range quite a bit too, but as a culture they tend to be indirect. Part of the process of learning to thrive in Japan involves learning to navigate this system and understanding what Japanese people are saying. Their critiques, their praises, and their information will often be conveyed in nods, looks with the eyes, and pauses. In addition, it is important to be able to speak to them in a way that communicates clearly. A lot of qualifiers are inserted into the sentences. To American ears these qualifiers make the meaning vague, but to Japanese ears they make the command or request more polite. In addition to what we intend to say,
because we are not as cautious with our words, that which we don’t mean to say is sometimes inadvertently said. Because the Japanese often don’t spell things out explicitly, the slightest hint, whether meant to be conveyed or not, is often taken seriously.
2. Wa – “wa” is one of those words that lacks a direct translation in English. The best way to describe it would be “an inherent comprehension of each other; peace; harmony.” Have you ever had a best friend where you could look at him or her and just know what thoughts were running through the mind? No words need to pass, yet you know what is going on in his or her heart, because you are that in touch? That feeling, and the incredible peace that comes from knowing someone that well, that is “wa.”
“Wa” is the ideal in Japan. The belief is that all Japanese have this inherent comprehension of each other. It is one reason that non-Japanese will always be outsiders, because it is assumed we will never have the “wa” that the Japanese have, thus always making us that third wheel around two best friends. The tricky thing here is that Japanese know we don’t understand, but because they’re not used to having to explain (as the assumption is that everyone else understands) they don’t always know how to explain.
The indirect communication and the “wa” combine to form an environment much different than that to which Westerners are accustomed. But, the love language of Words of Affirmation still exists here.
1. Compliment Japan, compliment me – Americans think of themselves as individuals. We have a country, a state, a city, and a family we are from, but first and foremost we are individuals. Japan is highly communal and first and foremost the people here are Japanese. They don’t have a need to constantly hear how they are unique and special. They know they are special because they believe Japan is special, and they are Japanese. Therefore, when Japan, or anything related to the Japanese culture, is complimented, the Japanese feel affirmed.
So, the goal here is to find something Japanese to be genuinely enthusiastic about: art, music, food, dance, language, something. Be ready with an answer because the question will be asked.
A. Find some Japanese food to be passionate about – this is the question asked the most frequently, so have a mental list ready for when it comes up. Sushi, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, umeboshi, natto, soba, and sake are all things universally acknowledged as being Japanese. Other items are trickier: the yakiniku and gyoza the ex-pats never had before arriving in Japan are actually
considered to be Korean and Chinese, respectively. But there are “Japanese” foods we wouldn’t have assumed were Japanese: peaches, pears, plums, watermelon, sweet potatoes, persimmons, strawberries, melon, and salmon all fit in this category.
B. Find an aspect of the culture to really enjoy – No one has to love everything, but it helps to love something so that when questions come the gushing about kendo, karate, anime, onsen, the tea ceremony, etc. can commence. The one tricky thing here is that occasionally the Japanese are not fully aware of their own uniqueness. Sudoku and karaoke, are two things many Japanese don’t realize they invented.
C. Travel in Japan – on long vacations, visit places and then let the locals know about it. “Where have you traveled in Japan?” is a question that comes up, and “What is your favorite place in Japan?” follows if your answer to the first question was sufficiently long. Enjoying the country and taking time to explore it, and then gushing about it, affirms the Japanese people.
D. Engaging in Japanese traditions – Japanese really appreciate it when we participate in their traditions. This can become a little tricky, as many of the traditions are tied to Buddhism or Shintoism, and just because Japanese people feel loved when we go and pray at a shrine doesn’t mean we should go and pray at a shrine. Therefore, what I urge you to do is find the practices
that do not compromise your faith and wholeheartedly engage in them.
1. New Year’s Cards – In Japan it is traditional to send out New Year’s greetings. It will take some work to discover addresses, but the recipients genuinely appreciate the effort.
2. Culture Festivals – each October junior highs each have a one or two day culture festival. Lucky teachers get asked to participate – playing volleyball with the other teachers against the students, accompanying a student on a musical instrument, or dancing a traditional Japanese dance with a class. If the opportunity arises, take it. Never mind that those things don’t feel entirely Japanese to you. They are called culture festivals, and when you participate you affirm the culture.
3. I actually think there are several more ways that we haven’t discovered yet. Be the pioneer who figures out additional ways to affirm this culture while walking strong in the faith.
E. Greetings – Exchanging greetings is massively important in this culture. So smile and give a time-of-day appropriate greeting to everyone who crosses your path. This is both an affirmation of the culture as well as a culturally approved way of acknowledging a person as an individual. “I see you!” the “konichiwa” screams. “You exist!”
F. The Back Door – Praising an individual is done, but it is done through a back door, by telling someone else how great the person is. To praise a student, tell another teacher how well he or she did. To praise a teacher, tell another teacher. The message will get conveyed. On the flip side, if someone ever praises another teacher to you, pass that compliment on. The Japanese expect you are going to tell that person and will probably never tell them themselves.
G. The Exceptions – sometimes we can get away with complimenting someone to his or her face. I’ve had several students beam huge smiles after I praise them for their hard work. I’ve had a seventh grader immediately go and ask the head teacher if it was true, that he really did a good job that day. Personal and direct compliments can still work here. But if you take this route remember that the Japanese aren’t used to it and some may not know how to receive it well. The person may look embarrassed or wave away the compliment or immediately disagree with you. Remember that in the States we are taught how to receive a compliment. No one has taught them here. One ninth grader I was prepping for a speech heard me give verbal compliments but didn’t relax her shoulders or her face until I handed her a sticker. My insistence that she was doing a good job didn’t register until she received something tangible to reinforce the words. She couldn’t trust my words, but she could trust the gift.
If you are someone who speaks words of affirmation fluently, this culture may take some getting used to. But as long as you are mindful about how and when you compliment, there is nothing wrong about continuing to deliver profuse compliments. What the rest of us ex-pats need you to do is affirm the rest of us. We’re not going to have a lot of encouragement from those around us, so if you are able to step up to the plate and call out our gold, we will be a better people because of it.
If you are someone who really thrives on words of affirmation, this place can feel like a desert. You can easily go three months without being told that you’re doing a good job. In order to still have your love tank filled up:
1. If you get praised for something, write it down and revisit it often. Keep it in mind and remember it when you are discouraged.
2. Let other ex-pats know that you need encouragement – we may drop the ball and not fill you up as much as you need, but at least let us know. Let us know about your wins so that we can rejoice with you in them, see the patterns, and call out who you really are.
3. Let people back at home know too. They are the ones who have known you a long time. They have seen the gold and they can remind you that it is still there even when the pressure cooker of a foreign country is burning out a lot of dross and all you can see is ugliness.
If you are someone who doesn’t speak this language well, you’ll do okay here. But I still urge you to learn this language, both in the American dialect to encourage your teammates who need to hear affirmation from you, as well as in the Japanese dialect. If you can’t speak the Japanese dialect at all you will come across as rude when the Japanese fish for compliments.
I would almost argue that physical touch as a love language does not exist in Japan. People keep their distance from each other, even bowing instead of clasping hands. It is rare to see friends hug each other after a long absence, and in the moments when I forget myself and embrace a student, I feel them stiffen under my arms.
Except the love language of touch does exist here. Japanese babies still cry to be held, and toddlers still hug their parents tightly. The preschoolers on my bus light up when I offer them “high fives” (here it is called “touch-touch”) and the third graders beg me to raise my hand in the air for them to reach at the end of our bi-weekly lesson. I’ve had a Japanese woman throw her arms open wide to hug me after a two month absence, and a sixth grader I’d been leading during an English program tackle me from the back on the second day, wrapping me in a bear hug. One seventh grader stiffened under my embrace, but asked for it again the next day. Her voice said, “This is awkward,” but her eyes sparkled under the affection.
If touch is a love language you enjoy speaking know how and when to express it. There are people who accept it and enjoy it, but you have to look for the right people and the right moments.
If touch is a love language you enjoy hearing find an ex-pat willing to embrace you and make arrangements accordingly.
If touch is a love language you are not adept at, for the most part you will be fine here. But don’t assume you can get away with never expressing it. Children are still children. There is a good chance that sometime while you are here, especially if you spend significant time with elementary school students, that a child will reach out for your hand or hug your leg or tackle you from behind. When it comes, accept it. See that they are asking to be loved, and show them some affection.
Postscript: A word of caution: no one expects you to do all of these every day all of the time, just as no one in your home country expects a hug, a gift, an hour of good conversation, an encouragement, and an act of service every day. It is too much. But know the heart behind many of the activities we are asked to do and spend your emotional energy accordingly. As Christians we have been called to love God and love our neighbors. Take time on a regular basis to ask yourself if you are loving well and how you can learn to love better. Eventually you will find that even if the pattern of your day feels like little more than jabbering, to the Japanese people you will be speaking words of love.