Omoiyari is regarded as ideal communication in Japanese society.
Omoiyari is a noun formed from a compound of two verbs. Omoi- comes from the verb omou, which means ‘to think or have concern for others’, while -yari is from the verb yaru that means ‘to do’ or ‘to send’.
Omou + yaru = Omoiyari
Omou = to think, to have concern for others.
Yaru = to do, to send.
When you practise omoiyari, you're sending or actioning your thoughts; essentially, omoiyari is the desire to take action or send altruistic thoughts to others when needed. It involves empathy but is closer to understanding the feelings of others while not including the concept of self.
You're trying to put yourself in the position of someone else to understand their feelings voluntarily. When you act with omoiyari, there's no expectation of reward or gratitude from others.
My Omoiyari Experiences in Japan
When I was in Japan, there were many occasions when people went out of their way – often taking 5 or 10 minutes of their time – to walk me to my destination after I had stopped them to ask for directions. This is an example of omoiyari.
Another example is when a friend listens completely to you, without interrupting or turning the subject back to themselves, when you are worried and need to get something off your chest; I was fortunate to have a business partner and friend who provided this sympathetic ear to me when I struggled with the cultural complexities of life in Japan.
Including others in conversations or taking an interest in someone who appears to be shy or lonely at social gatherings is another way to act with omoiyari. Again, this is something that was offered to me many times when living in Japan.
In Japan, omoiyari is considered as one of the most important ideals in Japanese cultural values and communication. It is a guiding principle on how to communicate with others. It is something that parents hope that their children develop. It's also a concept that is promoted in school.
I learnt from my Japanese language teacher that omoiyari is not always about actively doing something for others; it can also require you to do nothing at all – that is, not saying something you want to say or not doing something you want to out of consideration for another person’s feelings.
This Japanese way of thinking may challenge your sense of freedom, and you may feel it is your God-given right to say or do what you want, when you want, but holding back and refraining from what you want to say for the sake of others is also an expression of personal freedom that can serve both yourself and a greater good.
Reading the Air
Knowing when to say something and when to hold back requires a form of social awareness or social intelligence captured by the Japanese idiom, Kūki wo yomu.
Kūki means ‘air’ and yomu is the verb ‘to read’, so this phrase directly translates to ‘reading the air’. We could liken this expression to ‘reading between the lines’, as it is a nonverbal form of communication where you are attentive to the feelings and needs of the people around you.However, as my Japanese teacher shared with me, it is important to find a balance between holding back and expressing yourself, as reading the air excessively might cause one too much stress in addition to not being able to voice one’s own opinions.
To find this balance, you've got to be tuned into your feelings, but also be socially aware. You should always feel free to express yourself but at the same time be cautious about expressing something that may cause trouble or hurt someone. We have to use our judgement in a thoughtful way. We need to read the air.