Japanese Culture and Traditions: What You Should Be Careful When You Are in Kyoto

An old street somewhere in Kyoto with a back shot of a woman in kimono

Kyoto language is too difficult even for the Japanese people

As you know, most Japanese people can’t speak English very well. Looking on the bright side of this situation, Japan is basically a monolingual country, and you can communicate only in Japanese anywhere in Japan. Mind you, howerver, there’s one exception: It’s Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan and one of the popular tourist destinations in Japan.

No offense, if you are a big fan of Kyoto or originate from Kyoto, but Kyoto people are often said to be snobbish and behave like still believing Kyoto is the center of Japan. It’s just an aside, but I think it’s funny (interesting) that Kyoto and Hokkaido (the northernmost part of Japan) are always competing for the first place in the popularity ranking of 47 prefectures in Japan, though their characters are completely different. Kyoto is oldest and conservative; Hokkaido is newest and progressive. For your information, Hokkaido has always defeated Kyoto and maintained the first place in the popularity ranking for these 15 years.

What I wrote above about Kyoto people’s characters (snobbish) is a stereotypical idea that many Japanese people outside Kyoto have in their minds, and I’m personally sure it’s generally truthful. Making matters worse, their language is too difficult even for most Japanese people outside Kyoto. It’s not about their accent or dialect, though I have to admit their accent and dialect are most beautiful. In Kyoto, we’re always and strictly required to understand the implication of their words. Let me give you some examples for your easier understanding.

Concealing true intentions is ancient wisdom for Kyoto people to survive

If your kids are shouting for joy and running around in a restaurant in Kyoto, the restaurant staff might smile at you and say “They are so cheerful.” Don’t you ever smile back and reply like “Yeah, they’re so excited about coming here in Kyoto.” In fact, the staff tries to mean “Shut them up!” Here is another example: even if you wear a cheesy shirt, Kyoto people would smile gently and say “You look good no matter what you wear.” The real intention is “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” It’s kinda scary, isn’t it?

I’m not blaming Kyoto people here but respect their culture on the contrary (I mean it, not in the Kyoto way), though I don’t think at all I can survive there. The long history of Kyoto has created such a profound culture. According to a theory of historical science, concealing true intentions is ancient wisdom for Kyoto people to survive through many political struggles that had repeated over time in the power center of Japan.

An old street somewhere in Kyoto with some women in colorful kimono

The high context communication supports the artisan culture

Kyoto language is an extreme example, but it’s true we are always required to read between the lines in communication in any place in Japan to some extent. For example, “I’ll go if I can” means “I’ll never go.” “Let’s go for a drink sometime soon” is a way of just saying goodbye. This kind of implication in Japanese language may be difficult for people in many other countries and cultures, but this is what we always do here in Japan, an almost mono-cultural country. Don’t take it nasty. I believe we do that mainly for courtesy. The good point of this high-context communication is we can convey detailed nuances more easily. That also contributes to a technique transmission in the furniture making industry, I’m guessing.

A craftsman is conducting a final inspection on a wooden chair.

A corporate logo, the letters of C and H are combined to look like a tree in a circle

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.