It sounds exotic but aizuchi is the Japanese name for something very common, namely the polite noises in conversations which demonstrate attention and understanding: the ‘yeah’s and ‘uh huh’s we use to show another person that we’re on the same wavelength as them.
The word is part of the proverb ‘aizuchi o utsu’ (あいづちをうつ) which literally means ‘striking the forge hammer’, and describes the rhythmic to-and-fro of two blacksmiths striking a hammer. The blacksmith makes a strike and his apprentice responds, in the same way that in conversations one person often leads while the other reassures the speaker that his words are understood.
Most cultures use aizuchi and it is an important part of human relationships and conversations. The correct use of aizuchi can be pivotal in determining a conversation’s ‘success’: too many interjections could be perceived as rude interruptions by some cultures, whereas too few could offend the speaker by suggesting that the listener has switched off. However, aizuchi is a particularly important linguistic and cultural phenomenon in Japan, where heavy use of words such as ‘hai’ and ‘un’ characterise conversations and are seen as helpful rather than impertinent.
So aizuchi is a big deal in Japan and if you want to put Japanese friends/ colleagues at ease you should try to use it. People accustomed to receiving verbal reassurance in conversations might understandably be disconcerted when faced with a passive, silent listener. But also bear in mind that aizuchi is just this – reassurance – and nothing more. In Japanese culture aizuchi is not the same as agreement: the seasoned aizuchi-user says ‘yes’ to indicate comprehension, not necessarily approval. This is where things can get confusing for non-native Japanese speakers, who take the stream of ‘hai’ and ‘un’s to be agreement. So a warning to non-native Japanese speakers: don’t be fooled by aizuchi!
The same advice goes to anyone speaking to Japanese people really, even in English. Aizuchi really is a cultural phenomenon as well as a linguistic one, demonstrated by the fact that when Japanese people speak a second language they deploy aizuchi just as they would in Japanese. Specific words do not create aizuchi; rather aizuchi is created by the active and vocal nature of Japanese listening, and the idea that speakers need constant vocal reassurance (in linguistic terms, phatic expression.) For this reason – and until I arrive in Japan, 4 weeks and counting – I’ll use an example from my weeks teaching Japanese children in the UK to illustrate these thoughts on Japanese language and culture:
Once the students had seen Big Ben, Westminster, Buckingham Palace etc, we thought it would be nice for them to spend a day in London Zoo, to coincide with a lesson on animals. The zoo seemed to us good ‘school trip’ potential, and a safe place in which to let 70 children wander around and have fun. We mooted our plan to one of the Japanese teachers who spoke English, and were pleased when after every suggestion we made he said ‘yes, yes, yes’. ‘That’s settled then’, we thought, and promptly booked 70 tickets to the zoo.
Feeling happy with ourselves we later mentioned to the teacher that we were excited for the zoo, at which point he said, ‘um, I’ve been thinking, maybe zoo, but maybe not zoo. Maybe National Portrait Gallery?’ Knowing a little about Japanese culture (enough to know that the word ‘no’ is rarely used, but is instead implied) I quickly realised that his ‘maybe not zoo’ equated to a polite but resounding ‘no’. The other English teachers and I could not understand his apparent volt-face; that is until I stumbled upon articles on Tofugu and (naturally) Wikipedia and reassessed our conversations mindful of aizuchi. The teacher had never wanted to go to the zoo in the first place, but from our Western perspective we assumed that his ‘yes’s were marks of approval, and agreement.
The situation resolved itself happily in a compromise: our zoo tickets were not wasted and we were able to see other sights on the same day, and importantly, we English teachers left with a better understanding of Japanese conversational customs.