The Readable Air: On the Japanese Expression “KY”

Every year in Japan there is a vote for the most popular new word. In 2007, the word of the year was “KY,” which stands for “Kuuki wo Yomenai,” literally translated into English means: “Air read cannot.” This calls for an adaptation and through this adaptation, it can be translated as: “One who cannot read the air (atmosphere) of a certain situation.”

For example, last night I saw a man on a train eating potato chips. He had obviously been drinking and was trying to combat his drunkenness with food (we all know that being drunk on a moving train is horrible). The man, oblivious to the other passengers noisily munched his chips with myopic dedication. It should be noted that even though all the surrounding people ignored his munching (the Japanese are masters at pretending not to notice), his actions were unabashedly “KY.” One does not eat potato chips on a train. It is not proper.

The foreigner who approaches Japan should take note of the relevance of KY and use it to his or her advantage when communicating in Japanese. I’ll give another example. I went to a small Thai restaurant and upon leaving one of the owners (a Japanese man), giving me a huge smile said, “This is your third time to come here, isn’t it?” Knowing fully well that this was only my second time to come to the restaurant I softly and gleefully said, “I think this is my second time.” He continued smiling and said, “No, this is definitely your third time to come here.” I could do no other than accept his mistake and say, “Ah yeah, you’re right, this is my third time. My apologies.” To have refuted him would have been KY and would have destroyed the relationship he was trying to build with me. However, his insistence in itself was slightly KY, but from his position, it would have been KY for me to have disagreed with him.

Learning to understand KY can be very beneficial as (and I may have stated this before), the Japanese language as such and ways of interacting revolve around the idea of “being proper” and continuing things in a proper way. However, playing with KY (with friends) can result in humorous situations that the Japanese admire. For example, the man on the train eating potato chips sent my girlfriend into excessive giggling (which she had to conceal as the whole situation – quiet train, everyone looking somber, drunken man eating potato chips and her laughter was quite KY).

KY is sticking out, it is saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Moreover, it is saying too much or not saying enough. This is why I think that for many Japanese people, the foreigner is horrific in that the foreigner, being unaware that there is an atmosphere to read is prone to do anything and to completely destroy the atmosphere, hence inciting shame and discomfort in social situations, hence the slanderous Japanese expression “yabanna gaijin (dangerous – socially unaware – foreigner).”

In closing I am reminded of a new ad campaign that I saw in a train station near my apartment. The poster showed only four sets of shoes. One pair was small and signified a pair of children’s shoes, the other pair resembling a grown woman’s pair of shoes, the other perhaps the shoes of a junior high school student (smallish white sneakers) and finally, and most obvious, the shoes of a businessman (brown leather Italian dress shoes). The image, shot from a God’s eye view showed three sets of shoes (woman/child/student) as properly together, that is, there feet were not spread apart, while the fourth set (the man) was spread apart. Although we are only given the partial objects, we can easily read this poster. The four people are on a train and the man, obviously KY, has his feet spread wide disrupting the other obediant passengers. He cannot read the situation that there are certain manners to be obeyed on a train. The caption read: “The way you sit tells everyone all about you.” The message: Don’t be KY.