by Jessica Hutchison
If you really want to understand Japanese culture, one of the things you really need to get is where you stand. Knowing your social standing in any sort of group situation dictates everything you do, including how you speak. We can coast by in Western culture, for the most part, but this is super important in order to not offend someone in Japan.
So this article will explain the most important part of knowing your place: uchi and soto.
Literally translated, uchi means “home” or “inside.” We will use the English term “in-group.” Soto means “outside,” or, in our case, “out-group.”
To explain it simply, when you are speaking to anyone in Japan, you have an in-group and an out-group. You need to know where the person you are speaking is, in that sense. And if you are discussing someone else, you need to know where that person is in relation to you.
To help you understand this, I have created this amazing, very elaborate diagram.
As you can see in the diagram, there are bubbles in society. This is the first step to determining soto and uchi. When you speak to anyone, no matter which ring they are on in relation to you, every ring closer to you is your in-group, and every ring further is your out-group. The person you are talking to is also, by default, out-group.
For example, let’s say you are friends with Satomi-chan. You can call her “chan” because she is close enough to you. You would never call a stranger or even an acquaintance “chan” (unless they were about 5 years old). While you talk to her, your in-group consists of you and your family. This means you can use more familiar terms when referring to them, because they are closer to you than they are to Satomi-chan. So if you were talking about your mother, you would use the familiar term haha.
Now if you were talking about Satomi-chan’s mother, things would be different. Her mother is part of her in-group, but may only be one of your acquaintances. When talking about Satomi-chan’s mother, you would use the more polite term okaa-san. If you say haha, Satomi-chan will think you are talking about your mother, and it can get confusing. It’s also kind of rude.
So what happens if you’re talking to your own mother? If you look at the rings, addressing someone in your family means the only ring closer to you is you. You are your in-group. So you need to address the people in your out-group, which includes your family in this case, with respect. You wouldn’t call your mother “haha,” because that would be rude. But you can certainly call her “okaa-san.” There’s a lot of affectionate terms to call your mother, but they are not haha, because she is still in your out-group when you speak to her.
By these rules, you can see that you will always be in your in-group. It is never really appropriate to give yourself honorifics of any sort. Japanese is a language that loves humility, and you can sound rude or even stuck-up if you try to talk yourself up.
Your speaking style should also change as you get to rings further away from you. While you can talk to Satomi-chan and your mother in more casual language, if you are talking to someone you are less close with, you should be more polite.
Another important factor in this is age. Generally, those older than you can be considered your out-group. Even if you are close friends with them, it’s a good idea to speak to them respectfully. Also, you can always talk to kids in casual Japanese because of this age rule.
This is a pretty important concept to understand if you want to not offend people. Obviously, you can be off putting by speaking down to someone. If you go to your boss at work and start speaking very casually to him, it won’t go over well.
But an interesting thing is that you can also offend people by being too polite. I knew someone who had a Japanese coworker. They worked together closely for months, and finally the Japanese guy got really upset at the American.
He was upset because the American always used formal Japanese. “If you speak like that all the time, we can never be friends,” he said. They were considered the same social rank, so naturally, working together should have led to a friendship and more casual conversation. However, the American didn’t realize this. By using formal speech, he essentially built a wall between them that said, “We will always just be acquaintances.”
This is kind of a hard thing to get used to, because we don’t really have any sort of social rules like these. One of the best ways to tell where you stand with someone is by noticing how they speak to you. Obviously, older people will be more casual with you. But if someone your same age and status starts using more casual Japanese with you, it’s okay to be casual with them too. Japanese people have been working with these rules a lot longer than you, so let them help you figure it out.
One important thing that you should understand as a foreigner though, is that you will always be soto. Maybe not in everyday conversations, but foreigners never quite fit in when they go to Japan. It can be a bit more difficult to build relationships like this, but showing you understand soto and uchi by how you act and speak can be really impressive.
Of course, you’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. I still do. But this is one cultural thing you should work hard to master. It will help you make friends, earn respect, and really understand Japanese culture.