A lot of Japanese talk to themselves. It`s called `hitori goto.` I have described my observations to a few Japanese acquaintances, but they don’t believe me. But I experience it every day. Apparently normal people - usually men in business suits - walk down the sidewalks alone every day having conversations with themselves. As I draw near to them I realize that they are talking, often in mumbling tones, and sometimes in full conversational voices. But they are talking only to themselves. It happens on the trains, too. Some people - old men, again - sitting on the bench periodically ejaculating some comments about something, not carrying on a dialogue with anyone. My wife does it, too. She may be in the kitchen and I might be in another room when I hear her talking, so I shout to her, “Are you talking to me?” thinking that it might be something important. She can’t hear me clearly, so she shouts back, “What?!” Now we are shouting at each other,
“Are you talking to me?”
“Are you talking to me?”
“Then why are you talking?”
“Just to myself.”
“Well, stop it.”
“Don’t command me!”
Some of my foreign acquaintances have noticed the same phenomena - the phenomenon of Japanese mumbling and talking to themselves on the one, and the phenomenon of Japanese talking to you from another room on the other hand. People do not seem to understand that if they try to talk to me from another room, then I am unlikely to hear them clearly, and perhaps not hear them at all. Also, if we are in the same room, Japanese often speak to me with their heads turned away or even with their hands slightly covering their mouths (a Japanese affectation, especially among females, denoting modesty), again interfering with clear reception. It’s infuriating. Why do they do this? Don’t they understand how to communicate clearly? No, they don’t. I think that is part of the cultural lesson playing out in these behaviors. Japanese might be said to unconsciously construct vagueness into situations specifically to avoid or mute clear and direct communication.
In Canada a person’s sanity might soon be suspect for indulging in the same behavior - walking around mumbling to oneself. But I doubt that the Japanese mumblers I see every day are insane. Something else is going on with them, a cultural lesson that is difficult to describe. But here is my theory about it.
Japan is famous as being a corporate, or group culture with weak traditions of individuality and individual expression, and strong traditions of shame and honor, patient perseverance and passive reliance on authorities from higher in the vertical social structure. All of these are apparent in one form or another from the family at home, to school, to the business and political worlds, and to the vocabulary used to report the news. These things combined create a population uncomfortable with solitude. When they find themselves alone or in isolation, many Japanese try to create the illusion of company, or collectivity by speaking out loud as if there were others present. It’s like someone in Canadawalking through the woods alone deliberately making noise in order to scare off any bears that might be in the vicinity.
On first consideration, this idea runs counter to common notions in many Western countries about Japan’s culture. Many foreigners might expect the bare, minimal, silent and pure world of Zen Buddhist esthetics that you see in coffee table books about Japanese houses, gardens, textiles, etc., or the polite formalities of a martial arts dojo. But these aspects of high culture do not translate into everyday Japanese life. Popular culture is quite different from the coffee table books.
On second consideration this idea might synchronize with our observations of the Japanese preference to always travel in groups. But the simple observation of it does not explain the motives for it. It’s a mystery.