Aimai (曖昧), the Ambiguous Mind

Ambiguity is the hallmark of Kenzaburo Oe (大江 健三郎), Japan's second Nobel Laureate in Literature. He defines ambiguity as “vague, obscure, equivocal, dubious, doubtful, questionable, shady, noncommittal, indefinite, hazy, double, tow-edged”. In Japan, aimai (Japanese: ambiguity) permeates art, culture, literature and even the language.

The Japanese consider ambiguity a virtue; however, it can cause a great many problems in cross-cultural communication. Unlike Western people strive for certainty and clarity of understanding in everything, the Japanese think that it is impolite to speak openly on the assumption that the party knows nothing; therefore, it is unnecessary to speak clearly as long as the other is knowledgeable.

In Japan, life often has the quality of compromise, and people use many roundabout expressions to decline offers. They take care to maintain a friendly atmosphere and express themselves indirectly. Ambiguity is part of being polite, of maintaining a harmonious ambiance. Saying “no” is considered impolite, so saying “yes” doesn’t really mean “yes”. That is the essence of “aimai na gengo” (Japanese: ambiguous language).

Linguistic ambiguity is the source of friction and misunderstanding, but also a trigger for the creative mind. Unveiling the metaphor of a piece of poetry or of a movie requires a lot creative effort. Interpreting the artist’s mind through the lens of personal thoughts and experiences gives rise to new ideas that were never intended by the original author.

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