Politeness - There are many levels of politeness built into
the structure and use of the language. Depending on the level of
respect or formality required, verb endings and words need to be
changed as well as the tone of speech. Age and position are important
determining factors for this choice, as well as whether the people
are part of a similar group (family, work group, team, etc.). The
situation and place are also very important to take into account.
There are even distinctions between masculine and feminine speech.
Bowing and nodding the head or saying words like "hai" at appropriate
times are important conversational participation techniques that
the Japanese often use to show the speaker they are listening. To
a westerner more used to listeners waiting quietly for their turn
to speak, the barrage of "hais" can seem like mindless agreement
or that they are being rushed in their speech, though this is not
the case. Bowing the head at certain times, especially in greeting
and saying goodbye to people is so integrated into the speech, that
Japanese people will often bow even when talking on the phone, even
though it would be obvious that the bow would not be visible to
the person to whom they are speaking.
High Context Language - Determining the meaning of something
said in Japanese has a high level of connection with the context
in which it was said. Basically, this means the situation and manner
in which something are more important in Japanese than a language
like English. There is a joke about Japanese that there are over
30 ways that the Japanese can say "no" and one of them is "yes".
The Japanese language is more ambiguous in structure, allowing
for the exact meaning of some sentences to be more difficult to
understand by the word meaning alone. Elements that contribute to
this ambiguity include logic that is more circular than linear,
subjects that are less clearly defined, and the more frequent use
of the passive tense that has an affect on the perception of responsibility
(where something happens or is caused by someone rather than the
direct action being taken).