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Context in Japanese

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).