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Do you know what’s making “aizuchi” in Japan?

相槌を打つ

There are awkward moments even when we are having conversations in our own languages when you can’t get each other’s nuance. This can be encountered more often when you are in a totally different country. The way of talking and listening can be quite different in various languages. Today, we will talk about a unique communication technique in Japanese called “aizuchi”.

Meaning of “aizuchi”

For foreigners living a long time in Japan, you may already be quite familiar with making “aizuchi(相槌)”. But for a beginner, it may be tough for you to get the nuance of “aizuchi”. According to wikipedia, “aizuchi” means the frequent interjections used during conversations to show that you are paying attention to the speaker/ understanding of what the speaker is saying. This may seem really difficult to understand for English speakers when they first encounter this situation because in English speaking countries, people prefer to let the speaker finish speaking first and then make reactions. Therefore, in some places too many “aizuchi” words may be considered to be an interruption. Although, in English sometimes we also use “yeah”,”Uh-huh”,”Oh” etc. to connect conversations, research by Laura Miller, a linguist, suggests that the amount of times of making “aizuchi” in Japanese language is 3 times of those in English. Even us foreigners, after staying a long time in Japan, we may get used to “aizuchi” and end up doing it unconsciously in our own languages. For example, my friend from Germany stayed one year in Japan. When making conversations with her friend she used to make “aizuchi” and made too many reactions which resulted in her friend getting angry and saying that my friend was too perfunctory and wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. While in Japanese culture, making “aizuchi” shows the opposite, it may cause a misunderstanding from speakers from other cultural backgrounds and may be considered as not paying attention to the speaker.

History of “aizuchi”

In a book written by a Japanese-language education researcher called Nobuko Mizutani, she wrote that Japanese make “aizuchi” in conversations every 20 seconds. This may be considered to be an interruption for conversations in some other countries. So what about the origin of “aizuchi”? Actually the etymology of “aizuchi” can be traced back to the blacksmith in edo period. In “aizuchi(相槌)”, “槌(cuchi)”means the tool to hit, like a hammer. In the blacksmith shop, they use “槌(cuchi)” to hit. After the lead blacksmith hits with his hammer, his student will hit and then the lead hits again. The timing lag of each member hitting is very close, therefore to get used to each other ‘s tempo and to act accordingly with each other is very important. In the word “aizuchi(相槌)”, “相(ai)”means “mutually” or “with each other”. With this background, we can see why nowadays the meaning of aizuchi can be perceived as words and attitude expressed properly according to what other people said during a conversation with an understanding mind.

Different phrases of “aizuchi”

Having talked about the etymology of “aizuchi”, we can look at which phrases are actually used of “aizuchi” in Japanese. There are some frequently used phrases. To show agreement in conversations, you can use “はい(hai)”, “ええ(ee)”, “うん (un)”, “そうですね (so desu ne)” . “Hai” and “so desu ne” are used frequently and more formally while “ee” or “un” are used more casually and mostly between friends. To show your questioning attitude, you may use “そうですか (so desu ka)” which means “is that so?”. This is a phrase which can be used in formal conversations as well. There are also some frequently used phrases for showing your surprise or shock, like “ほんとう(honto)?”,”ほんとに(honto ni)?”, “マジ(maji)” or “へえ(Hee)”. All of them can be translated as “really?”. However, using them in different tones can be translated to different meanings. My prefered phrase for showing surprise is “ほんとう(honto)?” when talking in Japanese, but let’s take “へえ(Hee)” for example since it can be heard a lot in Japanese conversations. Even before learning Japanese, I can remember hearing “へえ(Hee)” lots of times in Japanese dramas. When you nod a bit with a soft “へえ(Hee)”, it can be translated as “oh, really.”. If you use “へえ(Hee)” in a long and exaggerated tone, it’s a way of showing your strong shock which can be translated as “No way!” or “Seriously?!”. “なるほど (naruhodo) is also a frequently used prase in Japanese which can be translated as “I see, that's right”.

The proper way of making “aizuchi”?

It’s difficult for us foreigners to get used to “aizuchi” when we first learn to speak Japanese. However, even between Japanese, they can sometimes do it improperly. For Japanese, the frequently use of “はいはい(haihai)” in a conversation, making “aizuchi” at the wrong time or making too many “aizuchi” in a conversation may cause the speaker to think you are looking down on him/her. While using too many “aizuchi” in a conversation can be a problem for Japanese, no use of “aizuchi” at all in conversations can be a problem for foreigners when talking with Japanese at first. Is it important to learn “aizuchi”? Probably, because lack of “aizuchi” may normally cause a confusion to Japanese in figuring out if you are listening to his/her conversation, especially when you are having a conversation via phone. But even Japanese can make mistakes sometimes so it won’t be a problem if you do it wrong. It will be very difficult to get used to the nuance of “aizuchi” at first, but when having more and more conversations with the Japanese, your “aizuchi” will become more and more natural. This may even make you forget the world without “aizuchi” and start speaking using a lot of “aizuchi” in your mother tongue.