The Mystery of the Japanese Nod in Documentaries

Are you tired of watching Japanese documentaries and wondering why everyone is nodding their heads like they’re at a concert for a band called “The Nodders”? Well, have no fear, because I have done the research and am here to enlighten you on the mystery of the Japanese nod.
First off, let’s get one thing straight – this nodding business is not just limited to documentaries. It’s a common trait in normal, casual speech in Japan. But why, you may ask? Well, it all comes down to something called “aizuchi.” Aizuchi is basically a fancy way of saying “constantly signaled agreement/attention.” In other words, nodding and even vocalizing every few seconds to show that you’re actively listening and understanding what’s being said, while also reassuring the speaker to keep going.
Now, in the West, we have the instinct to stop talking when the other person vocalizes in some way. But in Japan, it’s the opposite. If a listener falls silent while in conversation with another Japanese person, it’s a strong sign that the other person has stopped listening or, even worse, wants you to stop talking.
So why is nodding so common in Japanese documentaries? Well, for starters, documentaries usually feature experts who are doing a monologue with no interview partner or an off-screen silent partner. Also, documentaries often feature artists, artisans, academics, and other people who aren’t used to public speaking. And let’s not forget that Japanese society favors a muted, humble demeanor, making the average Japanese person not very suited for standing on a soap box and loudly announcing their opinions or knowledge to the world.
All of this makes a documentary talk a rather unnatural environment for an unprepared Japanese speaker. They’re already feeling uncomfortable about the “silence” and now they’re supposed to push their “unworthy opinion” onto others. This shows in their body language, leading to increased nodding. Some speakers subconsciously start nodding to calm themselves down by reaffirming and reinforcing their own points, some start nodding to seek the approval of someone next to the camera, and some nod in reaction to the silent nodding of an unseen partner.
So, to sum it all up, this nodding thing is a normal part of Japanese communication and serves multiple purposes for both the speaker and the listener. But, it’s usually not as frequent and pronounced as it appears to be in many documentaries. The more humble, introverted, nervous, and less experienced with public speaking an “expert” is, the more they’ll nod. But, on the flip side, old “master artisans” are generally less prone to it, due to confidence, experience, quiet pride, or plain stubbornness. But, as with any rule, there are always exceptions, and they can be downright cute to the initiated eye. So, the next time you’re watching a Japanese documentary and wondering why everyone’s nodding their heads, remember, it’s all in the name of good communication. Happy nodding!



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