The art of showing the speaker that you are indeed deeply interested in what they are saying.
Aizuchi, or 相槌 while certainly not a concept or custom unique or limited to Japan it certainly plays a deeper and more prevalent role in Japanese society than perhaps any where else.
Let’s look at the Kanji for 相槌 first off to get a feel for what it means.
The character “ 相” read as “Sou” or “Ai” the first half of Aizuchi is itself made up of 2 characters,
“ 木”-Ki or tree and “目”-Me or eye.
This apparently refers to an eye directed toward a tree which we all know is filled with intricate detail signifying looking carefully at something and also the sense of “mutuality”. While this character is used in a multitude of combinations with varying meanings it is this sense of observing and doing so mutually that works into this word, Aizuchi. The second character is not used so often used in combination and refers to a striking or hitting tool like a “Kanatzuchi” or hammer in English. So put together what do we get? That’s right, it is not so easy to infer what is meant by this combination, but basically we could say it means to “observe” carefully the person you are conversing with and hit them with the proper response or verbal sign”.
So, what are we talking about here? This is what linguist scholars call backchanneling. Now, this is a word that I as a native American have never even heard. I understand the meaning of the word, that of redirecting things back to the speaker but since it is not a common term in English whereas Aizuchi is totally a common concept in Japan I would say just on that alone that we have come across something that is different in scope and meaning in Japan.
You have all seen Japanese movies where the characters say,
“Ah, so”, “Aaa, so desuka?” and things like this. These are examples of Aizuchi.
So, Thomas what are you saying?, isn’t this is a normal thing found in all cultures?.
Well, yes it is but in the Japanese way of conversing it plays an extremely important role. A role that without an understanding of it can lead to major misunderstandings. We all know of people in daily life or especially in business who say the Japanese say “Yes” to what I am saying but in the end betray what I have said and do the opposite and thus we get the stereotype of Japanese being 2 faced. This however is usually an example of people not understanding that the Japanese “Yes” and “I understand” as being signs of agreement with the content of the conversation when in fact it is usually just an example of the Japanese listener saying, “I am listening. I understand what you are saying”.
Dave Barry explains this very well comically in his book on his experiences in Japan which I highly recommend- “Dave Barry does Japan”. http://www.amazon.com/Dave-Barry-Does-Japan/dp/0449908100
Let me give the example of speaking on the telephone. When I speak to people in America on the phone I tend to interject Aizuchi and almost without exception I get the comment of “What are you doing? Do you have something to say?” when I interject, “Eh?”, “Oh, interesting” or whatever comes up. Whereas in Japan if you DO NOT add “Umm”, “Eh, hontou?”, “Sugoi”, “Sorede” into your conversation the speaker on the other end will ask you if you are still there? Is the phone dead? Are you interested in what I am saying?”.
I think you get the general idea of Aizuchi. That is, the reading of the other person in a conversation and of interjecting responses saying “I am listening”.
And without beating a dead horse I would say if you are freshly coming Japan and want to try out your skills in Aizuchi that you do not do so light-heartedly.
When your partner is speaking if you nod and say, “Eeehe, Sugge-” or “Eh, majika!?” it may go smoothly for long time friends but will be seen or felt as being a degrading or even mocking of what they are saying. And even though the person on the other end of this type of Aizuchi will take into consideration that you are just off the boat and do not understand the nuances of Japan, at some place in their mind they will feel, “This person is making fun of me”.
And here I will venture off into areas that a Japanese national may say, “Well, you are really reaching there” and may write me off as being overly analytic, but here goes my take on the reach of Aizuchi into the core of the Japanese culture.
When you think of a news program in America you see a necktied, serious man reading deadpan into the camera.
In Japan what do you see?
Well, I was shocked or at least amused when I first saw this in Japan. You get a man reading the news with a cute, young woman sitting next to him nodding and showing signs of sadness, agreement or dismay as is appropriate. I used to think what is her function? What is she doing there? And now I see that this is itself a function of “Aizuchi”. She is relaying our unreachable “Aizuchi” to the anchorman. Without this, simply put Japanese news programs would simply not exist.
We see Aizuchi in action in Japanese comedy as well which is for the most part quite different from the “stand-up” one man show type of comedy so common to American stages and TV with the Manzai style of 2 people engaging in a comedic give and take. This style of comedy known as Manzai is usually 2 men (or women) enacting out ridiculous situations with one being the “Boke” or the one who says mistaken comments or outright jokes with the other being the “Tsukkomi” who drills the person when doing so. Without getting to off track, in Japanese there is a word “Tobekeru” which means to pretend to not understand something usually to avoid responsibility being put on oneself. Apparently, in Japanese comedy of old they would introduce the Manzai act as the “Tsukkomi/Toboke” but since “To” means and in Japanese this got confused and Tobeke became what is known today as “Boke”. This to me is an example of Aizuchi playing an important part in Japanese communication.
My favorite Manzai act of Sandwichman.
And of course we can not forget that the usual Boke of Sandwichman, Tomizawa is a huge Babymetal fan.
Next, and getting surprisingly into Babymetal we come across a close relative of Aizuchi known as “Ai no Te”. Yui and Moametal are introduced as being “Ai no Te” compared with Su-metal who is introduced as being the singer. So what is this “Ai no Te”?
Ai is the same sound as Ai found in Aizuchi. “No” is an indication of possession. Te is “手” meaning hand or in this case meaning the other party.
In this case, Ai means to meet, “会い”。But Ai no te serves the function we find in Aizuchi of responding to the main communication of the singer. The Ai no Te respond with a kind of call back function which is basically what is found in regular Aizuchi in Japan.
So we have come full circle with Babymetal representing a deep component found in Japanese society.
And furthermore, I did a search in studying Aizuchi and came across this. Yes, an Aizuchi shrine which is of course governed by Kitsune-sama. So there you go.