Kuuki wo Yomu 空気を読む: Situational Awareness For Dangerous Foreigners

Tokyo Love Hotel Menu Board, photo by fletchy182
One day I was in Japan being my normal  yabanna gaijin (dangerous, socially unaware, foreigner) self, when I stumbled into a funny but embarrassing situation. I had travelled to Japan with an old friend who was not into training and was here on his first trip. We were wandering all over exploring the city like bad tourists.

While walking we encountered one of the themed "love hotels" that are common in some areas. He had never seen one, so I thought I would show him the menu board. Inside the lobby of this style of hotel there is often a menu board of themed rooms. It shows pictures of the rooms with options like the Cleopatra Love Suite, UFO with a bed shaped like a saucer and stars painted on the ceiling, or just straight up Hello Kitty S&M Room with lots of hearts and pinkness. Next to the picture is a price and button that you press to book the room.

Suddenly we heard a yelp from the woman sitting behind a small square window with a curtain hiding her face. She jumped out of her chair and came bursting into the lobby through a side door. We were apparently being very KY.

KY? In the U.S. this is a brand of love lubricant. But in Japanese slang it refers to 空気を読めない人 Kuuki wo Yomenai hito, or, someone who can't read the air of a situation. The opposite and better way to be is 空気を読む Kuuki wo Yomu, which is to read the atmosphere, read the air. adapt to a subtle situation. In English we use similar expression like reading between the lines, sense the mood in the air, or feeling a good or bad atmosphere in a place. In combat scenarios we call it situational awareness or just keeping your head on a swivel.

This is something that our training prepares us for and something Hatsumi Sensei often reminds us to cultivate. I wrote about one class where Sensei speaks to this idea: Kankaku 感覚: Can You Smell It?

You will not be able to sniff out or spy (探り出す saguri dasu)  these clues if you don't practice raising your awareness or heightening your senses. Worse still are people who actively destroy what little sensitivity they have with abuse of substances or poor choices. For a Ninja, the deepest of sensitivity is cultivated: the ability to sense danger before it happens; to know when someone is watching you; or when the moment is right to make an escape.

Soke said that Takamatsu could discern tea leaves that were grown on opposite sides of a mountain through differences of moisture in the leaves. That kind of awareness takes heightened sensitivity but also a lot of experience.

Sadly, I don't have enough experience with love hotels. And a very panicked woman confronted my friend and I in the lobby and ushered us back out onto the street. Even though I didn't not understand her words at the time, we quickly realized it was one of two things: either they don't allow foreigners to occupy this particular love hotel; or, more likely, they don't allow two men to occupy a room together and she thought we were there to get a room.

We had a good laugh on the street. It was so funny because of her LARGE overreaction to the situation. You see, we were being "KY," but so was she. We had not the experience or the sensitivity to know that we shouldn't have entered that lobby. But she didn't read the situation very well to discern that we only wanted to look at the pictures of the themed rooms! Even if she hadn't confronted us so dramatically we would have finished looking at the photos and left on our own.

I tell this funny but embarrassing story, to give an everyday example of reading the air. But not having this ability can get you killed in combat. And it often embarrasses many visitors to the Hombu Dojo when they don't pay attention. You can read more about this on Doug Wilson's blog here: Read the Air . And here is a brief video tour of a love hotel:

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