Personal Space and Privacy - Japanese Vs. American

In my graduate Landscape Design Studio at Columbia University, I ask students to select an excerpt from the assigned book, 'The Hidden Dimension' and correlate a personal experience to describe it.
Yuji Yamazaki wrote this very enlightening piece...I had to share. (He said it was ok.)

“We learn from the study of culture that the patterning of perceptual world is a function not only of culture but of relationship, activity, and emotion. 

Therefore, people from different cultures, when interpreting each other’s behavior, often misinterpret the relationship, the activity, or the emotion. 

This leads to alienation in encounters or distorted communications.”

~ Edward T. Hall, Hidden Dimension

I have been living with my girlfriend for over 5 years now. My girlfriend, born and raised in the Long Island, NY,  sees certain things in a way that I don’t quite understand, especially things that relate to space and privacy.

Edward Hall mentions that there is no word to describe “privacy” in Japanese language.

 But I think that there is “sense” of privacy that you can develop in Japan.  A way to establish this sense of privacy is to block out other’s presence.  In densely populated cities, Japanese nuclear families are accustomed to share the most intimate space.  That is probably why we don’t have “privacy” in our vocabulary.

Growing up in Japan, I could go months without talking to my brother even though we shared a small 10’ x 10’ room, and it was not considered as being rude, it was rather respecting by mentally blocking out each other.  But my girlfriend would perceive this type of silence as a queue to ask me “Is
everything okay?

We  live in a small one-bedroom apartment, very similar size to the one with my brother. In Japanese setting, I can establish a sense of privacy by simply holding newspaper in front of my face and be silent—Japanese privacy is established.  In my girlfriend's culture, when you are in a room together, you are assumed to participate each other’s presence.  “What are you reading?”, “Wanna a cup of coffee?”, or “I’m bored” are the usual intrusion toward the silence.  You need to go to the other room and shut the door to have privacy.

Her privacy takes four walls and a shut door, which is about 100 square feet, my privacy takes 30” by 30” newspaper, which takes about 6 square feet. Growing up in a Long Island house with her own room, my girlfriend has yet to learn about my portable Japanese privacy, and I have yet to learn when and where to have that privacy.

GREAT INSIGHT!  My female advice, Yuji, politely answer her questions ......we never stop asking questions...


  1. Hi, first time I have visited your blog,
    This post has really got me thinking,
    I have always felt the need to talk.
    This may make me look at silence
    differently, but habits are hard to change.

    Thank you.

  2. What an interesting perspective. I have to add that, to Americans, privacy has become a right. It seems to me that this sense of privacy as a right really only developed recently as more and more people bought (and lost due to the current economic crisis) larger and larger homes. The size of homes have grown to super-size-me proportions where family members can go hours without seeing or hearing one another. I have traveled a lot in Asia and have visited with friends who live with their extended (3 or 4 generations) families in two rooms. There is an indescribable sense of family and community in that setting. I hope it remains.

  3. I agree. Living in Japan, I learned how to wrap myself in a personal cloud of privacy..maybe I learned this growing up and riding NY's subways, where we do the same.

  4. Very interesting post. I am not much of a talker but normally when I am with people I sometimes feel uncomfortable. Feeling that I need to say something in once present.

    I had a Japanese girlfriend for a while. With her I remember sitting in the garden next to each other, saying nothing for a long time. I thought she would be bored of me, but there was just no need to talk. It was so different from what I was used to and there where a lot of times I still got insecure, thinking there was something wrong. There was not but by commenting or asking about it I made it a problem. I love Japan but I still have a lot to learn about its culture, or except.

  5. I want my wife to read this immediately. Fascinating!

  6. Perhaps.... before I head home to New York in November... I will stop in Japan for a week just to see how life is there.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Fantastic insight. Thanks for sharing.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. I love this post... Somuch usefull :)


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