Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

The Good, the Bad, and the Bimyou

Neither yes nor no, this idea can take you far in Japanese politics.

By , the Asia editor for Rest of World.
Typographical illustration of the Japanese word bimyou.
Typographical illustration of the Japanese word bimyou.
Ryu Mieno illustration for Foreign Policy

In Japan, you will regularly be given offers you can’t refuse. With a straight “no,” after all, you might invite confrontation or offense. Instead, say bimyou, a word as indistinct as a wisp of cloud, as nonbinding as a weather report.

During the October 2021 general election, much of the Japanese media restrained themselves from making risky predictions. The situation was bimyou, said one earnest news anchor. Bimyou, echoed headlines that announced pre-polling results. Here, the word was used to mean “unclear.” The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been in power since the 1950s—apart from two brief and unimpressive handovers—but due to the quirks of parliamentary numbers-gaming, the party faced the possibility that it might miss the majority and be forced to cut a coalition deal.

The LDP would go on to win a handy stand-alone majority. The situation, it turned out, wasn’t unclear at all. But using the word is a protective shield: something that helps the speaker not have to come down on one side. Bimyou is a kind of negative space, a vehicle for doubt or uncertainty or anything counter to the expected flow of an interaction.

In Japan, you will regularly be given offers you can’t refuse. With a straight “no,” after all, you might invite confrontation or offense. Instead, say bimyou, a word as indistinct as a wisp of cloud, as nonbinding as a weather report.

During the October 2021 general election, much of the Japanese media restrained themselves from making risky predictions. The situation was bimyou, said one earnest news anchor. Bimyou, echoed headlines that announced pre-polling results. Here, the word was used to mean “unclear.” The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been in power since the 1950s—apart from two brief and unimpressive handovers—but due to the quirks of parliamentary numbers-gaming, the party faced the possibility that it might miss the majority and be forced to cut a coalition deal.

The LDP would go on to win a handy stand-alone majority. The situation, it turned out, wasn’t unclear at all. But using the word is a protective shield: something that helps the speaker not have to come down on one side. Bimyou is a kind of negative space, a vehicle for doubt or uncertainty or anything counter to the expected flow of an interaction.

There was something bimyou about Tokyo over 2020 and 2021. Near my neighborhood of Sendagaya, the national stadium stood, freshly built and pristine. Immaculately paved roads stretched, unused, into the stadium complex. Unseasonably cheerful flags emblazoned with the Olympic logo fluttered over the streets, branded Tokyo 2020 even after the year ticked over, frozen in an eerie timelessness. Cranes halted and then resumed work for a spectacle that nobody was quite sure would happen. 

Borders slammed shut, but within them, the country continued in a sedate, unalarmed emergency. Tokyo spent the majority of 2021 in a twilight state: shops and schools never quite closed, restaurants open into the evening. Workers continued to stream into offices. The largest companies held a startlingly high attendance rate of around 70 percent. My favorite bar continued to operate at full speed even when harsher restrictions were put in place, serving to a packed house of slickly dressed Tokyoites until past midnight. I was torn over how to understand it; closure wasn’t exactly enforced, though the bar could face a fine if found out. The situation seemed to reflect the ambiguity of Tokyo’s pandemic experience.

Bimyou has roots in the Buddhist concept mimyo, referring to something of an indescribable wonder. Its widely used meaning is “subtle,” which has a pleasant literary quality. By 2000, it had morphed into something more colloquially, dismissively bland and was the most widely recognized piece of slang in a 2015 survey by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The word has a place in written Japanese. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro characterizes the relationship between the main characters of his book Never Let Me Go as “fragile and bimyou.” (The characters themselves are, unknowingly, clones: disposable bodies playing out real emotions.) The avant-garde artist Taro Okumoto once described a woman’s kiss as the moment when her “mind and body are subtly”—bimyouni—“intertwined,” a visceral statement couched in soft words.

The intricate first kanji of the word on its own means “fine” in the sense of “delicate,” while the second combines the symbols for “female” and “small” to land somewhere between “exquisite” and “mysterious.” Together, the meaning resembles something like “delicate mystery.” The same pairing exists in Mandarin.

It would be fatal, though, not to recognize something steely in being bimyou.

In speech, it can be used to describe anything from a sensitive issue (bimyou na mondai) to a tricky political relationship (bimyou na kankei). More recently, young people began using it as a way to express negativity or apathy, a kind of verbal shrug. This is how it’s used casually today.

“It basically means ‘iffy’ or ‘questionable,’ but it’s often used to avoid saying something bad,” said Aya Apton, a Japanese American advertising creative in Tokyo. Apton runs the Instagram account @ko_archives, dedicated to the personal histories of Japanese women in photographs. “If I asked you how a restaurant was and you replied with ‘bimyou,’ I’m not going there. If I gave you a gift and you called it ‘bimyou,’ I’d think: ‘Great, she hates this gift.’”

Bimyou also describes the unwillingness of young people to engage with politics. Japan’s 2017 general election saw a low turnout of only around a third of people in their 20s. They feel they have little at stake with parties chasing the votes of a massive aging population.

Even celebrities and influencers who urged Japan’s youth to vote this time around did so in a diffused, neutral way. Rather than championing social causes, they promoted nebulous ideas of turnout and representation. The passion sparked by being politically active isn’t entirely compatible with the acceptably cool temperature of public discourse. “The care that Japanese people take to make others feel comfortable is something I love about the culture,” Apton said. “But that doesn’t always work with politics.”

Former Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi—a rare young politician who courted the spotlight and son of colorful former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi—had publicly supported same-sex marriage and scandalously took up his legal right to paternity leave while in office. But he remained vague on what would come of the hundreds of tanks brimming with irradiated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the end, it was announced last year that they would be released into the Pacific Ocean. It was the outcome of least resistance and a fittingly bathetic marker for the 10-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake.

It would be fatal, though, not to recognize something steely in being bimyou. There’s a determination not to be drawn into something that would make one vulnerable. Fukushima was a good example; the Olympics were another. Japan waited for an answer. Putative deadline after deadline passed. Both issues limped on, and both are now long forgotten. Neither was a triumph nor a loss—the result for both was a kind of win by default.

And there’s a comfort in not being made to feel off-axis. If you receive a sense of bimyou in Japan, in politics or otherwise, move on. It is unlikely that you’ll get the answer you’re looking for. There is that kind of clarity to the word, after all.

Sarah Hilton is the Asia editor for Rest of World.

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