When speaking to a Japanese friend, you may have noticed them nodding and making small interjections as you speak. In linguistics, this is called “back-channeling,” and while it’s an important part of Japanese culture, it may seem odd from a foreign perspective. For some people it may even be annoying — they may wonder, “Why does this person keep interrupting me?”
Let’s see how back-channeling started in Japan and what back-channeling means for Japanese people.
In Japanese the word for back-channeling is aizuchi (相槌). Let’s break the word up and just look at the meaning of the individual kanji (chinese characters):
aspect, mutual, inter-, physiognomy, each other, minister of state, phase, councilor, together
hammer, mallet, sledge(hammer), gavel
In pre-modern Japan, two smiths would often work together to forge a sword. First, one smith would strike the molten metal with a hammer, then as that smith raised his hammer to strike again, the other smith would take a swing, allowing the smiths to forge the sword swiftly and efficiently. This rapid succession of alternating strikes is the origin of the term aizuchi (相槌), meaning something like “mutual-hammer.”
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), a master samurai and his apprentice would fight standing face-to-face, practicing sword-forms in an alternating series of strikes similar to the way sword-smiths forged their weapons. Eventually the word came to mean a constant back-and-forth rhythm in conversation as well, and today aizuchi 相槌 is primarily used to refer to linguistic “back-channeling.”
Here are a few examples of common aizuchi:
Sou desu ne / sou da ne / sou ne / sou da yo ne / da yo ne / sou nan da : I see; oh really.
sou desu ka / sou ka : Is that right? Is that so?
hontou? / hontou ni? : Really? Seriously? For real?
E! / ee! / a! : Exclamatory sound.
naruhodo : I see; I understand; Got it
tashika ni : Certainly; that’s right; if I’m not mistaken; if I remember correctly.
ii desu ne / ii ne : That’s good! Nice!
In Japanese back-channeling is generally used to show that the listener is paying attention to the speaker, and the above are some of the most common phrases.
However, aizuchi can also vary according to the situation, and the term can also include longer, more conversational responses. Let’s take a more detailed look at this longer kind of aizuchi in few different contexts.
To show agreement, Japanese people often back-channel, nodding and interjecting as the other person speaks. Usually this is just a short response like the aizuchi listed above, but this kind of back-channeling also includes longer responses.
(Back-channeling is in bold and may overlap with the other speaker’s lines):
B: Yesterday I stepped on a piece of broken glass in the street.
A: Seriously? Are you okay? Did you get hurt?
B: I tried to pick it up, and I cut my finger.
B: I couldn’t leave broken glass on the street, someone else could get hurt, you know?
A: Yes, I would do the same if I were you. Please take care of your finger.
Back-channeling can also be used to show that the speaker understands their partner and is on their side.
A: What’s wrong? You don’t look so good.
B: (Sigh) This is outrageous. Yesterday my boss yelled at me for something that wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t argue with him.
A: I’m sure you just need to explain yourself more.
B: I don’t know how to get rid of this frustration.
A: It’s natural to get frustrated, don’t worry. This kind of thing happens to everyone!
3. Tell me more!
Aizuchi are also used as a signal to develop the current topic.
A: Hey, you look happy today. Any good news?
B: Guess what? I’m seeing someone!
A: Oh, Really?
B: Well, I met her at a hanami party last spring, and we’re going out for dinner tomorrow.
A: That’s wonderful! That is such good news, you look so happy, and I’m happy for you!
B: Hey, did you know that today’s math class is cancelled?
A: Seriously? Why?
B: Do you remember how Mr. Lane was coughing terribly yesterday?
A: Yeah, I remember that.
B: Apparently he caught the flu, so he’s taking a few days off.
A: Ohhhh… So we don’t have math class tomorrow either?
B: Yes, that’s right.
Now you know a few of the reasons Japanese people back-channel so often. To reiterate, aizuchi are short interjections used to show that the speaker:
Is listening carefully
Wants to know more
You now know why many Japanese people back-channel, and hopefully you’ve got a grasp on the way the meaning of aizuchi can change depending on the situation.
If you’re speaking with a Japanese person and you notice that they keep interjecting, try to take it as a positive! They’re just trying to show their interest and curiosity.
This article is presented to you by Guidable.
Star in Your Own Samurai Fighting Film at Haneda Airport
Recently my girlfriend Erika and I decided to act as samurai for a day at Haneda Airport. We came across a company called Samurai Film that allowed us to act in our own professionally-edited samurai short film. It was an awesome experience, and we reckon the company totally undervalues their services. However, before we talk about it, here’s a little knowledge for those who aren’t familiar with samurai. Who were the samurai? Samurai were basically the military nobility of Japan. They were notorious for being skillful warriors, honorable until death, and for living their lives according to “the way of...
Apartments in Japan: How Japanese People Rent with No Regret...
Renting a desirable apartment in Japan can be quite difficult when you consider the cost of rent, the facilities and the convenience of its location. There are plenty of rental apartments everywhere in Japan, but do you know which points Japanese people care about most when choosing an apartment to rent? Everyone has their own preferences for living, but in this article, I will share some key points that Japanese people use to evaluate rental properties to make well-informed decisions with no regrets. 1. In which Professions Do Employees Rent over Buying in Japan? Of course, everyone wants a sweet,...
4 Facts About The Lack of Public Trash Cans in Japan
When you’re walking around the city streets, local parks or sightseeing in Japan, many of you may have recognized there are few public trash cans and have found it difficult to throw away your trash in general. You may feel this situation strange when comparing it with your hometown where you can see public trash cans everywhere. And you may wonder why Japan doesn’t do the same thing. Let’s see the reasons why there are few public trash cans in Japan. 1. What Kind of Trash Do You Need to Dispose in Public? Do you often eat foods or drink...
Why Do Japanese Women Do Their Makeup on the Train?
Japan is a country where trains are the main daily transportation for many people. If you live in Japan, have you ever noticed Japanese women doing their makeup sitting on the trains, especially in early mornings? Do you wonder why Japanese women go through this process on a public vehicle? There are certain reasons for this particular action of the women in Japan, and let’s find out through this article! 1. No Time for Morning Makeup Sessions For those of you who have experienced the commuter rush, you can see how Japanese people, both men and women, have such a hard...
For abroad students in Japan – how to have fun on a budget!
As students abroad, we all struggle to balance our monthly expenses, especially when it comes to entertainments. Money problems are even more familiar to abroad students in Tokyo since it is one of the world’s most developed and costly cities. But no need to freak out! There are solutions to cut down on spendings when you are out having fun in Tokyo. Check out these tips for an economical day-out: PARKS – FREE TO THE PUBLIC Parks in Japan is known for their spaciousness and breath-taking views. The best thing is – parks are FREE of charge to enter! That’s...
3 Things To Know When a Typhoon Is Approaching
Japan is a very peaceful country and to many, a comfortable place to live. However, nothing is perfect. As developed as Japan is, it is a country with frequent threats of natural disasters. During the summer, the period from July to September is known as typhoon season and Japan suffers every year. If you’ve already experienced typhoons in Japan, you can understand why strong wind and heavy rain can be quite scary. This article will show you 3 major things you must know to prepare as the typhoon is approaching in Japan and how to avoid danger from typhoons. 1. What...