Abstract Painting with Non-Sequiturs: A Transcription of a Conversation in English by Japanese Speakers

Joshua Clay McMillen, Koka Board of Education, Japan

McMillen, J. C. (2019). Abstract painting with non-sequiturs: A transcription of a conversation in English by Japanese speakers. Relay Journal, 2(1), 190-200. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020123

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This is a paper that I wrote as I was working towards getting my Master’s degree at Anaheim University.  The transcript is a portion of a class that I taught involving 3 Japanese speakers of English.  Each student involved is 60 + years old.  In this paper I attempt to take a look at the Japanese mind verses the American mind in terms of the logic behind conversation.  Why is one more direct than the other?  Is one better than the other?


The working environments in Japan and America are different for many reasons. One large difference can be seen in the way meetings are conducted. In America, a typical staff meeting may last up to 30 minutes. However, in Japan, a typical meeting may last a few hours. Why is this? It has been explained to me that Americans are more direct with their speech, while Japanese people tend to circle around what the point is, causing a more long-winded approach. To see these differences, I analyzed a dialogue that took place in one of my EFL classes.

Keywords: Non-Sequitur, abstract, linear speech, non-linear speech, learner identity.


Literature Review

In 1983 a study was conducted by Hitomi Tamura to analyze the argumentative styles of both Japanese and Americans in order to raise awareness on how to best understand each other.

In order to analyze the styles of both, editorials and letters to the editors were chosen from three major American news outlets and three major Japanese outlets. Altogether, twenty letters and six editorials were chosen from each outlet.

Tamura started out with 10 hypotheses:

  1. Americans arguments tend to be more linear, and Japanese tend to be more non-linear.
  2. Americans tend to be more direct with their subjects that Japanese.
  3. In arguments, Americans tend to restate less than Japanese.
  4. American arguments tend to be more inductive or deductive than Japanese.
  5. American arguments tend to state their conclusions more often than Japanese.
  6. American statements tend to be more concrete, while Japanese are more abstract.
  7. American evidence covers a wider perspective than Japanese.
  8. Definite and strengthening qualifiers appear more often in American Arguments while conditional and weakening qualifier appear more in Japanese.
  9. American evidence is more objective while Japanese evidence is more subjective.
  10. American arguments contain more analytical statements while Japanese arguments are more emotional.

As a result, there were significant differences in:

  • Organization
  • The use of reasoning
  • Directness of subjects
  • Width of perspective
  • Use of qualifiers

Substantial evidence was found that suggests that the American style of discourse is clearer, while Japanese discourse tends to be more ambiguous.


Being raised in American schools, emphasis was placed on discourse strategies to better express our opinions and persuade others. When writing about the American experience, Barnlund (1975) writes that “to preserve personal uniqueness and personal identity, the individual must often stand apart or even stand against other members of his family, office, neighborhood, or nation.” (p.154) Opposed to this mindset is the Japanese mindset. Nakumura (1974) describes the Japanese mindset as “Here an individual who asserts himself will hurt the feelings of others and thereby do harm to himself as well (p. 413). These two differing mindsets structure the way people of two different countries compose discourse. Typically, Americans can be more direct, and Japanese people can be more abstract when speaking. The direct approach to addressing others leaves more of an opportunity to rub the listener the wrong way while being abstract when speaking frees the speaker from any responsibility of angering the listener, because it’s the listener’s interpretation that is important. When transcribing dialogue from a class containing three of my Japanese students, I was able to see this difference in speech.

To begin this conversation with my students, I asked them two questions; one, why do you think Japanese diets are so healthy, and two, why do you think Americans are so big? A variety of topics were discussed. None of their responses, however, directly answered the questions that were asked. One student talked about her digestive system and Germans drinking beer, while another student talked about limestone and gardening, his travels to Europe, and the cleanliness of water. These topics that were discussed raised the question about non-sequiturs and the proficiency level of my students.

Research Questions

What is the correlation between proficiency and non-sequiturs? Dr. Beatty (personal communication February 16, 2018) wrote that, “a non-sequitur is a statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement; the translation from the Latin is, ‘It does not follow’. Typically, the listener is lost, trying to make a connection that may or may not exist, or which only exists in the listener’s mind.” The appearance of non-sequiturs has the ability to either indicate a low level of language proficiency, or a very high level of language proficiency.

For lower level speakers, a non-sequitur response, according to Ross (2017), “can expose faulty comprehension.” (p. 167) Perhaps, the speaker does in fact comprehend the question, but lacks the proficiency to link what they want to say to the topic, so as a result, the speaker confuses the audience. In such a case, once the speaker hears certain words within the question, they are reminded of information that is associated to the topic. The speaker would then want to talk about what they know, but fail to make connections, like a construction worker with big ambitions, but a small tool box. On the other hand, if the speaker is able to link the non-sequitur to the question, this could display a high level of proficiency, like the ambitious construction worker with a large tool box to complete the job.


Once a month, on either a Saturday or Sunday, I meet with three elderly Japanese students of English; Mr. K, Ms. N, and Ms. H.  Mr. K is a 65-year-old retired high school English teacher. Ms. H is a 60-year-old conversational adult English teacher. Ms. N is a 60-year-old singer who belongs to a professional gospel singing group. The aim of the meetings is simple, the students desire to maintain their levels of English. We talk about a wide array of topics that are not predetermined. At student request, I will bring materials to talk about. A usual class involves around one hour of free conversation and around thirty minutes of everyone taking turns to read aloud from an English book. The following transcription is a six-minute snippet of the free conversation portion of one of our meetings. All of the students granted me permission to make this recording and use it for academic purposes.

Data Collection

Two mediums were used to record this conversation. The primary was a computer program called “Audacity”. The secondary was an iPod program called “Voice Memo.” To transcribe the recording, the listening and writing method was utilized. A key (Appendix B) was used to make annotations. The key was produced by using ideas from Discourse Analysis class.


This section draws reference to the transcription (Appendix B). In lines 2 through 5, I posed the questions; “Why do you think Japanese diets are so healthy, and also, why do you think Americans are so big?” By the end of the conversation, I had yet to get a clear answer.

In the first response, Mrs. N diverts the conversation to her own health by stating that she has a weak digestive system. Possibly the reasoning behind this answer is that Mrs. N is forced to be strict with her food intake. She eats healthy foods out of necessity, not choice. This response applies to her certain situation but not all of the Japanese population have weak stomachs. In lines 12 through 17 Mrs. N broaches the second question concerning American diets but does not directly respond to the question. She discloses that she heard that Americans and Europeans have good stomachs. This would imply that Americans and Europeans may be more daring in what they eat. But this argument would only hold up if all Japanese people have weak stomachs. I know that this is simply not true due to all of the Japanese television shows devoted to “food fighters” either gorging themselves on foods of which portion sizes are grossly disproportional to their size or eating foods with obscene amounts of spices to see how long they can stand the heat. The mentioning of Europe in Mrs. N’s response is interesting because the question only asked about the American diet. Now, Mrs. N has roped Europe into the conversation, and continues to further the conversation into Europe by making the assertion that Germans drink a lot of beer in lines 16 and 17.

In lines 20 through 21, Mr. K states that America and European countries are composed of limestone, which he later states in lines 48 through 52, is bad for growing vegetables. In saying this, Mr. K appears to be implying that the vegetables in America and European countries are bad and that could account for American being so big. Perhaps bad vegetables could lead to health problems. This still does not directly answer the question of why Americans are big but is the closest that the conversation comes to answering the question. Mentioning that America and European countries are composed of limestone suggests that Japan is not. One could conclude that Mr. K is suggesting that Americans are big because of bad food and the Japanese diet is so healthy because of better produced food, but this is all conjecture. In lines 33 through 39 Mr. K talked about his experiences with going to Europe and France. He talked about the cleanliness of the water in Europe and how people cannot drink the city water because of the limestone. Again, he mentions limestone contaminating the natural resources. This point does show that people are trying to avoid effects from consuming the limestone by not drinking the water. This actually eludes to people being health conscience.


Yes, my students got off track with non-sequiturs. However, each non-sequitur did relate in some way to the questions posed. The idea of what is relevant and not relevant changes according to your cultural background. Tamura, (1983) found that “there was substantial evidence to assume that American style of discourse is predominantly clear, whereas Japanese style of discourse is predominantly ambiguous.” (p.3) Think of American discourse like a portrait painting. You will be able to identify what the painting is as soon as you look at it. Japanese discourse on the other hand, seems to be more like an abstract painting. It takes more thought to process what is going on and is left up to the listeners interpretation. No one way is right and no one way is wrong. But for full understanding, for example in a business meeting, the listener should know what to expect. Gundling (1999) offers helpful insight when dealing with Japanese business men such as, “The Japanese desire to maintain relationships by avoiding confrontation often leads them to give ambiguous responses which are misinterpreted by foreigners, causing misunderstandings and sometimes bad feelings.” (p.22)

Is there a correlation between Non-sequiturs and proficiency? Yes and no. It really depends on the severity of the non-sequitur and the cultural background of the speaker. If I ask you what color the sky is and you say that you like bacon, then yes. There is communication breakdown and it is easy to tell that your proficiency is not very high due to your response not relating to the question. If you respond with talking about the weather, the sun, seasons, and other topics concerning the atmosphere, you are broaching the subject by using non-sequiturs. You are not directly answering the question but using a very round-about way to get to the point. It all depends on where your response ends up. Taking the long, round-about approach to arrive at your answer can actually display a high level of proficiency due to the way you are able to intertwine different thoughts into one response.


By western standards, my students did not provide a clear answer to my two questions. However, by eastern standards, my students seemed to provide information within their answers that could help us draw conclusions to their true meanings. Simply put, they did not directly answer my questions. But in a round-a-bout way, yes, they did answer my questions. The non-sequiturs that led us in different directions provided us with clues to my students’ true feelings. In Tamura’s (1983) research her results indicated that “significant differences were observed in the degree of linearity in organization, the use of reasoning, relative directness of introduction of the subject, width of perspective, use of definite qualifiers and objectivity of statements.” (p.2)

As the research says, the majority of Japanese speakers are indirect when providing answers, but that indirectness carves out a difficult task for second language learners. When answering the question “Why are the Japanese diets so healthy” instead of directly stating “because Japanese foods are healthier”, my students took me on a journey in which they displayed many sentences that showcased their English ability. Whereas the direct answer would have shown me an understanding of the question, but a limited range with such a short response.

Limitations and Future Research

This conservation is only a six-minute excerpt and had a time constraint to be completed by. To get more data, I should record at least thirty minutes and work on this on my own so I don’t have to worry about time constraints. Predominantly on this recording, Mr. K. talked while the other students either had little to say or they felt as if Mr. K did not share the floor with them. In any subsequent recordings of this class, I should instill a time limit to not let any one student dominate the conversation. To see if this is routinely how Japanese speakers answer questions, I need to have a larger sample size. Perhaps this study should be carried out on a grander scale using various age groups in order to see how much age plays a factor in the more abstract speech. It would be interesting to see if there is a change in the younger generation in the directness of speech due to more of a western influence on Japan. There are some lessons in the junior high school textbook that I teach from that emphasize sentence construction and organization of the student’s thoughts. Will these changes diminish the number of non-sequiturs that are present in the Japanese discourse? It would also be interesting to conduct a study on Japanese people who have lived in America for a substantial amount of time (one year or more) and have learned English and how to have discourse in the western style, to find out which style they prefer, Japanese abstract discourse or American direct discourse.

Notes on the contributor

Josh McMillen is an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Shiga, Japan.  He holds a Master’s of Arts in TESOL from Anaheim University in Anaheim, California.  His research interests are student motivation, assessment, learner autonomy and learner identity and advisor discourse. Josh is also enjoying raising his son in a bilingual environment with his wife, Maki.


Barnlund, D. C. (1975). Public and private self in Japan and the United States: Communicative styles of two cultures.Tokyo, Japan: Simul Press

Nakamura, H. (1991). Ways of thinking of eastern peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Paltridge, B. (2012). Discourse analysis: An introduction. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ross, S. J. (2017). Interviewing for language proficiency: Interaction and interpretation.  Basingstoke, UK. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gundling, E. (1999). Communicating with Japanese in business. JETRO Tôkyô.

Tamura, H. (1983). The Japanese/American interface: A cross cultural study on the approach to discourse. MA thesis, Portland State University. Retrieved from https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4356&context=open_access_etds


2 thoughts on “Abstract Painting with Non-Sequiturs: A Transcription of a Conversation in English by Japanese Speakers”

  1. Hi Josh,

    An interesting perspective. Certainly, my own experience of Japanese meetings and British meetings bears out what you say. Thankfully, my current (young, Japanese) boss is extremely efficient and direct. Shifting culture, perhaps?

    I don’t have any particular references to recommend, but in general I might suggest balancing Nakamura’s book and Tamura with something more up to date (and in Tamura’s case, something more authoritative). A quick search through Google Scholar threw up this;

    Haugh, M. (2003). Japanese and Non-Japanese Perception of Japanese Communication. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 5, 156-177.

    That paper is less focused on business discourse, and like your study relates to a more relaxed conversational setting. Can you find any more, recent sources about discourse (particularly non-sequitur) in informal Japanese conversation?

    Although discourse and intercultural communication are not in my own research focus, your writing style is easy to follow. It’s refreshing to read a more informally written paper too.

    The direct / indirect stereotype is more nuanced than many would have us believe, and I think you do a good job of conveying that. I also appreciate that your are careful not to make grand claims for such a small-scale study – not all papers need huge data sets! Good luck with expanding the study, if that’s where you decide to go next…

    1. Thank you for the review, and for the reference! I like that it is more focused on the conversational setting. I found many points that are relevant to my paper. I will include it in my updated article.

      A shift from long meetings to short and more efficient would be a nice change. Thank you for saying it is easy to follow. I try to write for a broader audience.

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