Ishin denshin is a Japanese idiom which denotes a special form of interpersonal communication through mutual understanding and without having to speak. It literally translates into “what the mind thinks, the heart transmits”. Sometimes translated into English as “telepathy”, ishin denshin is also commonly rendered as implied as opposed to being said out loud.

Ishin denshin comes from Zen Buddhism. They say the ultimate enlightenment of Zen Buddhism can only be conveyed from master to disciple non-verbally after rigorous training.

Traditionally in Japan, men were not supposed to talk too much. Common aesthetics ingrained in them the idea that commitment is to be shown through action. Explanation was considered cumbersome and feminine, and was despised by men. “just do it” was their slogan, and it was manifest long before Nike made it its own.

Toshiro Mifune, the much-admired Japanese movie star who featured in many of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, once featured in a TV commercial for a beer brand. All that the commercial had was a strong and silent Mifune and the message, “Men drink Sapporo Beer, no words necessary.”

Toshiro Mifune in an ad for Sapporo beer.

In Japanese movies too, especially the yakuza (gangster) movies, the leading character tends to be a quiet, intense man who doesn’t even show his affection towards the heroine clearly, not to mention verbally. One of the typical lines in Japanese traditional theatre goes, “Don’t ask anything … please understand.” No wonder the Japanese aren’t too good at presenting themselves amongst the global crowd.

Thankfully, Japanese women don’t share this “aesthetic” urge to keep quiet. Or do they? In the old Japanese movies, beautiful heroines always seem to be quiet. For women or men, silence is golden. And the Japanese haven’t changed a lot in recent years.

An interesting facet though is that if you have tried speaking to both Japanese men and women in English, you must have noticed that in most cases, women speak English better than men do. One cannot be sure if this is more of a cultural factor than just the matter of ability. Japanese men, at the bottom of their heart, don’t seem to believe in explaining anything verbally, even in their mother tongue, to their compatriots, not to mention in English to foreigners.

This must be the reason why more Japanese women are employed at the management level of global companies in the country, far higher than their employment levels in home companies, where they constitute no more than 9 per cent of the management cadre.

Author Sandeep Goyal | Image credit: By Div23 CC BY-SA 4.0

Non-verbal communication can be achieved only when you have a common homogeneous background. Some would say that the low female manager ratio in Japan is probably the result of male managers trying, maybe unconsciously, to keep the men’s homogeneous world intact. This also explains why there are only a small number of expatriate employees in Japanese companies. Silence rules silently.

One interesting dimension to ishin denshin is that it is sincere, silent communication, via the heart or belly (that is, symbolically from the inside, uchi), distinct from overt communication via the face and mouth (the outside, soto), which is seen as being more susceptible to insincerities.

Excerpted with permission from Japan Made Easy, Sandeep Goyal, HarperCollins India.