The Japanese Art of Listening: An Ethnographic Investigation into the Role of the Listener


University of Cambridge


What makes a good listener? What does it mean to be a good listener in contemporary Japanese society? My current ethnographic project investigates the art of listening in hostesses (escorts or contemporary geisha) and listening volunteers in Japan, in addition to analysing self-help literature on listening.

Ginza club area at night

In order to answer those research questions, I became a hostess and listening volunteer. Hostesses are famous for being good listeners and listening volunteers are trained to acquire the skill called ‘active listening’. I carried out participant observation in these two very different groups in Tokyo for four months (from January to April 2018). I also had formal/informal interviews with other occupational listeners, including hosts, bartenders, café owners, priests, fortune-tellers, hairdressers, nail artists, hotline volunteers and a teacher. Furthermore, I analysed self-help literature and training courses on listening to compare these teachings and how listeners behave in reality.

At night clubs in Ginza, Tokyo, hostesses use listening as a survival skill. This enables them to stay in subordinate positions and helps male customers to dominate a conversation as speakers. For example, one type of successful interaction is known as ‘moriagaru’ (merry, jolly and enlivened) conversation. In order to have this type of conversation, hostesses tend to perform as a listener, skilfully deploying various reactions and witty, short comments. From the hostesses’ perspective, listening is a means to contribute to a moriagaru conversation. In the broad sense, hostesses’ listening is a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Scott 1985), gaining customers’ favour. However, customers also sometimes say that they are themselves responsible for moriagaru conversations by speaking and criticise hostesses for just listening. Customers and hostesses have different understandings of their roles in the conversation. Their recognitions and behaviour intensify the gendered division of labour in interactions (Zimmerman and West 1975; Fishman 1980). Alison’s (1994) research on hostess clubs reveals that customers enjoy flirting, being flirted with, and experiencing group male-bonding, all of which reinforces their gender identities. From the perspective of micro-conversations, even a small, everyday conversation is structured to strengthen masculinity and femininity in a hostess club.

Inside Club Mizuno where I worked (2018)

On the other hand, listening volunteers, who converse with elderly people, use listening as a tool for reaching out, contributing to healthy and less lonely lives. However, they sometimes fall short in conversation, not realising that their listening tends to force interlocutors to stay in a helper (authority) – helpee (subordinate) dynamic. Their dedicated listening is a ‘gift’ with authoritative helper power. As Marcel Mauss (2002; first published in 1925) argues, a given gift obligates the receiver to reciprocate. If the receiver fails, it causes her/him to be placed in a subordinate position. In addition to a helper-helpee relation and the issue of ‘gift’, a junior (volunteer) – senior (client) power balance exists too. Clients are often elderly people with dignity while volunteers have pride in being skilful listeners. Under these complex power circumstances, volunteers and clients negotiate their relationships in subtle ways. For instance, some volunteers attempt to reduce their helper power by using polite language, showing a learner attitude, having humble posture, performing like a friend or clumsy person, receiving kindness from clients and enjoying the interaction. Therefore, their type of listening can be a mask for maintaining silent authority, as ultimately they are helpers. The clients’ behaviour in return also influences the balance of power; actions such as entertaining volunteers, preparing topics or materials to talk about, lecturing volunteers or keeping up a conversation. Although an asymmetric listener-speaker structure is maintained, reciprocal behaviour can lead to a comfortable balance between them.

Bookstore in Tokyo. Upper image: self-help literature on speaking. Lower image: self-help books on listening. Self-help guides on speaking are three to five times more common than publications on listening (May 2019).

Turning now to self-help literature and training courses on listening, authors and coaches teach that in non-specific contexts, the ideal listener is one who is attentive, expressive and empathetic. In other words, someone attentively listens to a speaker by showing bodily and verbal expressions. He/she also accepts and understands what is said as a fact for the speaker, which is called empathetic listening. Whereas, in detailed examples, such as in a senior-junior worker relationship or a parent-child relationship, the ideal listener seems to be advised to use two different types of listening: therapeutic and zealous. Therapeutic listening has the characteristics of being caring and of supporting a speaker’s issue. The other type of listening, which I name ‘zealous listening’, is characterised by actively asking questions, strategically articulating responses and entertaining replies, and performing as an aspiring learner. These two listening styles tend to be recommended for distinct groups of people: therapeutic listening for people in authoritative positions and zealous listening for subordinates. The different target groups reveal the importance of sensing a hierarchy in interactions. I found that experienced hostesses and competent listening volunteers flexibly use both therapeutic and zealous listening.

The other significant point of self-help guides is that authors praise women as being good listeners as well as referring to the fact that subordinate people tended to be responsible for the role of listening in Japan. The authors recognise the feminine and inferior image of listening. But they promote listening as a proactive, functional and even masculine skill nowadays, recommending it not only for subordinate members but also for people in power. Listening is now recognised as a passive power. So does this mean that women, who are said to be good listeners, eventually get power these days by employing their listening skills? As we saw in the cases of hostesses and listening volunteers, it seems that listening tends to intensify listeners’ original positions.

Our society neglects listening. People wish to be competent speakers but not listeners. Reflecting on this reality, little attention has been paid to listeners in research, despite their crucial role. In my work, listeners’ perspectives reveal subtle mechanisms of human interaction and how – ‘power’ such as hierarchy and gender – influences communication. My research also aims to contribute to the study of emotional labour in contemporary Japan.

I would appreciate comments or advice via e-mail. Thank you.



ALLISON, A. 1994. Nightwork: sexuality, pleasure, and corporate masculinity in a Tokyo hostess club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

FISHMAN, P. 1977. ‘Interactional Shitwork’, Heresies 1/2, pp.99–101.

MAUSS, M. 2002. The gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.

SCOTT, J. C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.  New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

ZIMMERMAN, D. H. and C. WEST. 1975. ‘Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation’, in Thorne, Henley, Barrie Thorne and Nancy Henley (eds.) Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House Publishers, pp.105–29.