“空気を読めない” or “KY” from Kuki wo Yomenai (loosely “can’t read the situation”) has been like an itch that you can’t scratch. There seems to be no equivalent in the English language and someone who constantly can’t read the situation and behave appropriately is usually termed “socially inept,” which may be a bit of a stretch to the nuance of KY.
The idea is to react appropriately depending, not on your own will, but on the social setting and expectations of participants present at each time and location. Sometimes, this translates to being game enough to do something and not be a spoilsport. And this “being game enough” can go beyond what is accepted in a different culture.
If you’re a fan of Japanese comedy or variety shows starring comedians, you would notice that many times, when someone asks another person to do something, they typically would do it and this includes getting one straight guy to kiss another straight guy or a transsexual. To the Japanese, this is common variety but for someone from Singapore, this is something you will never see on TV. If you do, check the papers the following day. I can assure you the TV station is being fined for airing “indecent material.”
While such scenes surprised me the first time I caught them on Japanese TV, my surprise didn’t end there. In a nation where comedy is this huge, it is only natural such behavior trickles down to the common people. Thinking that it was only something seen on TV, my experiences thereafter gave me a bigger surprise.
A couple of months ago, I was invited to a regular Gokon event. In the midst of the chats and laughter, the conversation somehow arrived at the point where two of the guys shared a lot of similarities, and the organizer, M, asked them to kiss. Everyone roared in laughter at the suggestion and gamely chanted “Kiss, kiss, kiss,” in perfect harmony with each clap. I joined in and in my mind, I was thinking, “No way they’re going to do it.” Someone said, “空気を読め” (“read the situation”), but regardless, they didn’t kiss. The dinner went about with more chit-chats and somehow, it returned to the two guys. This time, one of them placed the tip of a cracker in between his lips and shut his eyes waiting for the other to bite the other end. The other guy went for it and as a romantic Disney movie would (minus romantic), they began biting in on each end and kissed. It wasn’t a gay Gokon event, just to set the record straight (unintentional pun).
I hung out with M a few more times after the event and we went to 二丁目 (2-chome), which refers to the gay district in Shinjuku, a couple of times. The first time was with M and another straight guy, T, and a girl, K. One of the gay staff apparently was very attracted to T and T ended up, not only kissing him, but chewing the gum the staff had been chewing O_O!! How it happened was that the staff passed the gum to him through his mouth during the kiss O_O!! O_O!! O_O!!
All these was just crazy funny to watch and I was thankful I was never put in such predicaments. At least not until my second visit to another gay bar. The owner of the bar came to hand out his namecard and how he did it was, he placed the card in between his lips expecting it to be received the same way. T gamely moved forward and received it with his lips but without contact with the owner’s. The owner then turned to me and said, “Oh that’s right! I haven’t given you my namecard!” I went, “It’s OK, I don’t want it!” He frowned and said, “I don’t care!”
I thought, “Ah well, I’m in a gay bar in Japan, and since I don’t have to kiss him, doesn’t matter if I play along.” He placed his namecard in between his lips again and stretched both his arms wide open to receive me. I moved forward but as soon as my lips touched the namecard, the owner pulled the card away with his right hand and tried to pull my face into his with his left. There was no time for me to think, and my reflex made me pull my head away from him. A few moments later, one of the staff came to clear the empty glasses, at which point, M suddenly pushed another guy, B, towards the staff and said, “Kiss!” B gamely went for the kiss and so did the staff as if nothing had happened. I don’t know if there’s any point in my life that I would be game enough to do that, but at least I know I wouldn’t now.