We’re told over and over as foreigners living in Japan that this is a high-context culture. On an abstract level, this means that many things are left unsaid, and it is the listener’s job to tease meaning out of innuendo and implication. Practically speaking, this may manifest itself as imperatives in the form of polite suggestion, or outright refusal disguised as the slightest hesitation.
This quality of Japanese communication can be described by a delicious little phrase: 空気を読む(Kuuki o yomu). The literal translation is “read the air”, and it describes how you have to feel out not just what’s being said, but also what’s left unsaid. Just like “reading between the lines”, 空気を読む describes in a nutshell the necessity of ascertaining intent from the barest framework of spoken words.