The Honesty and Facade of Honne and Tatemae

By

October 6, 2014

As a follow up to my previous article on “Uchi Soto and Japanese Group Culture”, I am excited to talk about Honne and Tatemae, another interesting aspect of Japanese culture. Honne is your real feelings and Tatemae is the façade or the face we show in public.

Japanese people face a lot of criticism for the use of Honne and Tatemae. Some people view it as being two-faced or hypocritical but in Japan it is something that is used daily and is not viewed in a negative way. Actually it is considered proper social etiquette to be able to use Honne and Tatemae to keep the harmony of the situation.

Every culture has some aspect of Honne and Tatemae.

The truth is every culture has some aspect of Honne and Tatemae. We don’t freely express all our personal thoughts and feelings to our boss or even close friends. We are careful as to the amount of information we share so as to not offend or hurt the people around us. So the concept of Honne and Tatemae isn’t just restricted to the Japanese culture, but what makes this concept one of the most essential aspect of Japanese culture is the extent to which Japanese people go to maintain the façade (Tatemae).

For example, when I was a child, I had a few close girlfriends who spend a lot of time at my house. My mother and their moms got to know each other, and they would invite us to their house. “Kondo wa Uchi ni Itsudemo Asobini Kite Kudasai..” (“next time, please come visit our house”) said my friend’s mother.

But when my mother actually tried to arrange a time for us to visit them, suddenly, my friend’s mother has urgent matters to take care of, so we ended up having their daughter at our place all the time. This didn’t bother my mother too much but after this happened several times I asked her about it and she said to me, “It is called “Tatemae” They don’t really want us to visit them.

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Most of the American people that I’ve met wouldn’t invite me to their house unless they mean it. This was actually quite a cultural shock to me when I first moved to America. When a friend of mine invited me to her house for Thanksgiving I emailed her to ask if they were really expecting me to show up.

So was my friends’ mothers lying to us? Well, in a sense they did lie because they said what they didn’t mean. But this is a typical Japanese behavior, they didn’t want to offend us by not inviting us to their home so just were pretending to invite us.

For those who are not familiar with Japanese culture you may think this behavior is very rude, but Japanese people are not acting this way out of malice. On the contrary they are doing this to be polite, especially to the Soto (outgroups).

Why do Japanese people have to be that polite to the point where they say what they don’t really mean just to be polite. There are various theories, but I think that Japanese people do this to avoid conflict. Japan is a very small collective society. Because of that, Japanese people are more likely to go to a greater extent to avoid conflict with other people, and saving face for your group (Uchi) is very important to them.

Having lived in America for some time now I can see how the concept of Honne and Tatemae is odd to foreigners. In some ways I like the more direct approach that is common in America but I still find myself practicing Tatemae and sometimes say what I don’t mean out of habit.

Japanese sometimes have trouble talking with foreigners because if the foreigner can not use Honne and Tatemae properly they may hurt the feelings of the person they are talking to or make the conversation unpleasant by revealing too much.

And once you have crossed that delicate line of making a conversation uncomfortable, it is very common that Japanese people will avoid talking to you in the future. To successfully integrate into Japanese society, you have to be culturally aware of the situation you in and when Honne should be hidden and Tatemae used.

So is it right to practice Tatemae? I think balance is important and a little bit of Tatemae is necessary wherever we go, but the concept of Honne and Tatemae make us understand why Japanese people behave in certain ways.

Japan born, US educated, language teacher.
  • papiGiulio

    I have mixed feelings about tatemae. It really depends on the situation when its being used but as a foreigner sometimes its hard to figure out if its tatemae or not. You will learn it eventually but I prefer hearing the “harsh” truth like back home, that way I know what to expect.

  • papiGiulio

    good article btw

  • Jordan Mcleod

    I wish i had known this while I lived In japan for 2 years.
    I convinced myself that everyone was going to get drunk after work so they could relax and come out of their shells.
    I spent so much energy and time trying to change the people I worked with to be more Honne.
    I look back at it now and cringe.
    I still dont agree with it, although I can understand why a level of it is necessary.
    at least its good to know now that i have a Japanese wife and will be going back every year for the rest of my life.

  • Hassan Mohamed

    perfect

  • I’d say Tatemae is indeed practiced, to some extent, in Western countries as well. Cases where it is used may be known as “white lies”. See here.

  • The Arbiter

    I find the higher up the education, social stratification ladder in the US, the more likely one is to encounter similar behavior.

  • Stremon

    Good article, I mostly agree with it. But in my own experience, I think tatemae can be both good and extremely bad depending on the situation.
    Indeed you can find it in other countries, but the main difference is that people on the west will use it only when they think it is truly necessary, from their own judgment (which can be bad also of course).
    In japan, many people are using tatemae pretty much all the time, sometime at the point that even Japanese people between them don’t know what to think. It leads to very artificial and mechanic relationship (and in the extreme cases some of them commit suicide because they feel alone…).

    Another example where Tatemae can be bad; when something goes really wrong in a company (it can be anything, job or social issue), people will tend to stay quite and don’t speak about it…
    Many time it leads to huge internal problems which could have been avoided if people where communicating a bit more honestly. I know people who were nearly destroyed by that, until they found me, someone with whom they can speak freely, because… well, I am not Japanese.
    I don’t say that Japanese people are stupid or anything, I’m just saying the tatemae culture should be used with more discernment, instead of being followed as an absolute rule.

  • Very interesting to find out customs we’ve never known about in different cultures. Good article…I enjoyed it.

    • Yumitolesson

      Thank you so much for reading my article! 🙂

  • Yoovraj Shinde

    Interesting article.
    I totally agree with having balance of honne and tatamae behaviours.
    But I think there are indeed cons for the tatemae behaviour : STRESS.

  • Tob Gtz

    本当に面白いと思います

  • Matt Erik Katch

    Some of this I think is also just difference in what is considered acceptable conversation. For instance you never comment on someone’s weight in the US to them, but in Japan if I put on a few kilos I will hear about it from EVERYONE. But to my Japanese friends and coworkers it’s simply not seen as rude to say “put on some weight haven’t you.” But that would not fly back in the US.

  • Xiao Bei

    Heya. Here in the Philippines it is the same. Though we don’t have a word to define it, everybody does it. I research a little bit of this act and I find it mostly common with people born and/or raised in Eastern Culture.

  • TravisRVandeusen

    soo away them see

  • Hali Brooke

    I think it’s a result of people taking themselves way too seriously. We’re all equally human and the human life is relatively short; it’s arrogant and ridiculous to waste time on so-called “social etiquette.”

  • TokyoMommy

    I guess I can usually understand Tatamae in some circumstances and I can certainly understand being tactful (we don’t need to blurt out everything we think, especially to strangers or in those delicate situations where..you have to be a bit careful about what you say)…but I also get confused when Japanese people act a bit more direct and without tact at all, even offensively at at times. At those times I usually put on my tatamae face and pretend I didn’t hear them, but I do walk away thinking “what the….?” I do have issues with work situations where there is a lot of talking behind people’s backs and not standing up to those who actually do need to be taken down a few notches. It doesn’t solve anything and I think everyone is in agreement that it is makes the situation worse.

    • Alby

      I totally agree! When they act direct
      they have no tact at all….

    • Shahe Ansar

      When they show a bit of rudeness, it’s usually to show closeness (yes, it’s confusing, but that’s why you’re a foreigner and the Japanese aren’t), other times, it’s something that isn’t considered rude in Japan, and other times, although this happens very less (in my experience, 1 time) it’s a rude person

  • Avatar

    So basically in Japane if talk to people who are not immediate family or friends you have to lie , lie ,lie and lie . They called it being polite and social . A lot of people are doing it in America too. Because its easy . But Japanese are just so phony , so fake . Its too much . Japanese girls are the worst . If you don’t like the guy just say ‘ I have a boyfriend ‘ . Don’t say ok I will call . And than never call .Just say what you really think some times . Its ok to say to person ‘You could loose few pounds ‘ or to lady ‘ I think past 35 is going to be very hard for you to get pregnant ‘ . Its ok . You are actually helping them . And trust me they already know the truth anyways . So be more honest , don’t a coward . Have more honest society .

    • Aye

      All of the ways of honest communications examples you used are extremely offensive. In your case, it’s best not to speak at all.

  • DMarin

    Then how would you know if someone really wants you to visit them?

  • 自來也

    wrong article!

  • Aye

    It sounds as if you personally run into situations of being lead on by American woman or women only to realize she/they were not interested in you. So in this scenario, no matter what woman would do, she cannot win with you- she rejects you outright she is a $%h, she politely redirects you- she is lying to you. She avoids you- the same. You need to learn to have a thicker skin and improve on your communication skills, this may help you with securing affections of someone you are interested in.

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