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.
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.