Japanese Culture: Tatemae and Honne – Behind the Mask

Oct 11, 2019


Tatemae and Honne

In the current article, we’re going to dive into a cultural wormhole of Japan. Honne and Tatemae, I would argue, come from one of the most important Japanese cultural aspects. Roughly speaking, in Japan, expressing one’s opinion forcefully is frowned upon. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, one can say that for Japanese, your own opinion, your own preferences, your own…anything, should be subservient to the opinions, preferences, (basically everything) of the larger group (and the people forming this group). There is a famous Japanese proverb that says, “the nail that stands up (out) will be hammered down.” From this tendency to subjugate one’s own interests or preferences (I believe) comes the concept of Honne and Tatemae.

Honne is a person’s true intention, reason or motivation for doing something, but because, as noted above, forcefully or assertively expressing such an intention, reason, or motivation is frowned upon, Japanese people often provide a Tatemae,  a “surface” or “ostensible” reason. In addition to this cultural aversion to being assertive, Tatemae is often based on an obscure rule or law, so it gives the person presenting this reason the plausibility to say, “well, what can you do? rules are rules.” As following rules is greatly valued in Japanese culture, turning someone down or getting your own way indirectly, by citing rules, is a softer and more effective approach at getting what you want in Japan. In this article, I will give many examples of Honne and Tatemae,  so that by the end of the article, I believe you will have a good grasp of this aspect of Japanese culture.

 

Economic Examples

A few years ago (actually, more like ten years ago, I guess), Uber tried to open operations in Japan, though they eventually got NO WHERE. The Japanese government would not allow them to operate freely. Why? The official reason (Tatemae) was related to safety, licensing, regulations….etc. After all, rules are rules, so this can’t be helped.

The real reason (Honne) though, was because the Japanese taxi companies, which have a lot of money and influence, made it very clear that they did not want this competition. Interestingly, Uber Eats is prospering in Japan, perhaps because this business model does not step on anyone’s toes. The same happened with Air B n Bs, the official reason (Tatemae) is related to safety and regulations, but the real reason (Honne) arose out of opposition from established hotels and the like. The same applies to trains (this is a bit of a conspiracy theory on my part, but hear me out). In Tokyo, as opposed to its American counterpart, New York City, the trains DO NOT run all night. All the train lines, at the latest, stop operations by 1:00 A.M (with many  even earlier). The official reason (Tatemae) is related to maintenance reasons and the prevention of noise for local residents, etc. The real reason (Honne), I suspect, is that MANY companies have a vested interest in the trains stopping at this time: taxi companies ferry people who missed the last train home, hotels and capsule hotels cater to these people, as do internet cafes, as do late-night bars and eateries. I mean, if preventing noise and other inconveniences to local people is a legitimate reason for said regulations, then why do convenience stores operate 24 hours a day? Why do local bars and eateries operate until 3, 4, or sometimes 5 or 6 in the morning? Also, on New Years Eve, all the trains in Tokyo operate 24 hours so people can do Hatsumode in the wee hours of the new year. I think my theory holds water.

An additional example concerns gambling. Gambling is officially illegal in Japan, but pachinko parlors abound. When you “win” at pachinko, you are not given money per se, because that would constitute gambling. Instead you receive worthless tokens from the pachinko parlor; then, you go to a COMPLETELY unaffiliated location, conveniently located next to the pachinko parlor, where you can exchange your tokens for real money. Insofar as the money is being exchanged at a separate place, the Tatemae that gambling is illegal can be maintained. Also related to gambling, there were discussions several years ago about opening a casino in Tokyo and allowing some level of legalized gambling. Many people were opposed, concerned about the social consequences that legalized gambling would bring (such as gambling addiction and the influence of organized crime, etc.). Some of these concerns may have been genuine, so they were perhaps not pure Tatemae. What was Tatemae about this case is the debate about where this casino would be located. The proposed spot was in Odaiba, down in Tokyo Bay. I asked some friends at the time why the casino would be located in Odaiba and not Shinjuku or Shibuya, which are much more convenient in terms of transportation. My friends told me: “Tatemae. The real reason (Honne) is that all the pachinko parlors in Shinjuku and Shibuya are deeply opposed. They would never countenance legalized gambling in their areas, which would steal all of their customers.”

 

Government Policy Examples

Perhaps the most recent & controversial use of the Tatemae/Honne tactic from the Japanese government is the whaling policy of Japan. Tokyo wanted to resume commercial whaling, but was prevented (stubbornly on the part of foreign governments) by treaty obligations. This forced the Japanese government to go ahead with the official reason (Tatemae) being that whaling is done for scientific research, although the real reason (Honne) is argued by many, to be related to profits.

An example of Honne/Tatemae in the Japanese government’s foreign policy is the recent spate between Japan and Korea concerning Japan’s restriction on the exports of semiconductor technology. The official reason (Tatemae), the Japanese government claims,  concerns the risk that some of this technologies are being delivered to North Korea for military purposes, but the real reason (Honne) is seemingly diplomatic retaliation for Seoul’s decision to make Japanese companies pay for the settlements relating to historic feuds between the two nations .

Another government policy example concerns shihou torihiki (plea bargaining). The official Japanese government policy (Tatemae) is that the government will not conduct plea bargains with criminals, the reality is that many police, especially marubo detectives (the detectives who crack down on organized crime (i.e. the yakuza)) often conduct jouhou koukan (information exchanges) with criminal elements. There are many other examples that I could provide, but by now, I think you are starting to understand this concept of Honne and Tatemae.

“Drinking under the age of 20 is illegal”. The reality is that there is no enforcement mechanism in place. Many people criticized this lack of enforcement, so about ten years ago, a wonderful Tatemae came into effect. Now, when you buy alcoholic products at a convenience store or grocery store, on the screen of the register facing the customer, an age confirmation screen pops up. It says, “are you twenty or more”? should the customer press ‘yes’, then 20 shall they be. This allows the shop to maintain the Tatemae that it is ‘enforcing the underage drinking laws’ while also maintaining the Honne of “who cares? I want to sling suds.”

 

At the Office

The following examples comes from my office. For one: In recent years, the labor laws concerning overtime work and the like have become stricter, so in response, my company has implemented rules such as banning working on Sunday, banning working past 10 P.M., attending mandatory-stress management meetings, nado nado (etc., etc.,). The reality is that: Many people in my office work from home, so many of us continue to work on Sunday and well after 10 P.M. (I certainly do), and the mandatory stress-management meetings can be skipped…if you’re busy with work. The following example might not actually be an example of Tatemae and Honne, but rather, is an example of Ame and Muchi (carrot and stick). We are STRONGLY recommended to get vaccinated against influenza every year. This is not mandatory, BUT the company pays for it AND if you choose not to get vaccinated and get influenza, you have to take five days of paid leave and stay at home. An additional Tatemae and Honne you see often in the office environment (not just in Japan, but in many countries) is the perpetual refusal of drinks or dinner engagements. When a coworker asks you if you want to grab a beer, and you really just don’t want to, you may respond, “I’d love to, but I’m really busy tonight,” or “I have to get up real early tomorrow,” “I’m not feeling very well,” or “I have plans with some friends.” All these Tatemae are very well known to everyone. The problem is that there are only so many of these you can use, though indeed in most cases, the person inviting will take the hint and will stop asking you. Kuuki wo Yomu, or “reading the air,” means to “read between the lines” or “take a hint.” A well-adjusted adult, after inviting someone two or three times and being turned down with the above excuses will usually take the hint and say to himself, “ohhh, this is Tatemae. His Honne is that he doesn’t want to drink with me.”

 

Other cultures and Tatemae and Honne

The more I think about this, the more I think that most cultures also have some form of Tatemae and Honne. In America and many parts of the Anglosphere, we refer to this behavior as a “little white lie,” though this practice is not perhaps as entrenched there as it is here in Japan. Still, on a personal level, I think most English-speakers can wrap their heads around the prevalence and sometimes the necessity of such Tatemae and Honne. For example, when eating dinner at your friend’s house as a child and your friend’s mother asked if you enjoyed the meal, only a true sociopath would say anything critical. If your girlfriend asks you if she has gained weight, or if you like what she is wearing, most guys will revert to the Tatemae of “you look great,” even (especially if) if she does not. I will say, by personal anecdote, I have found one group of so-called western people who have real trouble with this cultural practice. In my experience, German people and people of German-cultural extraction, are brutally honest people. Americans may have a reputation for being outspoken and “on the chin,” but in my experience, we have nothing on the level of the German people. My German friends here in Japan (admittedly anecdotal) do not even attempt at saying anything approaching Tatemae (e.g. “Daniel, I do not want to go drinking with you tonight because you smoke too much”). I think people coming from such cultures may have a harder time getting used to Japan, but for those of you from the Anglosphere or from places where you have the equivalent of the “little white lie,” I think you can wrap your heads around this and learn to deal with it.

 

When Japanese people are brutally honest

There are several situations when Japanese people completely drop the heretofore mentioned Tatemae and Honne. One such situation is when one is commenting on someone’s weight. Japanese people will straight up say “you’ve gained weight, haven’t you”? or “you’ve lost a lot of weight. Have you been eating properly?” Such on-the-chin comments may be a bit jarring to the foreigner unfamiliar with the Japanese culture, especially given how prominent Tatemae and Honne are in almost every other social interaction.

Another situation when Japanese people surprisingly show an uncharacteristic bluntness is during bathroom talk. Not as vulgar (gehin) as you may think, but Japanese people, in mixed company, will say things like “when I went to China, I had terrible diarrhea the entire time.” I think Americans and others from the Anglosphere would shudder at such potty talk, “a relic of Victorian-era sensibilities”, but in Japan, for whatever reason, this kind of talk is normal. Although these are just a few exceptions.

 

Conclusion

Tatemae and Honne permeate Japanese culture, and learning to navigate this sometimes contradictory cultural area can make your time in Japan much easier and more enjoyable.

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