Honne and Tatemae: Behind the Japanese Mask

Two smiling dolls in Kyoto (Arashiyama)

Arriving in a country full of unreadable people, I was unexpectedly labelled a wild barbarian for the first time of my life. I laughed on silent buses, blew my nose and didn’t slurp my noodles, all completely ordinary where I came from, but unspeakably vulgar in Japan. Yet no one directly told me anything about these behaviors they found so appalling, and it was only when I met a European couple who had live in Japan for years, followed by some particularly brave Japanese students who had grown more outspoken through a year abroad, that I started to understand that I had actually been breaking Japanese unspoken rules all this time. “But…”, I asked, completely bewildered, “No one told me anything!”

That is when I found out about the most mysterious and most misunderstood Japanese cultural characteristics. I was told about honne and tatemae.

Finding the right face

One of the first explanations I was given went back to Confucius’ dream of a harmonious and peaceful society during times of civil war and internal strife in China. He had drawn up plans for a society driven not only by the self-interest of the individual greedy for power, but driven by selfless members of a group sacrificing their own desires for a common good. This would be a hierarchical society in which all were satisfied, whether at the top or bottom of the pyramid and fulfilled their duties to the best of their ability, never ascending the upper level by other means than hard work and education. Even after his death, he was a great influence in Japan during the Edo period, and still lives in the collective subconscious minds today through the two words: honne and tatemae.

Tatemae is literally the “outward facade”, the white uncracked paint, the immaculate and impersonal face of a building, and honne is composed of the kanjis for “true” (本) and for “sound” (音): the true song of the self, the inside-voice only those closest to you can hear.

Contrarily to Westerners who generally enjoy the spotlight and keep only some parts of themselves in the shadows, the Japanese prefer to draw the tatemae (outward face), the most valued part of oneself in Japan, as an opaque curtain to hide the honne. The western over-repeated slogans of “be yourself!” and “appearances don’t matter” would probably make no sense in a country where the beautiful is the hidden and mysterious, where to be great is to be humble and to be wise is to be silent.

And so tourists come back and gush endlessly about how “nice” the Japanese are, and proceed to give a few illustrative anecdotes where the Japanese hero invariably comes to the rescue of clueless sightseers. Stories sometimes include “very friendly” Japanese women smiling to the tourists as they trek into small tatami rooms with their dirty shoes, and random Japanese people “warmly” praising the tourists’ knowledge of Japan and their Japanese.

There is no way of knowing if these fabled Japanese sincerely meant what they were saying — they could very well have been smiling while reeling with horror at the sight of large hairy foreigners dirtying their tatamis. For a foreigner to mumble “hello” “goodbye” and “please” in broken Japanese is enough to get a shower of compliments and the beautiful Japanese women would find something to flatter even if you looked like Shrek.

Meeting a Japanese for the first time is akin to meeting a perfect cardboard imitation of a human being, or perhaps — as they have often been compared to — a robotic machine, all good mood and politeness, if not warmth. You could never guess the man you’re shaking hands with has learnt a moment ago he had cancer, or that he’s just had a divorce with his wife or woken up this morning with a painful hangover. None of it will show because the tatemae will be there to hide it all: the polite smile, the smooth brow, the “hajimemashite” (nice to meet you).

The more formal the meeting or the more public the situation, the more codified it will be and the more the tatemae will be displayed and the honne pushed down and repressed. Public and private are separated so ruthlessly in Japanese society that one rarely mixes with the other: sharing your recent family issues with your colleagues is as unthinkable as your wife coming to visit you at work. Should you decide to burden everyone with your worries and negative emotions, you would drop in the esteem of all Japanese around you for disturbing the positive effects of the tatemae.

For although it may take a hard toll on the individual, forbidden from speaking out his distress for fear of troubling his listener, it does create a harmonious atmosphere as all do their best to be cordial and outwardly friendly.

Publicly mistaken

You’re in a school meeting, wearing a stiff suit and perspiring heavily in a room with no air conditioning while the men and women (mostly men) all around you dab their foreheads daintily with handkerchiefs. The principal wants to have some kind of university festival and asks for suggestions from all teachers, including you. There’s a murmur, eyes lower and shoulders hunch, and after a lengthy silence, a teacher ventures that she could organize a student choir, just as she had done for the festival last year and the year before that. There’s some lengthy discussion about this choir, and you innocently suggest to take the stage outdoors and provide the children with microphones. There’s another silence before another teacher proposes a sports’ event — why not a marathon, like last year?, and chatter breaks out again.

You think they haven’t heard you, although you’re speaking perfectly clear Japanese. “What about putting the choir outside?,” you say louder, “We wouldn’t have to worry about the security measures of the gymnasium.” Another embarrassed silence follows your words, broken only by the vice-principal stepping in to agree with the idea of the marathon.

Perhaps the school can’t afford the necessary microphones, or perhaps they see your idea as too complicated to put into practice… either way ignoring you is better than a negative comment in front of your colleagues. Nobody wants to embarrass you in public, the worst kind of shame for a Japanese. But then a Japanese would probably have stuck to completely unambitious and doable propositions, and had he been ignored, he would have quickly understood and never mentioned the event again. Instead, as a Westerner yearning for a discussion of your idea, you press the issue with other colleagues until a friend gently and vaguely makes you understand no one is particularly interested in revolutionizing the choir.

A Belgian friend of mine once kindly told a Japanese librarian that the English travel guides had been misplaced in the “History” section. The woman immediately started apologizing almost hysterically, bowing, hiding her face in her hands and looking so distressed that my Belgium friend started apologizing frantically as well, and left as fast as she could after putting the books back where they belonged. A Japanese student, had he or she noticed the mistake, would probably have took it upon himself or herself to silently put the books back into the right place, and nobody but a foreigner would have casually and publicly proclaimed something was wrong, thus unintentionally shaming the librarian and embarrassing themselves in the process.

It is perhaps one of the worst mistakes in Japan to upset or anger another, as the hurt can never find an outlet and has to be concealed, swept under the ornate carpet of the tatemae. A Japanese may be seething with rage and going to a great deal of trouble to hide it, and you may continue making the same mistake, saying the same hurtful things without realizing. Thus the situation may escalate and suddenly someone you thought was a friend will become a stranger out of barely tolerated and endured words you never knew they felt so strongly about.

To make unknown enemies in Japan is not an uncommon experience for foreigners and not a particularly pleasant one. Grudges build up not only out of the pain you never knew you had inflicted, but also out of your ignorance of their pain, and since generally Japanese cannot show you their dislike, they will find other “backstabbing” ways of making sure you understand what they are hiding behind the polite tatemae-smile.

To counter this terrifying outcome, there are very strict codes of politeness and behavior, a safe zone of routine sentences, bland topics of conversation and serene facial expressions, all used during formal and even informal meetings to ward off the possibility of vexing any of the protagonists.

And as one never knows whether their comment will please or displease, and whether it could be a shaming mistake, silence is one of the main pillars of Japanese conversation and a sheltered solution for those who are unsure of what to say next.

The sensitivity to the feelings of others displayed by the Japanese is a beautiful part of their culture, but it can also become quickly unbearable for resident Westerners who have to swallow their emotions, and with those emotions swallow their egos, their jokes, their familiarity, their creativity and makes themselves as thin and as invisible as they possibly can.

They find themselves as elephants in a porcelain shop, bumping from one shelf into another, caught in a web of rules they do not understand. Without the required tatemae, they shake surprised hands, tell university teachers they’ve misspelled the date on the board, hug stiff and unwilling bodies, laugh with mouths open and blabber to fill in all the “awkward silences”. And unless they are extremely sensitive to stiffening atmospheres, they will never know that planting their chopsticks in their rice bowl or that their mentioning how “strange” (おかしい)they thought Japanese were, didn’t go down too well with anyone at the table.

How to reveal the honne

You’ve been working in the same Japanese company for fifteen years now and you’ve gotten used to working twelve hours a day without ever suggesting anything new — colleagues have always smiled and praised you for your dedication to your job. You go out drinking one night with your closest colleague, Yamada-san (M. Yamada), with whom you’ve been friends now for about ten years. You drink and as you both start getting very tipsy, Yamada suddenly tells you nobody at the company has ever actually liked you or your work. You always come late, you always look cold and never make coffee for anyone, you had an affair with the secretary five years ago. People have been talking. He says this laughing, but for you it’s a terrible shock. So all those smiles, all that amiability you always found so reassuring in the office were fake? And everybody knew about the secretary? And nobody said anything?

Because you don’t know about honne and tatemae, you don’t understand that the harmony of the office had to be preserved over remarks embarrassing you about your behaviour. But another more puzzling question arises: you dizzily focus on Yamada-san for a moment — why is he telling you this now? You look at his balding scalp, his little red ears, the large Dobberman eyes. He’s been your friend for years and yet how could he have left you in the dark all this time never knowing that you were disliked for things you could have easily changed?

You may try to explain this to Yamada-san but his point of view seems to be that you should be happier rather than hurt. After all, you both have never been close enough to do this, but he’s finally revealed his honne to you, his true friendship and it is an act of courage on his part, probably helped by the alcohol. He is even inviting you to reveal your honne in return: what do you really think about the company and about the boss, what have people been saying about him?

With tatemae, friendship is often long to build in Japan, especially at the adult-age when the Japanese are so busy at work around the clock that they hardly have time for anyone else than their colleagues and their boss (not to mention their families whom they only manage to see briefly on Sundays). And even gradually building up closeness, the honne will take time to reveal itself for it is a very vulnerable, painful and repressed part of the Japanese people — some will never reveal it and keep the blinds closed, others will warm up quicker, start joking around easily. However, the quicker path to the inaccessible honne is without doubt through alcohol.

I’ve often come out at night to find the pavement lined with salarymen sitting down with confused and drunk faces slowly rocking back and forth, women in tiny skirts crouched against walls with huge glassy made-up eyes, youngsters carrying their friends home. Japan is one of the countries with the highest toll of liver cancer in all industrialised countries and their love for alcohol, especially “after-work drinks” (飲み会) is probably linked to the fact that drinking is a good way of getting rid of all those pent up emotions while pretending not to remember anything the next day. Drowning their tatemae in flows of sake, Japanese can finally show others their honne and open like blossoms for only one night before closing up again like a fist and wearing their blank masks to work the next morning.