So, I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with a Japanese person before and have experienced these concepts called honne and tatemae. But in case you do, here’s a heads-up so you know what to expect and how you should converse with someone from the land of the rising sun.
Communication - Western vs. Eastern
Honne (本音) means ‘real intention’ or ‘motive’. Basically, it refers to a person’s true emotions and desires. What a person feels in private or ‘on the inside’ may be contradictory to what society expects. It may also be inappropriate for one’s situation or circumstances in life or relationships. Therefore, one’s honne is (for the most part) kept hidden from everyone except for their closest friends and family. This is so that the wa or ‘harmony’ in society and personal relationships are not disturbed. Remember, Asian cultures are all about harmony and the group trumps the individual. The function and prosperity of the collective group matters most in life.
Tatemae (建前), on the other hand, means pretext or literally ‘facade’. It is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae may or may not match your honne (true feelings, right) and is described as what is expected of someone out in society. Tatemae protects the wa, allows for pleasant interaction, and ensures no one will be offended. Basically, you act and think a certain way in front of people even if you don’t feel like it (i.e. a hard job situation).
These concepts are often hard for Westerners to understand and seen as two-faced and ‘white lying’. But for some examples of the lack of tatemae and too much honne in the West:
“I want my life back.”
“Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you…I’ll let you finish. But Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
“Matt, Matt, you don’t even — you’re glib. You don’t even know what Ritalin is.”
“The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”
Here’s a good, simple quote:
“People in Japan are implicitly taught from a young age how to use honne and tatemae properly, and these concepts are important in maintaining face and not hurting the feelings of others; therefore, what a speaker says in not always what he or she really means. Conversation is not comfortable in Japan unless honne and tatemae are properly employed, and those who cannot use these concepts effectively are not considered to be good communicators, because they may hurt others or make a conversation unpleasant by revealing honne at the wrong moment. People have to be careful about situations in which honne should be hidden and tatemae used, and in order to do this, they need experience and sensitivity.”
This is a clever and funny video the guys at Gakuranman.com put together about how to argue in Japanese. If you go to their post on this it is really informative and will help you understand a lot of the differences in communication between Easterners and Westerners. The way Japanese people communicate with each other is so subtle, nuanced, and like a dance. You can see a great deal of that expressed in Noh theater when you think about it.
And Westerners (especially Americans) have such a hard time understanding that real differences exist between the way they communicate and the way Japanese people do. For example, Americans tell you their point and then explain what their point means. Easterners use a good amount of subtlety, hinting, and inference to explain to you what they mean and then you’re supposed to pick up on the point. It’s really complex and takes time and patience. In a way, it’s too shameful in Japanese or other Asian languages to just blurt out everything you think, believe and feel. It’s even too shameful to just tell someone flat out, ‘NO!’ (you hear stuff like ‘i’ll think about it’ or ‘maybe’).
Growing up as an American half-Japanese kid, I never really understood this distinction. Recently, I’ve reflected on this a lot and it’s shed some light on the way I communicate and how I learned this stuff from my mom simply through interacting with her and watching her do it. It’s important to know this (esp. in a global economy) b/c Americans really value confrontation; being loud, abrasive, and outspoken; dominating conversations or obliterating others in a debate without affirming their thoughts at all, etc. As you might expect though, Westerners tend to frown on the Eastern way of communicating because it’s arduous and seems weak and passive-aggressive and Easterners tend to frown on how abrupt, rude and domineering Westerners can be. I think both need to learn to give a bit.
What’s worse for me, though, is not only have I inherited this Japanese way of self-expression, but I grew up in the South where no one really says what they mean and people are extremely polite to one another even if they hate each other’s guts (*see picture below). So, maybe I’ll be like a ‘super-communicator’ in Japan. But that’s probably asking too much…