JLPT BC 160 | BSing in Japan, Honne vs. Tatemae

JLPT BC 160 | BSing in Japan, Honne vs. Tatemae post image

A few years back, I was working at a school and we were trying to arrange a farewell party for one of our fellow teachers.  One teacher found a great Indian restaurant that wasn’t too far away from the school.  It seemed like a great place.  It had a big room to accommodate everyone and it was something different for us, since we usually go to Japanese restaurants for these kinds of things.

The problem was that the restaurant only had the typical ‘all-you-can-eat/all-you-can-drink’ deal for large groups like ours on weekends which is when we wanted to go.  The grand total of which was Y4000.  Not too bad if you like to drink yourself blind, and, to be fair, the usual price for this kind of party.  Some people grumbled a bit about the price, because, well, we’re teachers and are perpetually broke.

Another more generic, slightly farther away Indian restaurant offered ‘all-you-can-eat’ plus order/pay for your own drinks for just Y2000.  And this was offered up as a better option.  I was a big fan of this option, because I hardly drink nowadays.  However, another foreign teacher objected because the other restaurant wasn’t so nice and farther away.  The Japanese staff listened politely and then it was decided that we would ‘think about it’.

Well, we thought about it long and hard. But, nothing ever came of it.  In the end, we went back to our old friend, the izakaya, a Japanese-style pub.  The other foreign teacher threw up his hands in frustration wondering why we couldn’t have come to an agreement on the Indian restaurant and the Japanese staff found excuses to look away and change the subject.  So what happened?

Well it turns out that the problem is that about half the staff really had no desire to drink and didn’t want to pay the premium for ‘all-you-can-drink’. Did anyone really expressly say that or explain it to my foreign colleague? No. I hadn’t made the conclusion myself to be honest. I just didn’t want to spend more money.

I think us Westerners expect there to be a thorough discussion about these kinds of things. And that everyone’s opinions should be heard, weighted, and sorted. And after all that, a proper decision should be made. But, in Japan a lot of these arguments need to be implied from the situation.

In the above situation, the Japanese staff didn’t want to cause conflict by outright disagreeing. And they probably felt uncomfortable structuring their arguments in English, so they just kind of gave silent resistance to the argument.

This is a common situation that has led to many an expat getting frustrated and throwing a fit. But, in Japan it is an every day thing, and even openly accepted and appreciated. It is seen as being polite in some ways.

Tatemae vs. Honne Tatemae

The Japanese staff in the situation above were showing their ‘tatemae’ or outside face not their true feelings ‘honne’. This a key part of Japanese society that most people believe helps everyone get along in such a crowded country. Basically, it is a way of being extremely indirect in conveying a sometimes uncomfortable message. It is considered polite to do so, even though you are essentially lying to someone’s face.

It can also mean doing something that you really don’t want to do, but are obligated to do. For example, for Valentine’s day, women are expected to give male co-workers and their boss chocolates (called girichoco – obligation chocolate) even though they really don’t want to. They also give chocolates to romantic interests that they would like to see more of.

Girichoco tends to be of the rather cheap kind that you can buy at the supermarket. Not exactly a plain old candy bar, but one small step up from that. On the other hand, for those they hold most dear, they will go to the department store and get special chocolates.

And this is not necessarily seen as a negative thing even though it is pretty obvious that people are just doing it out of obligation. This is in contrast to the Western idea of being true to yourself and being honest with others.

That’s not to say that people in the West don’t, from time to time, do things they are obligated to do. It seems like the higher you go in society in the West the more obligations you have to uphold. We’ve all heard of the suburban mom who keeps track of how much everyone spends on presents so that they can give an appropriately priced gift in response at a later date. Or the sudden need to wash one’s hair when someone makes an unwelcomed advance.

I think we in the West tend to also use a tremendous amount of sarcasm to soften our blows and achieve the same purpose of tatemae. But, sarcasm is noticeably absent from Japanese culture. It’s actually quite amusing to hear someone try to use sarcasm in Japan. It usually ends up being way to blunt or way too soft. It is a tough skill to master, not unlike tatemae.

But, people will sometimes appreciate hearing your true feelings in the West. As a matter of fact, it is seen as a brave and respectable thing in some situations. And people in Japan, may often be shocked and not be able to really deal with true feelings. I have seen many a foreigner explode with frustration, and the shocked expression on someone’s face, puzzled as to how to deal with it. I’ve been the foreigner sometimes when I’ve had enough with some sales rep monopolizing my time and I’ve tried to politely brush them off with some ‘arigatou gozimasu’s and ‘sumimasen’s.

Softbank has recently taken this to new extremes with their incredibly long walk through of all the add on services that you could possibly need. I just need an iPhone with a data plan please. I sometimes feign ignorance of Japanese at this point and keep repeating what I need until they give in and let me sign the contract. Or my favorite “chotto jikanganainode…” which seems to hurry along most people and force them to make their point.


Honne, of course, is the opposite. Instead of hiding your feelings or adhering to social norms, you are staying true to your feelings. This is usually limited to close friends or family. But, like anything else there is a spectrum of people that are on the edge of tatemae, and others that are completely honne.

A lot of those that have a hard time fitting in in Japan, tend to look abroad and to English to be their way of expressing themselves. What this means is that the people that you meet from Japan that are fluent speakers of English tend to be quite Western and quite honne.

Some people can be quite brutally honest. I have been around more than a few people that have blown their top in an epic explosion of anger or frustration. It is pretty rare, but it does happen. Another thing that kind of happens is that some people don’t carry their tatemae filter with them into English. One time an acquittance, that I hardly knew, poked me in the belly and said “metabo” (short for metabolic syndrome, basically calling me fat). I wasn’t really offended but just surprised that he would do that.

Another time, I was out with an all male cadre of sales reps that I had been teaching for about a year. And even before the drinks started really poring they were asking about how my wife was in bed. Their boss lucky cut them off and redirected the conversation, but it just seemed kind of a funny thing to ask. I mean when is that ever acceptable? But, I think speaking another language (they had asked the question in English) tends to shake off those inhibitions you have when using your native language.

In America, we also tend to hold back on true feelings. For instance, breaking down and crying in the office is not going to get you a promotion any time soon. Neither will violent outbursts. So, its not unheard of that some people in the West keep their true feelings hidden.

Affects the Language

This desire to keep everyone happy by not saying too much extends into language use of course. There are more than a few phrases that are meant to never be completed. For instance, you can complain about something politely by just saying ‘chotto…’ and leaving it hang. For example, if you wanted to complain about someone’s shoes, you could simply say ‘sonokutsuwa chotto…’.

Some N1 essays and listening questions prey on this and leave a lot unsaid because it is implied.  It is one of the toughest skills to master when learning Japanese.  Reading between the lines can be difficult even in your native language, but adding in the difficulty of reading Japanese at a rapid pace, this can be a huge hurtle to passing the N1.

That’s why, as frustrating as it can be sometimes, I always ask questions to try to get a little more information and fish out what people are actually trying to say.  This can be true even if they are speaking in English.  And there are more than a few people that have gotten frustrated with me because I just didn’t get it.  But, hey, at least I’m trying.

What is your experience?

Have you gotten a little frustrated trying to see through the fog of tatemae?  Are you a master of the BS?  Let me know in the comments.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Sean Conway May 16, 2015, 5:00 am

    I live in Perth and hope to take N3 in December of this year. I am due to go to Tokyo for a wedding in July and while I am there I would like to buy at least 5, maybe more, study books to help me prepare for N3. I especially need to work on my listening. Could you please suggest what books I should be trying to purchase. I know that they don’t purchase past exam papers anymore.
    Thanks in advance,

  • Luis` May 16, 2015, 10:49 am

    Hey Mac! Interesting to read this, explains a lot to me! You know, here in Spain this is kinda similar with british people when they come from holidays, while in UK they are so soft and gentle, they become wild whenever they come here, may be this happens because it-s hard to keep this “politeness” and sometimes it’s just necessary to brush it off a bit?

    Have you ever had experiences with japanese people outside Japan?


    • Clayton MacKnight May 16, 2015, 1:18 pm

      I think a lot of Japanese living outside of Japan don’t tend to be the typical Japanese to be honest. They are a little more upfront and open. I think in Japan, society tends to keep everyone doing the same thing. What part of Spain are you from? I spent about 5 weeks in Sevilla for teacher training awhile back.

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