Why don't Japanese people always say what they mean - Honne and Tatemae

It is sometimes said that the Japanese are not frank, that they are hypocrites or they don’t say what they think. As with any barstool racist claptrap we’d have to say that person doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But to be honest, this sort of urban legend often has a far more complex source. In this case, it is “honne” and “tatemae”, two concepts which are inseparable and of the utmost importance to how you behave in Japan.

Here is a quick definition of both of them:

  • 本音 / Honne : the intimate desires, thoughts and personal opinions of the individual;
  • 建前 / Tatemae : the social obligation which determines the face you should present to society and, by extension, Japanese behaviour in public.

Understanding these two concepts and why they are so pervasive in everyday Japanese life is one of the things that most often annoys foreigners. Many expats will tell you how they are tired of not seeing the Japanese really expressing their thoughts and asserting themselves in society.

This comes especially from a cultural divide created by the fact that in the West, hiding one’s opinion (the “truth”) is regarded as hypocrisy. On the contrary, affirming one’s choices and beliefs is a mark of self-confidence and charisma and is valued on many levels.

Whereas, in Japan, culturally, the welfare of society outweighs the opinion of the individual. So it is vital to separate “Honne” and “Tatemae”. Contrary to the way it may be perceived by foreigners, it is not done in a negative way and is instead a mark of respect for the person you are talking to.

Once again, it is very important not to see Japanese society through a Western cultural prism. Indeed, traditionally in Japan, knowing how to handle “Honne” and “Tatemae” is regarded as a virtue. Westerners like to discuss, debate or engage in lively conversations on various topics. Japanese people prefer harmony and sharing a direction even if it's only a front, to avoid the risk of disagreeing with or annoying the listener.

This behaviour is the glue of social life in Japan and governs all unfamiliar exchanges, including of course in business. It also explains why Japanese people are equally good at following the rules and following established protocol.

Foreigners in Japan who are not necessarily versed or experienced in the use of this differentiation sometimes struggle to understand and translate some exchanges with Japanese people:

  • Why one can never say no directly, but must use phrases such as ちょっと / chotto or 難しい / muzukashii (“it’s difficult”);
  • Why an invitation can sometimes be a simple mark of courtesy rather than a sincere desire and must therefore be refused;
  • etc.

If “Tatemae” is overwhelmingly used in the cordial social relationship, “Honne” will sometimes take a step forward and emerge as another driving force in conversations. This is the case in 飲み会 / nomikai (corporate parties where colleagues drink together) during which, helped by alcohol, it is acceptable to talk about one’s personal problems, including those encountered at work.

It is therefore important to consider the importance of this logic to understand the meaning of dialogue and facilitate interaction with the Japanese.

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Posted by Gael
Editor in chief
Gael is founder and responsible for Kanpai's publication. In love with Japanese culture, he travels to Japan regularly since 2003 and shares his information and tips.
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