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Maintaining the Facade of Politeness

...or How Honest Are Japanese People Really?

From time immemorial, honesty has been considered one of the greatest virtues a person could possess. Those who tend to display their emotions and voice their disapprovals openly are less likely to gossip, plot, and put the knife in their opponent's backs. No wonder, we often look for sincerity, truthfulness, and frankness in our partners, family members, and friends. But there are nationalities that don't view honesty the way we do or don't attach much importance to it. They find it inappropriate to openly demonstrate their emotions, attitudes, true feelings, and never flinch from telling the lies. And nowhere is this tendency more clearly expressed than in Japan.

Honesty in Japan

Japanese people often find themselves being criticized for avoiding answering questions directly and for hypocrisy when it comes to voicing their opinions and passing judgments. Indeed, your Japanese friend or colleague will never openly chastise you for your behavior or mistake, even if they find it inappropriate or extremely inconvenient. Still, it doesn't mean that Japanese are hypocritical or two-faced by nature. It takes quite some time to realize that Japanese people tend to dodge questions, tell polite lies, and refrain from demonstrating their true feelings due to their inherent striving to keep the harmony of a situation and not to offend the participants involved.

Honne and Tatemae

To get a better understanding of the concept of honesty in Japanese culture, let's take a look at the contrasting terms honne and tatemae. These two aspects historically and traditionally define the reluctance of Japanese people to display their feelings and their ability to maintain composure in public.

Honne conveys the concept of the real feelings a person experiences, while its counterpart tatemae designates the facade, the veneer on the outer surface that you let other people see. This means that a person may be tortured by doubts, fears, or uncertainties, but at the same time can remain composed and calm on the outside. And this is an area where Japanese people excel.

In fact, it's possible to come across aspects equivalent to honne and tatemae in just about every country. We don't normally criticize our colleague for wearing a sloppy sweater or makeup. We also sometimes suppress our indignation or immediate urge to engage in argument with a boss so as not to appear rude or engaging in conflict. Even people of what would generally be considered the most emotionally expressive nationalities practice honne and tatemae from time to time.

But what makes honne and tatemae so special in Japanese culture is the lengths people are willing to go to to maintain tatemae. Expats living in Japan often experience cultural shock when witnessing instances of tatemae in action. Thus, some people confess to having been completely baffled at learning that if a Japanese person asks you over to their home for dinner someday, it doesn't actually mean you're invited. The point is they just want to be polite and are reluctant to offend you by not inviting you, especially if they were asked over and kindly treated in your home. While such behavior may be construed as dishonest, it's quite acceptable and even appropriate, in Japan.

There is a theory that the tendency to practice tatemae is due to the fact that Japanese people have always lived in small collective societies, where harmony and the ability to steer clear of conflict were a prerequisite for living in comfort and peace. That is why the Japanese often hide their honne, to be polite.

It's necessary for each person who has experienced or is about to experience tatemae in action to remember that Japanese people are not acting this way out of malice or hypocrisy. The tatemae concept is deeply ingrained in Japanese mentality and culture. And no one should feel entitled to pass judgment on a genuine cultural trait that has been established for centuries.

Can Japanese Be Honest?

The fact that Japanese people practice tatemae and often say things that they don't mean isn't indicative of inherent dishonesty. Though they are not emotionally demonstrative and objectively sincere, Japanese people have zero tolerance for all sorts of dishonest behavior and straightforward lying. Instances of people stealing from their company or forging documents are almost unheard of in Japan. It's also a rare Japanese student who would cheat on exams or plagiarize someone else's work to impress their teachers, which is why the percentage of students using plagiarism checkers is very high among Japanese students.

As for spousal infidelity, Japanese are believed to hold a lax attitude towards it. Divorce is still relatively uncommon in Japan, which is why many couples choose to pretend that there is nothing wrong in their marriage. That's another instance a Japanese partner may use tatemae so as not to offend their significant other by confessing to having an affair or one-night stand.

Bottom Line

Our uniqueness can be defined by our differences. People have different mentalities, develop different attitudes to various topics, establish their traditions and codes of conduct to follow. To successfully integrate into Japanese society and way of life, you need to be aware of the concept of honne and tatemae. At first, you may find yourself at odds with tatemae and feel that Japanese politeness is overrated. But over time, you'll learn to identify the different situations you'll find yourself in and start recognizing tatemae. Who knows? Maybe someday you'll start to hide your honne if need be and learn to use the tatemae facade as masterfully as Japanese people.