Bebe Taian: Mannered Mondays: Honne to Tatemae

January 23, 2012

Mannered Mondays: Honne to Tatemae

Honne to tatemae, the inner thoughts and outer face. Knowing the difference is crucial in Japan.

Because of the vertical society structure, certain behaviours are expected of one depending on your rank in life. This is true no matter where you are; the difference is the extent to which these ideas are carried out. 'Tatemae' described how you are appropriately expected to think, feel, and act, according to your surroundings, whether it be your job, a chance meeting with an old classmate or neighbour, or even in a car accident. In French terms, a facade. 'Honne' is what you actually think, feel, or want to do. Clearly, these things do not always match up.

While the divide may be great, it is a cultural necessity to make an attempt at exquisite manners, regardless of what is happening, to ensure a social 'smoothness' on an island with such an enormously dense population and few natural resources. Co-operation and forming tight alliances is of utmost importance in this kind of place.

However, this presents some challenges to the individual. A person must be taught early to not completely sacrifice oneself to the whims of a group (see the Abilene paradox), and to follow their ambitions- while simultaneously interacting with the group in the socially prescribed manner. Or think of it this way: a guest has come to stay with you. You find more and more that this guest is offensive, and yet, social etiquette requires you to offer hospitality. Word gets around fast, and you know that simply throwing this person out will reflect badly on you. You don't want them to stay, so instead of telling them it's impossible, you offer excessive hospitality in the hopes that they will see how much trouble it is for you to play host to them, and therefore, they will leave.

This can make it impossible to know what someone else is thinking, what their motives are. Perhaps this is made an easier task when you know more about the other person: who they are affiliated with, what they stand to gain or lose by doing any one thing, how much to trust the person, etc.

Today, there is much debate as to whether or not concepts of honne and tatemae are uniquely Japanese. The terms are tied to the concept of nihonjinron, the idea that the Japanese are a completely distinct people with ideas completely foreign and incomprehensible to outsiders, coming from hundreds of years of social isolation, the enforcement of completely foreign (and in some cases, repulsive and/or destructive) ideas from Western outsiders, followed by decades of war under an Emperor who believed that he was a god on Earth. At best, nihonjinron represents cultural pride in their truly unique contributions to society at large. At worst, it manifests as a form of outright racism towards anyone not born Japanese from Japanese parents and grandparents and so forth who were born and grew up in Japan.

On one side, honne and tatemae are perhaps not seen in such extreme degrees in other countries; perhaps then, they deserve to be classified as culturally unique concepts. However, as previously stated, we too have our actions vs. inner thoughts- the difference is the lengths that we will go to in order to express our true desires and intentions. In that case, the idea of thinking one thing and doing another is not entirely foreign, and indeed, once given a basic understanding of the framework of how Japanese society developed and functioned over hundreds of years, perhaps one could easily see why there is so much pressure on a person to outwardly conform.

Previously: Nihonjinron (Discussions of the Japanese)
Next: Higengo Komyunikeishon (Nonverbal Communication)

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