The Japanese Art of Indirectness: Honne and Tatemae

  • Honne and Tatemae

    Honne 本音 & Tatemae 建前, literally translated as “true voice” and “constructed facade”, is the mindset that Japanese people are trained since young to master. An honest display of one’s true emotions and intentions is frowned upon and seen as willful and childish. Many Japanese would never express their “honne”, or at least not directly to the party in question. Tatemae is the word to express what that they think would benefit the situation, and would let them avoid any sort of confrontational interaction.

    Many non-Japanese who are more used to being straightforward and “tell it to my face” may get shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, left stranded in a sea of question marks. What was the conclusion? Am I supposed to do this or that? Do they want me to leave or to stay? It may even come off as insincere or hypocritical, in the unfortunate situation where tatemae are perceived as truth. Involved parties are expected to read each other’s underlying thoughts and intentions without any explicit articulation, but just through context and “reading between the lines”. One would have to be very alert, aware and careful to survive in a Japanese society.

    Worldwide phenomenon

    However, this practice is actually more commonplace than one might think, it just doesn’t have a label to it. “Yeah, let’s have a lunch sometime!” or “We should definitely catch up!” are the lines of necessary evil commonly used after an unexpected (read: awkward) encounter with another party. The notorious “I’ll call/text you” used to cushion a horrendous date perfectly exemplifies the need for such white lies.

    Sometimes these intentions are sincere and follow ups do happen, but they usually end up being forgotten or simply not cared for. Therein lies the irony, that not only the Japanese, but also everyone everywhere has “honne” and “tatemae” too, be it on a conscious level or not! It’s fundamentally “sugar-coated rejection”, a human instinct to upkeep another’s pride for the sake of social relations and interactions.

    What sets the Japanese way apart?

    However, that does not quite capture the essence of “honne” and “tatemae”, which have become the exclusive ethos of Japanese society. The earnestness of the Japanese in respecting the other party goes to the extreme, in that anything should be done to avoid even the slightest possibility of offending or embarrassing someone, even if it means being dishonest. This is very much in line with the uniform collective Japanese social mindset that clamps down on sore thumbs. Nobody wants to have a different opinion nor stand out, and hence under the pretense of social decorum, stay protected behind tatemae.

    What is true, and what is false then? Delve deeper, and we see that consideration and respect for others may not be the actual underlying motive; there is more than meets the eye. Why is this mentality accepted as a norm, and is even allowed to propagate so extensively?

    嘘も方便 uso mo houben – Lying is a convenience. Lying is a mean to an end, do it if it gets you to your goal. At the center of all the deceit, not surprisingly, is the need for self-preservation and – benefit. But is this justified?

    Adults in society pride themselves on playing this game of nondisclosure, more than sparing a thought for others’ feelings. One will never hear them say “no” or reject another’s suggestion; they simply say what they think the other party wants to hear, but their actions speak otherwise. So what happens when either party refuses to let up? A power struggle ensues, which bystanders who just skim the surface may not be aware of. For example in work meetings, a probable result would be unproductivity and possibly divergence of direction from the initial purpose. It would be extremely difficult to counter this until the best liar wins.

    On a side note, this could be a reason for the ambiguity of certain words in Japanese speech, for example daijyobu(大丈夫), which is a multipurpose word that could have very different meanings depending on the context and circumstances! The simplicity of it all is shifting the responsibility of deciphering the intention and the decision of what to do next onto the other party.


    But herein sits the catch-22, the Japanese are ranked 4th in the world for lying, and are not in denial nor ashamed about it at all. On the contrary, they pride themselves upon it and artful lying is recognized as a prized skill. Since everyone knows that everyone is not completely honest with and about their feelings, and they are so upfront about it, are they actually being genuine?

    In a nutshell, this attitude of the Japanese may be taken both ways, and should be seen and accepted as a part of their culture regardless whether one agrees with it or not. “When in Rome”, right? :) Nevertheless, it is up to one’s discretion and experience on how to deal with such situations, in finding the right balance and appropriate time to use honne and tatemae. I dare say once you’ve had this experience, nothing much else can faze you!