Japanese Person: Come visit my place. We should get together sometime!（いつでも遊びに来てください/Itsudemo asobini kite kudasai）
You: We should! Let me know when.
Japanese Person: Sure!
Then, you wait and wait but the Japanese person never invites you…
In Japan, this kind of communication sometimes occur. If you don’t know much about the Japanese culture, I’m sure you will be confused and wonder why do the Japanese do that. Are the Japanese people being rude by telling lies? Are they hiding things from you? Well, the truth is, “Come visit/You should visit sometime” is often said just to be polite, and it is not a real invitation.
This is called 本音と建前/Honne & Tatemae in Japanese. 本音/Honne are the person’s true feelings and desires, and 建前/Tatemae, are the opinions and behaviors one displays in public. It seems complicated, but actually it is nothing new and a totally common way of behaving in cultures anywhere in the world.
Why do the Japanese behave like that?
In Japanese culture, people often avoid direct confrontation or disagreement in public because disapproval of others are seen as shame and that could lower the social standing.
Therefore, Honne are often kept hidden as they may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances.
Japan is an island nation with the population density of about 347 persons per km² (and about 6,157 persons in Tokyo). To make sure that the society works smoothly, people need to act formally caring others and avoiding conflicts as much as possible. Failure to do so might be seen as aggressive or insulting. By applying Tatemae behavior, one is socially protected and considered as being part of the society (and this explains why the Japanese prefer to work in groups rather than individually). Tatemae is what is expected by society, so it may or may not match one’s Honne and that is the reason why sometimes people tell lies (but assuming that the person listening to them know that they are just Tatemae, and people have no intention of hurting others by using Tatemae) to avoid exposing the true feelings. In a way, the Japanese are doing so to be polite in public.
Every culture has some aspects of Honne and Tatemae, or private mind and public mind in English. In order to look nice and maybe to get promoted, business workers in many countries don’t freely express personal thoughts and feelings to their boss, and in this era of massive amount of information and thinking how quickly one post goes viral on SNS, people are careful as to the amount and kind of information they share in order not to offend or hurt the others out there.
If you are stressed…
So, it is a mistake to simply conclude that the Japanese are two-faced and rude. Honne & Tatemae is a natural behavior in a very small collective society where a greater extent to avoid conflict with other people is needed. However, this can be very stressful especially for people from other countries. Even I, a Japanese person who grew up in Tokyo, got really stressed out when I came back from the U.S.
Everytime you talk to someone in public, you need to read his and her minds and judge if what they said was Honne or Tatemae. I would go like, why don’t everyone just use Honne!
Here’s a tip if you are tired about all this: Don’t take things personally, and get to know your colleagues/friends better. Building personal relationships outside of the office/school will make a huge difference. You can hear what people really think and see the true characters of them. If you like drinking, do not miss a chance to go to Izakaya (Japanese pub) together in a smaller group. If you don’t drink, you could join some kind of event together. You will be surprised how openly they talk compared to the way they behave in public.
I’m a representative of an organisation called Family Planet Japan which supports foreign workers and residents in Japan. If you feel lonely, stressed, or need any help, feel free to contact us : [email protected] (This is not Tatemae by the way lol).
Today’s words and phrases
・Go viral 情報が半端に共有される
・Take things personally 物事を個人的に受け取る
Thank you for reading today’s post.
Until next time!