The concept of honne and tatemae is said to be integral to Japanese society. It is fundamental to understanding how society works here, apparently. Indeed, more than a few nihonjinron protagonists would have you believe that it is nigh on impossible for foreigners to fully understand honne and tatemae. This blog post will, I suspect, have them gleefully yappariing at how the foreigner doesn’t understand. And in my case, they would be right; I don’t get it. Or at least I don’t get how it is in any way special to Japan.
At its most basic honne means one’s true feelings whereas tatemae is the façade of feelings, opinions and behaviour displayed and expressed in open society. Tatemae, it is said, is necessary to keep society functioning in a harmonious manner. Do what society expects, toe the line, keep your honne, your true desires and opinions which may rock the boat hidden – that kind of thing.
Here, Taro Salaryman may demonstrate his tatemae by pretending to enjoy working long hours and drinking with his boss when all he really wants is to go home and see his wife and kids, or he may outwardly profess that morning calisthenics with his colleagues is an important part of his day while his inner honne tells him that even just ten minutes extra in bed where he could shag the missus would give him as much exercise and leave him in a better mood to start the day than doing star jumps next to Suzuki-san who has time for neither a morning shower nor teeth brushing. That bit I understand, I think.
Now, it may be that the Japanese are more likely to do what is expected of them than certain other natonalities. It may be that they are less likely to up stand up and shout, ‘You know what? This is all just a pile of shite!’ but honne and tatemae exist everywhere, don’t they? Certainly in the UK there are all sorts of social conventions in which one would surely demonstrate tatemae as opposed to honne. If a friend has a baby and you are shown a photograph you say it is beautiful. That’s just a given. You do not say, ‘Looks the same as everyone else’s,’ or ‘Fuck me, it’s got a hell of a pointy head!’ even though they may very well be your real thoughts. Similarly, if our bosses ask us to work late on an important project we will probably do so and try to pretend it is not an enormous burden rather than tell him he is a slave-driving bastard who has just ruined our evening. Okay, so these may not be the best examples but what I’m getting at is that everywhere people act according to the rules of social etiquette and those rules inevitably sometimes involve acting or speaking in ways that involve tatemae. At best it is keeping the peace by playing along, at worst it is lying. We all do that.
And then there is the humility angle. In Japan the people are admirably modest. People tend not to blow their own trumpet too much. I like this. Modesty is a good quality to have. But when you throw in honne and tatemae it can all get a bit confusing. In the USA, for example, somebody might tell you about their daughter by saying, ‘I have one beautiful daughter.’ It doesn’t matter that his daughter might be the one that no boy would touch with a shitty stick if she wasn’t so eager to let them practice on her, you know this is honne. It is his true, however misguided, belief. Contrast that with the humble Japanese who might tell you about his wife thus: ‘I am married. My wife is not pretty and is very bad at cooking.’ Of course, you would think this is tatemae. He is just being humble. He doesn’t really think that but is obeying the social convention of not bragging. I thought that of my neighbour but then, when his wife brought us some leftovers a few days later, it turned out it had been completely honne! No wonder we’re confused.
Oh, I know I am probably twisting and misinterpreting honne and tatemae, but this is how I see it. I want to understand it more. I really do. I asked my wife to explain it to me, but to be honest, I’m not sure to believe what she told me.