Hello, this is TORA.
The other day, a foreign person told me that Japanese people have ”Honne and tatemae”.
Honne and tatemae are Japanese words that describe the contrast between a person’s true feelings and thought and the attitude and remark one displays in public.
And it’s true that a culture like that exists in Japan, and I sometimes feel it too.
What surprised me was that a foreigner knew about such an intricate expression…but the question is, do you know what it means?
The origin of ”Tatemae”
The word seems to have originated from a term used in construction; “tatemae” refers to the erection of a building’s framework (or the celebration of it).
Long ago, there was a famous master builder, who unfortunately makes an irreversible mistake. Struck by despair, he is driven to the point of wanting to commit suicide.
Seeing her anguished husband, the master builder’s wife decides to end her own life instead of her husband’s. After putting her husband to sleep with lots of alcohol, she thinks carefully through the night to find a solution.
The next day, she tells her husband to simply use a masu box to fix the problem, and with it, the master builder successfully fills the gap in one of the columns of the building.
However, concerned about word spreading of his embarrassing mistake, the master builder ends up murdering his own wife.
After deeply regretting his decision, he determines to mourn his wife by decorating the building with 7 memorable items (lipstick, mirror, comb, decorative hairpin, powder, hairpin, and wig) until his death. This became the origin of celebrating the “tatemae”.
The woman, who responds with her “honne” (real intention) to the vain husband obsessed with the “tatemae” (framework), is met with tragedy. This poignant story became the origin for the expression, “Honne and tatemae”
We commonly hear that Japanese people distinguish between honne and tatemae.
For instance, if a person is invited to a party, an uninterested foreigner would outright say “no”, and show their real intention.
However, for most Japanese people, the answer is rarely an explicit “no”. Instead, it would be more subtle answers like, “I’ve an appointment”, or, “If only I can make it”.
Since they are more concerned about making the other person upset or jealous, Japanese people prefer to rather lie about things to provide more benign answers.
I don’t think societies can sustain themselves with everyone speaking their honest intentions all the time. Rather, it’s a person’s ability to suppress what they want to say at times that makes civil interactions possible.
I believe this is a common aspect for societies all over the world.
I admitted that “honne and tatemae” is a widely-used expression that’s even known to foreigners. Nonetheless, I clarified that it largely depends on the person you are dealing with. I, for one, try to be as honest as possible, most of the time.
I also explained that it had to do with the moment and occasion, and that it was overly generalizing to say that the Japanese are the people of “tatemae”.
And yet, what struck me during this exchange was that, in the end, the important thing for us Japanese people was to be as honest as we can, and try our best to understand each other, while preserving out identity.
That’s all for today.