At some point in time, we’ve all said, “We should hang out more!” to someone when we didn’t mean it. We do it to be polite, to avoid having to say the honest but brutal “I don’t really want to hang out with you” that is sure to just make things awkward. There’s an unspoken agreement that “we should hang out more” doesn’t mean what it means, and there’s usually no awkward misunderstandings. But what does have to do with Japanese people being two-faced?
This is where things get tricky in Japan: Japanese people have their own unspoken agreements with each other about which phrases are honest and which are white lies, and unless you’ve grown up here or lived here for a long time, it can be difficult to know for sure when a Japanese person is being genuine or just polite.
Honne and tatemae
In Japanese, interactions are categorised into honne (本音, true sound) and tatemae (建前, built in front). As their Japanese characters imply, honne refers to someone’s real intentions and feelings—their “true voices”. Tatemae refers to a facade, something they “build in front” of themselves.
The most common example of honne and tatemae, used even in classrooms and textbooks, is one where someone overstays his/her welcome at his/her friend’s home. The friend’s mother pops her head into the room around dinnertime and asks the visitor if they would like to stay and join them for dinner. Some of us may happily accept this seemingly friendly and generous invitation, but a Japanese person will tell you that the invitation is really the mother’s way of telling you that you should leave, and that the proper response is, “No thank you, I have to be getting home.”
Just as we understand “we should hang out more” doesn’t mean what it means, Japanese people understand that “would you like to stay for dinner?” means “it’s time for you to leave.”
“Nihongo jōzu desu ne”
Unless you’re a junior high school student going to friends’ homes, it’s unlikely you’ll come across such an exchange. A more common experience with honne and tatemae that many foreigners will have is a Japanese person telling them their Japanese is good (“nihongo jōzu desu ne”, 日本語上手ですね), even if the only thing they’ve uttered is ‘thank you’ or ‘hello’.
This came up recently at a friend’s birthday party that had gathered both foreigners and locals. As we got increasingly tipsy, a foreigner shared with a local that such an exchange sometimes felt a little condescending, especially if all the foreigner had said were basic words and phrases that anyone could memorise. He felt it cheapened the efforts and time he had put into seriously studying Japanese if anyone who could say just ‘hello’ would be praised.
For a better understanding of how most foreign residents feel about “nihongo jōzu desu ne”, I highly recommend the hilarious video linked above!
Does this make Japanese people two-faced?
Obviously, there is no ill intent behind tatemae; it’s not like Japanese people blatantly lie to people’s faces for the sake of harming them. In fact, the whole concept of honne and tatemae exists to preserve harmony in society and to help avoid confrontation in public. Avoiding confrontation is so deeply-rooted in Japanese culture that a number of women who are groped and molested on crowded trains will choose to endure the harassment quietly rather than cause an uproar, as that would disrupt the peace.
As a foreigner in Japan, I’ve had my fair share of misunderstanding honne and tatemae. I’ve been invited to parties that were suddenly cancelled, and ghosted by people who I thought I’d hit it off with, who had willingly given me their contact information. Foreign friends of mine have felt that they needed to ask, “Is this just tatemae?” to Japanese people making plans with them. I think that that’s telling of how confusing honne and tatemae is to those of us more used to directness.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Japanese people are two-faced or ingenuine. It’s just a way for them to keep private thoughts and feelings within their close circles with the people who matter most to them, and to maintain cordial and friendly relations with people they might not yet feel entirely comfortable with.
It can be frustrating trying to figure out what is honne and what is tatemae, but it’s part of the experience of living in Japan and the process of making good Japanese friends! It also makes for some interesting stories to tell friends and family back home.
What are your experiences with honne and tatemae? Do you have any personal experience with two-faced? Have I gotten anything wrong in this blog post, or is there anything you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments!