What is ‘Honne’ and ‘Tatemae’?

Introduction

In Japan, “honne” refers to a person’s true feelings and desires (本音, hon’ne, “true sound”), and “tatemae” refers contrastingly to the behaviour and opinions one displays in public (建前, tatemae, “built in front”, “façade”). This distinction began to be made in the post-war era.

A person’s honne may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s honne. In many cases, tatemae leads to outright telling of lies in order to avoid exposing the true inward feelings.

The honne-tatemae divide is considered by some to be of paramount importance in Japanese culture.

Refer to Smile Mask Syndrome.

Causes

In Japanese culture, public failure and the disapproval of others are seen as particular sources of shame and reduced social standing, so it is common to avoid direct confrontation or disagreement in most social contexts. Traditionally, social norms dictate that one should attempt to minimise discord; failure to do so might be seen as insulting or aggressive. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups. By upholding this social norm, one is socially protected from such transgressions by others.

The conflict between honne and giri (social obligations) is one of the main topics of Japanese drama throughout the ages. For example, the protagonist would have to choose between carrying out his obligations to his family/feudal lord or pursuing a clandestine love affair.

The same concept in Chinese culture is called “inside face” and “outside face”, and these two aspects also frequently come into conflict.

Effects

Contemporary phenomena such as hikikomori seclusion and parasite singles are seen as examples of late Japanese culture’s growing problem of the new generation growing up unable to deal with the complexities of honne-tatemae and pressure of an increasingly consumerist society.

Though tatemae and honne are not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, some Japanese feel that it is unique to Japan; especially among those Japanese who feel their culture is unique in having the concepts of “private mind” and “public mind”. Although there might not be direct single word translations for honne and tatemae in some languages, they do have two-word descriptions; for example in English, “private mind” and “public mind”.

Some researchers suggest that the need for explicit words for tatemae and honne in Japanese culture is evidence that the concept is relatively new to Japan, whereas the unspoken understanding in many other cultures indicates a deeper internalisation of the concepts. In any case, all cultures have conventions that help to determine appropriate communication and behaviour in various social contexts which are implicitly understood without an explicit name for the social mores on which the conventions are based.

A similar discord of Japanese true own feeling and the pretension before public is observed in yase-gaman, a phrase whose meaning literally translates as “starving to [one’s] skeleton”, referring to being content or pretending to be so. Nowadays, the phrase is used for two different meanings, expressing the samurai virtue of self-discipline, silent moral heroism, or ridiculing stubbornness, face-savingness.

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