An Inner Voice and Daily Mask: Japanese Cultural Values

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Have you ever been so mad at somebody that you wanted to freak out, scream at them, and shred their prized stamp collection (I'm looking at you, Jason)? Well, as much as it may be frowned upon to lose control of your emotions, at the very least, openly showing your personal reactions and emotions (civilly) is the generally accepted standard in the West. You could disagree with something, and that's okay, so long as you aren't rude, hurtful, or disrespectful. Well, in Japan it couldn't be more different. In this article, we’re going to examine two integral parts of Japanese society which throw this view on its head: honne and tatemae.

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Japan’s Social Culture

Now, it's okay to express how you feel in the West, but that leads to complications in Japan. In Japanese society, there are clearly defined social hierarchies, standards, and norms which are held to, sometimes through gritted teeth, which lead to asserting a public stance that you don't necessarily agree with. Of course, we must be careful not to make wild generalizations, and no matter where you go, there will certainly be people who are straight to the point, without cutting any corners. But a lot of the time, Japanese people won't let their guard down until they are in an environment where they don't need to pretend any more, such as with close friends or family.

Maybe this isn't surprising to you. Maybe you've heard about Japan's collectivist society, and its cultural values which tend to discourage people from acting out or making waves. While this may seem oppressive, it's important to see that it enables smooth and peaceful interactions with one another, even if this is only apparent on the surface. It's an important part of Japanese culture, which we should respect, even if we don't agree with it. And if we don't agree with it, we at least aren't going to say it to their face? Excellent, now you’re getting it.

Inner Honesty (Honne)

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Honne (本音, private mind) is the concept that describes one's true feelings and intentions. Feelings which may be contrary to what is expected by society, or required by position and circumstance. These are often kept hidden, except to those close enough. Why? Because being honest to a fault is seen negatively: either you are naive, or immature and unable to handle your feelings.

The Mask (Tatemae)

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Tatemae (建て前, public mind) is the opposite of honne: the public stance expected by society, which may not even line up with how one truly feels. This may show itself in outright lying, such as telling people what they want to hear, or by nondisclosure, where the whole truth is not told. By doing so, Japanese people can avoid conflict and satisfy the needs of others.

(Conclusion)

So how do you feel about the divide between honne and tatemae? Some people may see this as a necessity, a way to function in everyday life as proper adults. One writer goes so far as to say that it creates a culture of deceit, where everyone loses trust in all institutions and one another. That people are brought up to subconsciously believe that lying is rewarded, and the truth will be frowned upon or even punished. As a non-native speaker, I personally had experiences where I found it difficult to connect with people, or rather, I thought I had, but I didn't know how they really felt. Even to this day, there are some friends whom I have no idea if they even like me at all.

But at the end of the day, it's important to remember that everyone is capable of lying, and whether you disagree with it or not, culture should be respected. The most important thing is to not pay too much attention to what you are supposed to say, or how you are supposed to act. You may just find someone else who also thinks that, contrary to public opinion, sushi isn't all it's cracked up to be (because I do!).

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