Japan is on the short list of places I’d like to go someday. I know that it will probably be extremely different from what I know, and of course like many travel addicts I’m chasing after a new “I’m out of my comfort zone” type fix. Japan seems as good a place as any to help me suddenly expand the way that I see the world. However, I’ve recently realized that I seem to also be on a personal quest to find the commonalities that tie us all together, and I’ve learned that differences are not always what they seem. And neither are people, or cultures, for that matter.
I’m far from knowing much about Japanese culture, but I recently learned about some cultural concepts in Japan that help to explain the way that they view life and society: honne and tatemae. Honne is hidden truth, and tatemae is the façade of social obligation. They go together, hand in hand, to explain a person’s actions.
At first glance it’s easy to see how the philosophies behind honne and tatemae might be classically Japanese. The concept of honne means that some truths will become secrets, and that they will never be revealed, at all costs. Honne is covered up by tatemae, or the way that you represent yourself to society. Not only does it mean maintaining an honorable appearance for yourself – but also for others, out of respect. It means that even if you see hidden truths, faults or shortcomings in other people, you will avoid pointing them out.
One of the Americans I knew who lived in Japan for many years told me a story that makes a lot of sense when I apply these concepts. She told me about a time she had invited a Japanese friend over to her apartment for dinner. The conversation eventually touched upon a sensitive subject, and she couldn’t help herself from crying. Suddenly, the Japanese friend got up from the table and left her alone in the room. Confused, the American woman got up from the table and followed her out of the room. The Japanese friend acted very embarrassed and suddenly left the apartment without a goodbye, and without even looking at her. For those of us from a Western background, we might feel shocked and rejected if a friend treated us this way! Our cultural instinct is to comfort friends who are upset. However, it must be understood that culturally speaking, the Japanese woman was also acting out of friendship. By leaving, she was showing her friend respect by avoiding any potential shame revealing her honne – her hidden truth.
On the flip side, at an extreme, honne and tatemae could also mean that things like corruption, failure, depression, abuse or addictions might sometimes be very difficult to address, on an individual level or even on a corporate or governmental level.
Americans have the tendency to shake their heads in disapproval at this. We value the truth very highly. Every American knows the mythical story of George Washington and the cherry tree. As a culture, we value our investigative journalism, our relentlessness in trying to “uncover the truth” and we praise the “whistleblowers.” But might we sometimes take that to an unhealthy, and even disrespectful, extreme? Just check out the news… we run around finger-pointing at everyone constantly. Culturally we get wrapped up in conspiracy theories, exposing somebody’s sex scandal on the news, uncovering skeletons in people’s closets, and even gossiping about our own friends at work, school and home. Reality shows churn out a constant stream of personal and professional train wrecks in order to entertain us. To the Japanese, does it look as if we enjoy publicly disrespecting others?
You can certainly see both positive and negative ramifications and extremes in each world-view.
But looking closely, honne and tatemae may not be so foreign to us. Maybe we’re ok with finger-pointing at others, but not at ourselves. Most Americans have façades as well. But instead of being a manifestation of societal obligation, perhaps our façades are different in that they have been built brick by brick by our own hands, for our own personal protection against a culture of harsh criticism. Maybe ours are a bit more tricky, a bit more hidden. When it comes to something that we deeply value (our country or our faith, for example) we are often careful to maintain appearances. The example was given in the documentary film Freakonomics (based on the book) that a popular newspaper might publish the headline “Soldier dies by torture in Chinese prison,” but if the issue was a bit closer to home, we might instead avoid certain words and publish a headline like “Courts investigate use of severe prison questioning techniques.” We may be ready to expose the faults of others, but we tend to hide our own. And after a while, if you tell yourself something over and over again, it can become a dangerous blind spot.
On a personal and relational level, we see honne and tatemae play out every day. The façade that someone presents when they interact with me may not always be the truth. In friendships, it is important to me to constantly work hard to move aside my own façade as well as try to break down those of others, in order to truly get to the “real.” I think marriage can be a truly beautiful thing for this reason- in the day-to-day trenches of a relationship like marriage, tatemae simply doesn’t hold up for very long. It can’t. As humbling as it may be sometimes to allow someone else to see each and every one of our flaws, I think we all crave that kind of depth in a relationship – we desperately need someone to see it all and know it all, and still love us just the same, if not even more.
I suppose there is no perfect way of looking at the world. I tend to think that every cultural worldview has it’s own merits and flaws. It’s true that we look at each other through seemingly disparate cultural lenses, and our differences can both make things gloriously unique as well as complicated. Losing our cultural identities is not the answer. The only way that we can truly come together is by adding a new, supernatural lens of love onto the top of our own cultural lens – and by looking at both ourselves and each other through that view instead. As an American, I value truth, but does that mean that I need to hurt people with the truth? How do I share truth in love? And what am I holding secret – what honne am I hiding? Perhaps if I openly shared my own faults and flaws, I might free not only myself, but also free others, if I am able to encourage and love others who are struggling with the same thing. Our cultural differences make us unique and beautiful, but we must always look to redeem and refine the way that we interact with each other, on a common ground of love.