Hon’né and Tatémaé – Two Things You Have

A thing you’ll see a lot in Japan:

Guy X, in the presence of Guy Y, does something not so much rude as marginally acknowledging of his own needs as a living organism. For example, he might sit down. Perhaps he will gently move aside an object that is in his way. Perhaps he will go away so as to make it in time for a separate engagement.

Depending (but only marginally) on the relationship between Guy X and Guy Y, Guy X will bow–perhaps profusely–at this juncture, apologizing–perhaps profusely–for doing that thing.

Guy Y, in return, will bow and wave his hand in front of his face–perhaps profusely, perhaps even simultaneously, causing him to slap himself in the protruding face several times–and say something like “Tondemonai,” which can mean either “Think nothing of it” or “Unspeakably horrible,” for you see, being apologized to for something trifling is most certainly that.

You can’t read a book, pamphlet, or sugar packet about Japanese culture without seeing something about the mystical “Hon’né” (inner motive/feeling) and “Tatémaé” (outward façade). It is often and appropriately described as a major key to understanding Japanese culture as a whole. It is indeed the case that it can be a bit of a wrangle trying to figure out how people truly feel about a subject over there. And I, for all my appreciation of the culture, found myself much more comfortable around the people who would ease up on that shit. Turned out there was still a lot of American in me, to the very end.

The point I want to make today, though, is not that. I want to take a moment to point out something that I’ve long felt, which is that, while the concept of hon’né and tatemae is prevalent in Japan, it is certainly not a foreign concept to me, nor should it be for anyone in the entire world.

I submit that we all exercise a differentiation between hon’né and tatemae, and that we do it all the time. It’s not a complicated thing. A girl asks you if she looks fat in that halter top. “No!” you blurt. That’s your tatemae talkin’. Your hon’né is holed up and sweating tensely, thinking, “Yes, yes, oh god yes. You look like a walrus. In a halter top.” Or maybe your boyfriend proposes that you don’t go out tonight after all. “You’re not mad, are you?” he asks. “. . . . No, I’m not mad.” you lie. Tatemae. Your hon’né, meanwhile, is puncturing his torso repeatedly with a leather awl. Of course you’re mad–you were going to see that delightful-looking Katherine Heigl movie where she gets caught up in an unlikely romance.

It creeps up in ways both big and small. The only difference is that in Japan, they nurture it as a fundamental aspect of human interaction, which, if you think about it, it is. In the West, we tend to think of “façade” as a bad word, and praise those who are genuine. Even those who are outright dicks will often be given a sort of “consolation credit” for at least being direct: “Yeah that guy’s a total asshole, but he tells it like it is. I’d sleep with that.” That is, the proper utilization of a tatemae is held as a Value in Japan, whereas here, it’s just kind of a thing that happens awkwardly. Still, most of us are burdened by a sense that, in certain occasions, one should hold one’s tongue (or simply lie). Some more than others, but the guy who just blurts out what he’s thinking all the time is still very “KY,” even if we don’t have a hip acronym for it over here.

It occurred to me that perhaps in more primitive social structures, this concept doesn’t exist. Hard to imagine a bunch of spear-chuckers pussyfooting around a subject, after all. But then it also occurred to me that in primitive societies, there’s usually some sort of grand figurehead, and that people are generally fearfully obsequious toward such figureheads, so I reckon that even these societies have something comparable.

Should we Americans embrace our tatemae more? Probably not my place to say, but I do feel that it makes for a more respectful society. Then again, maybe in America the Right to Bear Arms provides essentially the same function. Think about it!

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