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Monday, April 25, 2005

"Frankly Speaking..."

In a discussion in an online forum I participate in, someone brought up the topic of the recent demonstrations in China against Japan. One of the questions asked was why the Japanese do not apologize for the crimes they committed against the Chinese (and other Asian nations) during WW2.

I answered by saying that from the Japanese point of view, they have apologized enough times, both officially and non-officially. They do not think that they are not responsible for these crimes, but implicitness is ingrained in Japanese culture and therefore one should not expect explicit, public outpouring of regret and mea culpa confessions. Because everybody knows the Japanese were wrong, and because an apology has been made, the thinking here is that there is no use in talking about the subject endlessly and it is time to move on.

Following this, another forum participant asked if this was an example of the famous tatemae and honne traits of Japanese culture. I posted the following reply:

Yes and no.

To the best of my understanding, tatemae ("facade") and honne ("true sound") are used to explain the restraint which one should show in public (tatemae) regardless of what his inner feelings truly are (honne). The public display of emotions and opinions is considered impolite and may lead to confrontation, therefore it is better to keep up appearances and act according to your expected role or position and not say what you really mean. I heard that this social behaviour is derived from the old Samurai code, the bushido, which considered display of emotions as
a sign of weakness.

So, in a sense, you could say that tatemae requires implicitness, in order to hide the explicit emotions and feelings one may have. However, I believe that in every culture there is a degree of tatemae-honne; we don't always say or act according to how we really feel inside. When we do, people usually view it as inappropriate social behaviour.

I think that Japanese implicitness goes further than that. Not only when hiding internal emotions do Japanese convey their feelings implicitly. It is a way of life, a way of talking and communicating. Public displays of emotion, even between family members, are still widely frowned upon (even though I find it is changing and the younger generation is much more open). To this day, if one raises his voice or bangs on the table during a business meeting, he is looked upon as weak, as someone who cannot convey his thoughts in the proper fashion.

A friend of ours, a student from Australia, told us the following story. She travelled to northern Japan with a Japanese student friend, on home leave from university. Her friend had not seen her parents in almost a year. And yet, when she met them at the train station, there was no hugging or kissing, only a curt nod and a polite exchange of "how have you been?". It is clear that in this case there is no conflict between the tatemae and the honne; surely the parents were happy to see their daughter after a long absence and vice versa. But cultural etiquette dictates that public display of affection is inappropriate, or if you like, too explicit.

So, in most cases, if you hear a Japanese using the phrase "frankly speaking...", you should make sure to treat that frankness with caution and not expect too much candor and honesty. That is probably the tatemae speaking.

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