Tatemae and Honne: The Main Concepts in Japanese Politeness

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There is a saying that people tell their children in order to get through tough times: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me. Whoever told this to their child has lied. Words can and will hurt people which is why people develop communicative skills to avoid such situations. These skills fall into the linguistic category of politeness which has been stated to be a universal concept according to Brown and Levinson. This concept is utilized in all different countries and cultures such as Japan for an example. It has been embedded into Japanese culture to be polite and they are. Japanese people are worldly renowned for their politeness in all ways they can. They would go out of their way to help others if needed however these acts may not always come from a sincere feeling. They could perform such acts in order to save ‘face’ and meet societal expectations. There are two words that will be examined in this paper. It is called Tatemae (建前) and Honne (本音). These are two speech variants in the Japanese language that are used to maintain their polite image. Japanese people are considered one of the most polite countries in the world, but linguistically they may not be all that different from the average person even in that aspect.

Politeness Theory

Words are very powerful and they can change a situation around within a few sentences. One can either save or destroy their own reputation with just a few words. Some can save a life with just a few words. In the world of communication, people have learned to adapt to their environment and people around them whether it be for their own benefit or for the people around them. They learn to change the way they speak when it best fits the situation to get the outcome they want. Brown and Levinson spoke of a politeness theory. It accounts the redressing of affronts to a person’s ‘face’ by face-threatening acts. It is Erving Goffman who evolves the idea of personhood and elaborates a further comprehension of the correlation between linguistics behavior and a personhood perception. Goffman argues that individuals have self-esteem, so-called ‘face’, and people’s life are constantly engaged in protection and defense of faces (Goffman 1967: 6).

Goffman defines face as “the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself” (Brown and Levinson 1987: 61). In addition to the definition of face, he theorizes how people avoid face damages in accordance with social norms, which differ from culture to culture. Also, Kenneth J. Gergen (1990) claims that “the individual’s well-being cannot be extricated from the web of relationship in which he/she is engaged. The character of the relationship depends, in turn, on the process of adjusting and readjusting actions” (Gergen 1990: 584). Thus, the construction of personhood is learned and constructed through everyday interactions with others. The construction of personhood is developed through everyday interactions. This can be examined in Japanese society and culture. Japanese society can possibly be an embodiment of the politeness theory themselves. Japanese people have been characterized to have high morals. It is instilled from a young age to be polite throughout their education. In Japan, they teach not only academics but also moral education. However it is unsure if Japanese people truly have high morals or if it is just a surface face value. Kohlberg (1984) states, ' Subjectism and relativism will be metaethical positions found in historical and cultural conditions of low consensus on any basic moral norms or on any metaphysical or religious foundation for moral belief.' ( Kohlberg, p 440 ).

Japanese morality has been characterized as relativistic one, and at the same time it is described as the one demanding members to conform to the cultural standards or the group norms in some effective ways. Given these statements, Japanese culture would come to be the culture in which high consensus on the morality could be found but they would hold relativistic morality in the same time. Thus, at the first glance Japanese morality can not be explained by the explanation of relativism by Kohlberg. The author suggests that some kind of cultural conceptions of moral world may bring peoples a kind of moral relativism. To show and examine the statements, a kind of moral relativism, which is prevailing in Japanese culture and may be called as 'domain relativism', is introduced in the first place. Then the cultural concepts of 'Tatemae' and 'Honne', which may bring or at least support the kind of relativism are described (Naito, 1992).

Across different cultures, there are paradigms between what is said out loud and what is actually the true intention or desires. These are universal concepts that everyone withholds in different parts of the world but not many have a word which characterizes them. Japan, however, is one country that does. One popular pairing of terms comes from Japan, where they have defined the public face or public façade as the tatemae and the real self or true intent as the honne (Trinidad, 2014),which are generally found to be competing with each other (Davies & Ikeno, 2002; De Mente, 2005; Prasol, 2010). Frequently, tatemae is used by public entities to gain popularity and power, all the while promoting idealizations of prestige. Communication to the public via tatemae is regularly nebulous and left up to interpretation (Feldman, 2005); for example, the population commonly accepts that public statements are “vague” (Trinidad, 2014) communications that “touches everything, covers nothing” (Feldman, 2005, p. 4).

On the contrary, honne is rarely communicated to the public and generally censored in formal settings (Alston & Takei, 2005; Hendry, 1995), leaving people to interpret and research the true intent or meaning behind tatemae (Hall, 1976; Trinidad, 2014). In the literal translations, the kanji of tatemae is translated to ‘which is showed in front of public’ and honne is translated to ‘original sound’. The times when these concepts are used are when one wants to make a situation more comfortable for the other or when it is to maintain a good image. This is the exact theory of positive ‘face’ and negative ‘face’. When dealing with Japanese, it takes time and experience to decipher their true intentions or their tatemae. They use tatemae everyday in many situations such as accepting gifts that they don’t need, agreeing to attend an event they would rather not go to, or changing the subject about a topic they are not comfortable with. The use of tatemae also depends upon the individual whom they are communicating with. Here is a humorous example of a short narrative displaying tatemae and honne referenced from a video uploaded by a Japanese language teacher:

Two coworkers having a conversation in the workplace.


T: Oh hey, yamamoto-san, how was your trip?

Y: Boy, was it great! Oh, I bought you some souvenirs.

T: You shouldn’t have.

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Y: Sorry for being such a cheapskate

T: Oh no, it’s wonderful

Y: You wouldn’t believe how clear and blue the waters were

T: Hey, don’t make me jealous now


T: Oh hey, Yamamoto-san. Last week everyone worked overtime because of you.

Y: I don’t like you, but we work together so I bought you this.

T: What do you know, more flakey rice crackers. My dog will love these.

Y: You owe me 2,000 yen. (US $2)

T: I’ll give you 1,000 yen. (US $1)

Y: I wish I could speak English.

T: Me too.

The use of tatemae in Japan has become an obvious and frequent action that people now usually use it as a sense of humor now. Displayed in this narrative are two coworkers who don’t particularly like each other but due to common workplace courtesy, they attempt to get along and act polite. Mr. T uses the face-saving act when he accepts and shows appreciation for the souvenirs Mr. Y bought for him even though it was very cheap and seemingly frequently received in the past. Tatemae and Honne are two speech variants used in Japan to display and maintain the public image and true intentions of the Japanese people. They are the defined lexical examples of Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory. Japanese people are renowned to be one of the most polite cultures around the world, however even the Japanese have their own true intentions that they just choose to hide. It is part of their culture to act in a highly moral and polite way and which has been instilled into them from young ages. Though it seems that Japan is quite open to the fact that they use tatemae and honne which most likely implies that if one were to assess a situation in which tatemae is being used, it would be best to just save ‘face’ and go along with it.

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