Exploring the Honour Culture of Japan

 What values do the people of Japan cherish and strive to uphold?

What is honor culture?

Japan is an exemplary case study of an honor-based society. Japan's deeply entrenched honor culture has been evident since ancient times. Traditionally, Japanese society values harmony, politeness, and respect, emphasizing loyalty and personal relationships. Japanese people constantly strive to adhere to social customs and expectations that consider the good of the collective rather than individualistic desires.

Despite its rapid modernization, it has retained many of its traditional values, one which we will talk about today, the struggle between Tatemae and Honne, a distinction crucial in many aspects of Japanese life.

So, what is Tatemae and Honne?

This dichotomy is an enduring struggle in Japanese culture, something that outsiders find difficult to navigate around. It is essentially the conflict between the private and public self, a struggle between individual expression against societal expectations.

  • Tatemae is defined as the individual's societal responsibility, the expectations required of someone's position and circumstances.
    • This is seen in many Japanese social contexts, with people avoiding confrontation and disagreement in an attempt to minimize discord. The concept of Tatemae refers to the public face that is shown to the world, a face that is silently enduring and sometimes painfully kind.
    • Anyone that has spent time in Japan can notice this cultural phenomenon. We hear travel stories about Japan from friends, the pristine beauty of the landscape, the captivating collision of modernity and tradition, and most commonly, the Japanese people's extreme etiquette and politeness, the great lengths many will go to in helping others without question.
    • We as foreigners almost feel like our social rules are another language, a language we have no access to, a bunch of rules of conduct that we as foreigners have no access to.
  • On the other hand, Honne is the opposite of Tatemae. It is the unbridled expression of one’s emotions and frustrations.
    • The main difference between the two is, this face (Honne) is only reserved for your family and close friends. To reveal your unfiltered interiority is to be crass and improper.
    • In public, one must maintain this public persona of servitude and quiet dignity.

Therefore, to be honorable in Japan is to be able to make a clear separation between the two, Honne and Tatemae. The private self needs to be contained within the confines of our private spaces. Honor is found in this interior struggle to repress one's vulgar emotions. The Japanese people's extreme politeness and agreeableness are a badge of honor in Japanese culture, a mark of someone's respectability and dignity.

Our Western conception of individuality runs counter to the Japanese repression of the self.

  • We pride ourselves on our ability to express whatever, whenever.
  • The ability to argue and contend is the very foundation of our democratic society, from our electoral processes to our work environments and our homes.
  • One only needs to look at the recent American election, the crass pageantry of two political opponents debating on the world stage on who is more corrupt. It is hard to grasp the two concepts without offending our western sensibilities that seek to defend one’s honor in the public space.

Moreover, once in Japan, it is often difficult for foreigners to understand their Japanese acquaintance, whether expressing an authentic opinion or trying to save face. For the unfamiliar, it will be hard to distinguish between the two, to know whether an acceptance of an invitation to your favorite restaurant is coming from a genuine desire to join or a meager attempt to avoid friction. How is someone supposed to know if one’s joke is truly funny or if it is merely your Japanese audience's tokenistic and pitiful laughs?

Hence, for those that want to stay in Japan for prolonged periods, either for work or permanent relocation, it is essential to try and distinguish the two. Us foreigners need also to repress our western sensibilities and participate in this social charade. Understanding body language is crucial in being able to distinguish the two concepts.

  • One needs to look beyond the content of speech to also read body language well.
  • Signs of disagreeableness can be noticeable with a more perceptive eye. The lack of eye contact, dispersive glances, and crossed arms are all negative body language signs that can signal a discordant attitude.
  • Also, getting to know someone will enable us to see beyond speech and understand their behavior patterns.
  • Understanding someone's personal history will grant us access to their true opinions and more importantly grant us access, hopefully, to their Honne.

Lastly, as an outsider, we should embrace the Japanese culture. It is important to remember that we are an outsider, and it is our job to fit in. We cannot expect the culture to adjust for us, we are their guests after all. This is the most rewarding part of traveling, of seeing new cultures; the cultural immersion, the very reason we traveled in the first place. We are in Japan not to find familiarity but to immerse ourselves in the discomfort of novelty and encountering new and exciting ways to see the world. Tatemae is not lying or deceptive. It is an honor code that we need to demystify, or at least attempt to.

Do you want to know how to act as the Japanese people do? We explored some rules for proper behavior when visiting or living in Japan so that you can feel comfortable adhering to cultural norms - all while blending into Japanese society as best as possible!

Are you considering working in Japan? Working in a foreign country can be both exciting and intimidating.  The corporate culture in Japan is known to be highly competitive and rigorous. We also discuss some of the pros and cons of working for Japanese companies. With insight about what to expect working for a Japanese company, you'll have the advantages needed to make an informed decision when determining if taking a position in Japan is a venture worth pursuing.


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