Harmony in Relationships Through Honne and Tatemae

In his book, Ken Mogi states that to achieve harmony in relationships, it is important to be emotionally balanced; one way to do that is by practicing the idea of honne (true feelings) and tatemae (behavior one displays in public).

Ken explains how Japanese people avoid conflicts by applying the concepts of honne and tatemae.

It is important to be emotionally balanced to achieve harmony in our relationships.

Nick: Let's move on to relationships, Ken. The nagomi of relationships, and I'm going to quote you here, you write: 

"In order to achieve nagomi in relationships, it is important to be emotionally balanced, and in this regard, Japanese people have a unique set of life hacks." 

What are some of these life hacks?

Ken: Now, this will depend on person to person. So I cannot be too general about that. But I do think, for example, not contradicting somebody. I mean, even when he or she is telling an obvious lie, you don't say you are a liar, or you just smile enigmatically in Japanese, and you just let it go. 

I think one of the most useful ideas that probably would help some people to understand the Japanese psyche is this distinction between honne and tatemae. Honne is the true heart of yourself, and tatemae is something that you would say to keep your social appearances. And the Japanese are really good at  making use of honne and tatemae

So we are great friends, and if we go to izakaya, for example, together, we would be speaking from our true heart, right? That's honne. But when you are with somebody, whom you are not very familiar with, or some important people, then you wouldn't actually let out your honne, your true heart. You'd use social preferences, and this would be present in any society. 

But it's fair to say that in Japan, this art of communication has developed to such that any Japanese can use it. And maybe as an expatriate, maybe you have had some experiences where you can't actually tell what this person's honne, true heart is, until you really get to know that person well.

Nick: Yeah, actually, I've witnessed a friend switch. I've been with a friend, we've been having fun, casually talking, and we were rounding a corner, and then he saw a customer; he switched into this tatemae mode, and he's bowing, and he was saying all these things, and being very polite. 

Then a few minutes later, I actually asked him and said, "Wow, you just changed into a different person. Is that hard to do?" And he's like, "Oh, you know, it's just normal." But I really noticed that one day, and it sort of made me think wow, Japanese, they have all these social cues where they've, I kind of really have to adapt and adjust their behaviour because of these relationships. And I later discovered it was honne and tatemae. So it's quite useful, I think.

Ken: It is useful, and the real pleasure of getting to know somebody is when you start talking with honne, true heart. That's when you can tell that you have really become a great friend with this person.