Honne and Tatemae – The Unwritten Rules of Japanese Society

For anyone hoping to live happily in Japan—and especially for those seeking to succeed in the Japanese workplace—mastering honne and tatemae is an essential prerequisite! This article will explain what honne and tatemae are, as well as give you practical advice for how you can understand and use them yourself!

Honne and Tatemae – Essential Skills for the Japanese Workplace

Harmony – one of the most captivating elements of Japan that turns travelers into expats. While the origin of this harmony has many sources, a large fraction can be attributed to the unwritten social codes of honne (true self) and tatemae (a façade).

While these concepts exist in all cultures, Japan’s version, like many things, requires some getting used to! From the workplace to izakaya, honne and tatemae permeate every facet of Japanese society!

What is Tatemae?

Tatemae (建前) is the façade we display before others. It’s often agreeable, placid, jovial, and even submissive. While this may seem a tad disingenuous or two-faced, tatemae is generally used to avoid conflict and ensure smooth social interactions rather than trick or deceive.

No matter the situation, those versed in tatemae will nod, smile politely, and practice proper “aizuchi” (back channeling). While from the outside they may seem in agreement, it’s all an act to avoid offense!

Intricately linked to the “senpaikohai” (senior-junior) relationship, tatemae is all about 空気を読む (“kuki wo yomu” or just KY for short), meaning “reading the room.” Responding enthusiastically with a few harmless lies avoids direct and aggressive confrontation, resulting in the harmony we know and love.

What is Honne?

Honne (本音) is the opposite of tatemae. It is your truest expression. Whether it be complaining about work, yawning loudly when tired, or blatantly refusing someone’s invitation, we only reveal honne to our most trusted family members and friends.

While honne generally has no place at work, as anyone who has lived in Japan knows, offices and classrooms are full of genuine friendships that allow one to show their true colors. The more you get to know one of your colleagues, the more they will show you their honne. However, expressing yourself too much, especially when disgruntled, is considered rude and immature.

While children are generally exempt, tatemae and honne are hammered into Japanese minds from as young as twelve. You’ll be surprised by how wildly different some people’s honne is from their tatemae. While in many cultures, co-workers are expected to get to know one another, most Japanese workers barely know their colleagues!

Honne and Tatemae in Japanese Society

Tatemae and honne play a vital role in ensuring the peace and harmony that many adore about Japan. It’s one of the reasons many of us thought “I’d like to live here!” Petty squabbles, unwelcome nosiness, incessant chatter, and mammoth egos are extensively curbed. This all adds up into a safe, peaceful, and considerably non-violent society.

That being said, ask any Japanese what they think of tatemae and honne, and they’ll likely say it’s not a good thing—if they’re even being honest! Miscommunication, misconceptions, and bullying can easily arise. Antisocial behavior often goes unchallenged, especially from older people, which has led to a massive generation gap. While change is on the horizon, and direct, honest communication is becoming appreciated, things are not quite there yet!


What Not to Do in a Japanese Workplace

If you want to make a good impression in the Japanese workplace, the best thing you can do is be respectful and energetic, listen to your colleagues, and keep personal talk to a minimum. While in many societies, workers bond by chatting about their lives and airing grievances, this is generally not acceptable in Japan. A workplace is for work, and that’s it! As interesting as you may be, talking non-stop about your hobbies, opinions, or home is not appropriate. It’s best to save these types of conversations for your friends outside of the workplace. Above all, keep a positive attitude and try to keep complaints or other negative comments to a minimum.


Use Tatemae to Your Advantage

With all this in mind, living in Japan might be starting to sound a little daunting! Fear not! Tatemae is an easy-to-learn tool that, if practiced correctly, will lead you into a successful career, meaningful relationships, and a bustling social life! Here are some tatemae tips to help you thrive in Japan!

1. Too much information! Keep personal chatter about your life to a minimum unless appropriate.

2. Smile and nod! Always act interested in what others are saying, even if you’re not!

3. Don’t be too direct! Bluntness, while effective, can be taken offensively.

4. Don’t sigh, or make other negative expressive noises! Letting out an ‘ah, I can’t wait to get home’ will be met by the shocked faces of coworkers!

Above all, use your head! Tatemae is, at its core, just manners. These concepts exist in all societies, so just turn up the dial on what you’re already doing!

The Nomikai and Japanese Drinking Culture

A nomikai, despite being a party, is still full of tatemae and senpai/kohai relationships, so don’t let your hair down too quickly! Often the only job of newer employees is to top up drinks and organize payment. Needless to say, many dread nomikais!

That being said, social drinking with friends and coworkers provides a welcome opportunity to finally release the stress and nervous energy built up over the day. With senpai/kohai relationships softened, daily grievances, personal stories, and juicy gossip can be more freely exchanged! If you desire a deeper connection to your coworkers, colleagues, or friends, this is the place to do it!

So, Is Anything Actually Real?

With all this talk of double faces and incessant flattery, you may be feeling a little jaded! Don’t worry, tatemae and honne, while extremely important notions in Japanese society, are just black and white in a world of gray! While the information in this article will be useful in navigating your way through Japan, don’t let these unwritten rules dominate your future!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.