Why Japanese People Seem Like Liars - Tatemae Hedge Words

What does “yes” really mean? As it turns out, in Japanese culture it can mean “no”.

Are they lying? Well… not exactly. I call these “Tatemae Hedge Words”

In Japanese culture there is a construct called “Honne and Tatemae”. Honne (本音 hon’ne) literally translates to "true sound“ and refers to one’s true inner feelings. Alternatively, Tatemae (建前) means „built in front“ and refers to the facade that projects what is expected or required by society. These two constructs can be (and often are) in conflict with each other. How often have you been conflicted between how you felt and how you were expected to act? This conflict often causes Japanese to act as expected and lie or tell half-truths at the expense of their true feelings.

Then they should just express how they feel right? Not so fast...

"Honne and Tatemae" is a deeply engrained construct and a principle on which individuals are socialized in Japan. In essense, expressing their true feelings would be betraying their cultural identity. Let’s rephrase that question.

They can just betray their identity right?

It sounds overblown but it is the question Japanese people face regularly interacting with westerners.

This societal expectation or role is primarily driven by Buddhist and Confucian ideologies that have been a part of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. A comprehensive breakdown of these concepts is covered in Nipponica Course 1.

As a non-Japanese person what are you suppose to do about this? To me, there are three paths forward with varying degrees of difficulty:

  • Clarify for Understanding (rudimentary)

  • Read Body Language (basic)

  • Become an Insider (advanced)

Clarify for Understanding (rudimentary)

When asking a Japanese colleague or partner a question and the answer is “yes” make a point to ask what it is that they are agreeing to. Oftentimes in uncomfortable situations Japanese people will say “yes” to mean “yes, I understand what you are saying” rather than “yes, I agree with what you are saying”. By forcing the topic of what they are agreeing to they are able to clarify. It is significantly less likely that they will be equally opaque in their response. However, they may reply with a deflection such as "It may be difficult" to avoid conflict. This is a very basic approach and can be viewed as crass or dense by Japanese people. If possible, use the following techniques which are more subtle. However, when the stakes are high it’s best to double check.

Read Body Language (basic)

Reading a person’s body language or “reading between the lines” is a fundamental Japanese skill and important for any person regularly working with Japanese colleagues or partners. Some basic cues are primarily in the face and head. Generally, if a Japanese person is not in agreement with you they will tilt their head, clench their jaws, shut their eyes tightly or all of the above. Even if they are nodding it cannot be blatantly understood as agreement. On the other hand, if they are slack-jawed and nodding it is very likely that they are in agreement.

If it is not of immediate importance it is better to read between the lines and take a hint. It is often more favorable to seem humble.

Become an Insider (advanced)

It is possible to become an insider or a confidant to which a Japanese team member will share their true feelings with you. This is far easier said than done. Note that this is extremely difficult and that it is not a practical route. Additionally, this will likely not be an option for Japanese people outside of your organization but is a possibility for Japanese colleagues and teammates. Expectations of behavior for Japanese people are driven by societal debt and societal role. With respect to becoming a confidant it is important to increase their societal debt to you and dissolve any societal role which would restrict personal expression. Increasing societal debt means to help and genuinely care for them. This will take years and possibly decades. Dissolving societal roles means to reduce their obligation to act a certain way to you. For instance, if you have seniority they will hesitate to express their true feelings due to the societal expectation that they are subservient to you. It may be in your interest to create situations in which your roles are put aside and your relationship is re-contextualized.

At the end of the day it is important that it may be YOU who needs to work on your communication skills. As you may be wondering I call this “Tatemae Hedge Words” for two reasons. The first is that it is language used by Japanese people to protect themselves or “hedge” against making a social faux pas. The second is because much like garden hedges if you look carefully and use your other senses you can tell what’s behind them without cutting them down

Like my analysis of Japanese Culture? Learn the fundamental concepts that I teach in Course 1 for Japanese culture..

#japanese #culture #tatemae #business #japan #hedgewords #honne