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In English, it is called a “white lie”: the not-quite-true fabrication, or shading of the truth, that is designed to soften what would otherwise be a hurtful comment or uncomfortable social reality. Most cultures around the world recognize that giving an unvarnished opinion or stating a truth plainly can cause not just personal distress, but social discord.

We lie sometimes not to hurt another’s feelings or to create social awkwardness, but to avoid it. It is, arguably, a universal human solution to a universal human problem.

In Japan, of course, this is not just commonly done, it has been formalized into a pair of opposing concepts that describe this social reality perfectly: Honne (or “true sound”) is the word for what is really thought, or said privately; tatemae (or “facade”) is its opposite, the constructed “white lie” that avoids hurt feelings and smoothes social functioning.

In a country as densely populated and thus as concerned with social harmony and group cohesion as Japan, life without such a verbal construct would be difficult indeed. True to the Japanese style, this dichotomy has become enshrined in culture.

Honne and tatamae jostle with each other through every conversation in Japan, each participant assessing what needs to be said, and how, and internally weighing what can be said and what must not be said. Such is the complicated mental chess that many Japanese social (and work) interactions require.

For foreigners who are struggling with even the basics of the Japanese language (or just the accents), or with the country’s complex social conventions, trying to figure out when an invitation or compliment or question is honne or tatemae can be daunting, even overwhelming. Some suspect that the Japanese hide behind tatemae as a convenience rather than simple manners, and some have even gotten angry at what they consider the presumed “dishonesty” of the Japanese.

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True, some Japanese, being human, may find the notions of honne and tatamae to be convenient ways to escape responsibility, to mislead and to otherwise gain advantage in a conversation. As with the elements of high- and low-context cultures – Japan is decidedly “high-context” – the generous use of these “white lies” has the potential to create international misunderstandings between the Japanese who use them and the foreigners who often feel that it is difficult to take the Japanese at their word. Foreigners may be forgiven for finding it difficult to determine whether a Japanese is being kind or simply lying.

The confusion is understandable: Invitations may be extended that any Japanese would understand to be only a formality, never to be accepted, but which gaijin may actually accept. Compliments may be a way of being nice, but they may also be a way to manipulate someone into favors. But who, in any culture, doesn’t do these things from time to time?

So in some cases, tatemae is a way of maintaining the modesty that the Japanese value more highly than many Western cultures. In others, it may be a way of maintaining position. Or it may be a way of defusing an awkward situation or even flattering an important client. The ways in which tatemae and honne are played against each other are virtually limitless – especially in Japan.

This game is, of course, often played for advantage, and this is where it can get difficult. Given that the Japanese, like most other groups of people, are a self-interested lot, who is to say when tatemae is being used to be polite and when it is being used to mislead a competitor?

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More to the point, the Japanese are notoriously group-minded, and no one wants to stand out from the crowd. This is complicated for many Westerners particularly, since many aim to be unique, to rise above the crowd. This is not a typical Japanese attitude, and in order to fit in, the Japanese may say what is required to appear a part of the group, while simultaneously believing, or knowing, themselves to be thinking quite the opposite.

This can be a matter not just of manners, but of survival in a culture that values group cohesion. Whatever else they may be, and as frustrating as it may be to try to decipher what, exactly, a particular Japanese person thinks or feels, there are reasons why these “two faces” exist.

The trick, for a visitor, is getting a sense of how they are being employed. As any gaijin can tell you, that could take a lifetime to figure out.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON