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Japanese social customs are complex and dynamic, and often depend, and change, based on circumstance, social standing, age, professional position, and myriad other considerations. The dichotomy of honne-tatamae – the concept of a public face and a true face – is one expression of this duality. The duality of uchi-soto is another.

Uchi literally refers to “home,” as in the family, but also the nation, the religion, the social class, the business role or many other groups within which one is secure. This is common to all societies, but it is particularly finely-tuned in Japan.

Soto literally means “outside,” and can refer to people who are outside of a social group, whatever its nature. For example, within a business setting, an employee of a company is uchi; a customer is soto.

These ever-shifting distinctions between uchi and soto people, which can be different in nearly every situation in Japan, can become an enormous barrier for foreigners in Japan – as they are intended to be. Foreigners are, by their very nature and standing, outside of Japanese society, and getting past the barrier between uchi and soto can be virtually impossible, even for those who spend decades working in Japan, marrying in Japan, even raising children in Japan.

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The language and custom perpetuate these distinctions: Learning the language is hard enough, but learning all the various cues and meanings and manners required by the proper observation of the uchi-soto distinction is extremely difficult. Most foreigners never manage it; even those who eventually understand the distinctions may well be still subject to it in ways beyond their understanding, let along their control.

But foreigners aren’t the only ones subject to the distinctions between uchi and soto; Japanese themselves are constantly shifting in and out of each position, depending on the situation. Uchi-soto distinctions can play out in regards to family, to corporation, to gender and to class, and every Japanese learns over time how to respond to these changing positions.

But the uchi-soto distinction we are concerned with here is between Japanese and gaijin, or foreigners. This is the essential distinction that foreigners have to deal with, especially if they are working in Japan, but even if they are traveling, for it explains many behaviors that are otherwise surprising.

The distinctions can play out along a variety of lines, from body language to grammar, and many verbs in Japanese are conjugated not just to distinguish tense and person, but also forms of politeness. Some of these distinctions aren’t just unknown to foreigners, but are actually counterintuitive when they are pointed out – if they are pointed out, which they probably won’t be. The Japanese take these things for granted to the degree that they may not fully appreciate how invisible and incomprehensible the whole structure is to outsiders.

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For instance, one of the key ways in which uchi-soto plays out in social situations, or professional situations, is that the members of the “in” group treat the members of the “out” group with a greater deference, even humility. This may seem counterintuitive, given that in most cultures, those who are part of the “in” group – whether it be family, or company, or nationality – are proud of their membership in the “in” group. This is true of the Japanese as well, except that the Japanese are forbidden by manners to show that pride; instead, they go in the opposite direction, adding extra humility to, say, their language, in order to humble themselves and even their entire group, so as to not offend the outsiders.

This matters enormously in business, and whole chapters in business books have been written about why and how to work around the endlessly complex grammatical and behavioral consequences of being an outsider working with insiders.

But visitors with less of a stake in any social outcome – tourists who are passing through relatively briefly, for example – can relax. You are not expected to understand these fine distinctions, and the deference shown visitors ensures that this will not unduly affect your experience of Japan. It may, in fact, enhance it, as you may find that Japanese go out of their way to please and accommodate you and your needs, which can be quite pleasant.

But just be aware that all of this goes much deeper than mere hospitality; the uchi-soto distinction is always present in social and business interactions in Japan, and it adds a layer of complexity that a visitor ought to be aware of – be assured that your Japanese hosts certainly are!

By DAVID WATTS BARTON