I was writing up a draft for another article I’m planning to release when the time is right, and amidst my prattle I saw fit to outline a couple of recurring themes that most non-Japanese watchers of anime probably don’t think about. As I’m not yet comfortable publishing the aforementioned post in its current state, and given my explanation ended up being too long (what else is new?), I decided to cut that section from the post, and patch it up a little so that it could stand as a post of its very own. This way, I can simply link this post to curious readers whenever I mention hon’ne and tatemae in future posts. I do not claim to know everything there is to know about these concepts, as I myself have never even set foot in Japan; but the following explanations are drawn from a culmination of the information about Japan and its culture I’ve been voraciously absorbing for the past several years now. If that seems sufficient enough for you, I hope that you will indulge me.
よく知っている人達はよかったら、リプライで是非付け加えてくださいね m(_ _)m
We’ll begin with 本音 (Hon’ne), which can be roughly translated as one’s “true voice.” These are your innermost thoughts and feelings that you can’t, shouldn’t, or wouldn’t share with the public. Maybe you act friendly with someone at work just to maintain a positive atmosphere, but secretly hate their guts. Maybe your boss has put forth an idea for a project that you think will flop. Maybe you, a member of a bousouzoku, secretly love Pretty Cure, and are worried about facing ridicule from your friends. Given the amount of structure and politeness prevalent in Japanese society, there are a number of things that a westerner might confess openly that Japanese might not, leading to a few of the misunderstandings we sometimes experience when watching Japanese shows or traveling abroad. When faced with situations in which you cannot bring forth your hon’ne (sounds like a special attack from a shounen anime when I put it like that), it is now a situation which calls for…
建前 (Tatemae), which I would roughly translate as a “constructed front.” This is your “public stance” on any given issue, as opposed to your truer feelings regarding the subject. Whenever you are outside the privacy of your own home, there’s a good chance you’re using tatemae in a considerable chunk of your interactions, whether you intend to or not. Tatemae doesn’t necessarily have to be synonymous with maliciously lying; it could also constitute “white lies,” half-truths, euphemistic speech, or simply expressing a watered-down version of your true thoughts. In many ways, tatemae is how you want the world to see you, whereas hon’ne is closer to who you really are. Your close friends and family probably know you for your hon’ne self to some extent, but all else likely only know you on a superficial level– the tatemae you put out for the world to see.
These aren’t exclusively Japanese concepts, only a merit of the language that they can be expressed so clearly with a single word. Language affects how we think– a language without a clear word for beauty, for example, might be correlative to a culture with a less refined appreciation for art and aesthetics. I’m sure the idea of hon’ne and tatemae make perfect sense to you, but it’s the word that gives the idea shape and quantifies it, in a sense. English has no direct equivalents to words like hon’ne and tatemae, and as a result, English-speakers are likely less acutely aware of these concepts throughout daily life; and our respective cultures have been shaped accordingly. Even in my explaining of these concepts, the reality of it differs quite greatly from culture to culture– my tatemae is almost certainly less intricate than that of the average Japanese person my age. This isn’t to say that Japanese are less trustworthy than we westerners– on the contrary, Japan is one of the safest nations on Earth, in regards to crime. The result of these intricacies only mean that, sometimes, the path to expressing the truth is more roundabout or convoluted than it would be in the west. When you encounter a scene in an anime in which two characters have a disagreement and start avoiding each other over something that seems really pointless, chances are, if you were born and raised in Japan, you’d realise there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
That’s because how I want to be seen and the consequences of showing my true self to the world is more or less an issue of petty pride; whereas, in Japan, where and when you use hon’ne or tatemae is much more integral to daily social life. Maybe I go public with my love for anime, or my abnormal, semi-pagan spiritual beliefs to my coworkers. The ramifications of that decision would be pretty minor. Maybe they think I’m a bit of a weirdo afterward, but we’d probably be able to get past it all. But if I were working at a big company in Japan, these are things that could ultimately affect my status in the company. You might think that sounds restrictive– and you’d be right, in my opinion. Japan is slowly becoming more open-minded when it comes to these things, but I do think hon’ne and tatemae will be much more important over there, and so have different connotations than they do in the west, for the foreseeable future. We have world-renowned western CEOs like Elon Musk Tweeting silly memes and about his love for anime catgirls, but if the CEO of a similarly-renowned Japanese corporation were to do the same thing, there would likely be controversy and scandal involved. We could expect to see some significant real-life consequences, and no doubt some not-so-gentle pushing from investors to issue a formal apology, or even to step down. That’s a bit of an extreme example, and you might not see this as much in anime as you would in real life, but I think it’s still worth mentioning.
To paraphrase a common saying in Japan: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down— there are consequences for standing out excessively. I feel like I could have done more in this post to detail how all this relates to certain situations in anime, so if you’re confused, or if I’ve piqued your interest, leave me a comment, and I’ll try to elaborate. I might even write a second article in the future using direct examples from anime (the only reason I didn’t do that here is because I wanted to keep things relatively general & brief). I hope I was able to teach you something you didn’t know already with this post. Next time you’re watching anime, keep your eyes open for examples of hon’ne and tatemae!