A Conversation for 'Tatemae' and 'Honne' in Japanese Society

A Great Subtlety

Post 1

Sam

There's a great care and subtlety to the Japanese and to much of its culture. When I lived there for a while it was explained to me early on by Japanese friends, a certain slight nuance that proved to be useful in my later attempts at communication. Roughly speaking, 'Hai' means yes and 'ie' (pron. 'EE-AY') means no. However, if you are talking to a Japanese person and, hypothetically, you are rattling off a list of things you believe in or that you want doing, you'll probably find that your Japanese friend will interject every now and then with a 'Hai, hai' and a nod of the head. You might well be forgiven, coming grandly to the end of your speech, that all was understood and, what's more, that all your opinions were met with complete agreement. Ha! Not quite. It is possible that the series of 'hai's were thrown in just to help motor the conversation along a bit (your conversation, that is) and that a more accurate translation of 'hai' in this instance, wouldn't be yes, but rather, 'Yes... I'm listening.'

The great subtleties of the mysterious third and middle way!

Samsmiley - smiley


A Great Subtlety

Post 2

Fragilis - h2g2 Cured My Tabular Obsession

I had a Japanese exchange student staying with me through a quarter of college, and I noticed this phenomenon with her also. The other exchange students who occasionally visited did it also.

If I wanted to go out to dinner and I invited my Japanese roomie along, she would reply:

For yes: 'Yes, I would like to go with you.'
For no: 'Yes, I will certainly go if that is what you have planned.'

You see? The second is a polite way of saying 'no thanks' without actually refusing the offer. Usually, the downturned facial expression gives it away. You will notice that only the first response contains a personal opinion on the offer. The lack of personal opinion in the second response indicates that the opinion is not the one she thought was desired.

It was explained to me that this is often done to save face, so the offering party does not feel slighted. After reading this article, I believe the second response demonstrates a willingness to bow to social 'rightness' instead of personal opinion.

She usually looked quite relieved when I explained that I would be happy for her to stay home while I went alone. It took several weeks for her to understand that I would never pressure her into social situations she did not enjoy.


A Great Subtlety

Post 3

Sam

I have a theory that Internet communication, specifically h2g2 communication, shows a striking similarity to general Japanese communal interaction. Communication in Japan, in general, is more thoughtful and perhaps less spontaneous. Traditionally, society, or the smooth-running of society, was given more importance than the wishes of the individual. Individual expression came second; the interests of the social group as a whole coming first. Although things are changing in Japan, this vibe still holds true.

On h2g2, we cater for all sorts of voices (individuals) talking and writing and sharing all sorts of information. However, all this is done very much within the context of belonging to a society, a community that is very important for many people. There seems to be a collective care for the maintenance and smooth running of this society. h2g2 is not coercive, not at all, but it has a vibe (and I think a very positive, inclusive one) and a clear common objective - The Guide, which somehow gently influences our conduct. There is a certain deference, I believe, to the Community, the 'society' (of h2g2) as a whole, in the interests of maintaining the society's identity.

I'm convinced that this sense of belonging to a community, being part of an inclusive society, influences the way in which people conduct themselves on site. Generally Researchers think before they speak (for speak read post). When they don't, their words are there for all to see. This is like making rash throwaway comments that wound a sensitive listener. The comments stay and hurt. h2g2, the very fabric of the site, asks us all to take a little care when communicating to our fellow brother, our fellow sister.

This all somehow makes me feel that the Community of h2g2 is beginning to fulfill what many have thought absolutely necessary if the human race is to evolve itself away from mutual antipathy and ultimate destruction; namely, a degree of harmonization between Eastern mind and Western mind - the Occidental and the Oriental, male mind and female mind. I often think of the ideas and thoughts of Hermann Hesse and Carl Jung whenever I'm watching h2g2 evolve, thoughts concerning the meeting of these two mind sets. I'm very keen to get Eastern Researchers to use h2g2 and this is beginning to happen, very slowly, but nonetheless it is.

Samsmiley - smiley


A Great Subtlety

Post 4

Fragilis - h2g2 Cured My Tabular Obsession

Well, the first thing that has to go if you're looking for a melding of Western and Eastern concepts is the old duality model. smiley - winkeye


A Great Subtlety

Post 5

ZenMondo

Another example of the Japanese way of staying polite I have learned about is what to say if you are asked if you enjoyed your meal. If you didn't you say, "I liked it a little bit". smiley - smiley


A Great Subtlety

Post 6

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

You have a good point, Sam.

With regard to the internet I am not so sure, because the internet is not so much a community yet, more a collection of anonymus individuals who can basically get away with anything said under their anonymity and a false email address, but with regard to real communities you are right. Speech on h2g2 stays where it is said, and thus people tend to think longer, make their answers more subtle. I find myself wrestling the wording of a certain sentence far longer than I would in RL. On the other hand I sometimes reread earlier postings with shame on the jowls, for their rashness.

The community collective memory is then like an elephant, it never forgets. In Japan, the saying goes that 'No tradition in Japan has ever been forgotten', and such it is probably too with people's behaviour. Be on guard at all times, your missteps are perhaps forgiven but not forgotten.

(And to think I'll be visiting this seemingly merciless society myself soon, in search of it's underlying warmth, among other things? Incredible smiley - smiley )


A Great Subtlety

Post 7

Sam

Excellent! When are you going? And (if I might make so bold to ask) why?

I'm really keen to get Japanese folk to get involved with h2g2. I think it would be especially good for those that want to learn/improve their English - I really can't think of a better place on the Net for them to do so! Whaddya reckon?

I look forward to you reply!

Samsmiley - smiley


A Great Subtlety

Post 8

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

I'll be leaving at the start of the next uni-year, september if all goes well. Haven't really been paying attention to the trip yet, it's all a bit unbelievable, but that should change in the coming weeks smiley - smiley

I've been studying under the wing of a fairly renowned prof at my uni, named Van Wolferen (wrote a big book on Japanese political society: The Enigma of Japanese Power), and the research I will do in the coming year will centre on Japan. The three months I'm going will be orientational, to have a good look around, talking to everyone, trying to get a feel for the country. Also paying specific attention to small businesses, as my research will focus on them, probably.
I'll be doing a lot with a certain uni there, I think it's in Tokio.
Many Japanese students... potential should be large smiley - smiley

I am interested in Japan itself now primarily because it puzzles me, as it puzzled the professor I'm with. However, he has, as it seems, fallen in love with the country, and is quite concerned with its well-being. I myself have not yet fallen for Japan, but I am confused with it: it feels strangely remote from what I know and hold dear, it seems restrained, rigourous and harsh, unforgiving and rigid in its thought tradition. On the other hand, it seems to me that there is an undercurrent flowing through the Japanese society which eludes me and many like me, and that undercurrent I want to find out more about. It is the inkling of this underlying thing that keeps me from rejecting the Japanese way entirely.

This turned out quite the rant... smiley - smiley


A Great Subtlety

Post 9

Sam

Wow! I'm really intrigued! I cannot possibly claim to have any expertise or any such thing as far as Japan and the Japanese are concerned. However, I've been extremely fortunate enough to have made some very close friends (Japanese) who have helped very much to show me just how thoughtful and profoundly sensitive Japan can be. Two very famous (and very different) Japanese authors are well worth looking into. One is Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic, who died recently. 'When I Whistle' and 'Silence' are marvellous novels of his. Another is, of course, Yukio Mishima - a terrifying, magnificent and controversial writer. His masterpiece, a four-book tetraology called 'The Sea of Fertility', laments the disappearence of an older, mystical, noble Samurai code. The influence of Buddhism figures greatly in this work. Both writers come from very different stances but together they create a feeling, at least, of a certain 'Japaneseness'.

I'm keen to maintain our communication in the coming months! How interesting...

Best wishes,

Sam. smiley - smiley


A Great Subtlety

Post 10

Prez HS (All seems relatively quiet here)

Well I'll be keen to 'compare notes' with you when I get back, but for now I think you must be more savant about Japanese daily life than I am. I have been reading much about its history, and the why of how it is today but you know? the actual 'how it is today' is to me still very much a picture comprised of many smaller pictures, lacking coherence. I have yet to find a picture of Japan of my own, apart from the stories in images and words I got so far from others.

For instance, you: tell me, please, something about your stay in Japan? I am very interested in how you liked it. How long were you there, what did you encounter?


A Great Subtlety

Post 11

thehumanduvet

Hi there, interesting article, feel like I'm eavesdropping but notice you're off to Japan with some interest in small business and have a bit of a point to make regarding the honne/tatemae thing in this context - I know it's a bit of a hoary old chestnut knocking about the Japanolgy sphere but I assure you I've seen it in action and it's very true.
In meetings between businessmen (and even as you point out in daily interaction between co-workers), everyone is keen to uphold tatemae at all costs, making sure everything that is said is polite and shows the proper levels of respect towards group relationships. An upshot of this is that many meetings do very little, everyone vying very politely for the point they want to make but never breaking ettiquette enough to demand something they think is right. At the end of the day a kind of half-assed agreement will be knocked up and duly committed to paper. However, once the day's work is complete the various meeters (?) will all head down to the local Izakaya, restaurant or other place of copious alcohol consumption, get purple-faced drunk and let all the honne out, telling it like they really feel and hammering out, in business situations, a kind of gentleman's agreement on which their future dealings will be tacitly based. This could also be part of the root of Japan's enormous collective fondness for alcohol - drunkenness is seen as a total excuse for any "bad" behaviour and particularly for talking to people of superior group status frankly and honne-fully. It works pretty much the same in student-teacher relationships (those nights out on the beer with a seminar group or class can be murder on the liver, particularly when, as a foreigner, you are expected to be able to cope with about three times the average Japanese consumption of the booze).
Anyway enjoy your time in Japan, it's a pretty cool place, I'm thinking of rejoining the gaijin community again myself sometime soon (finances allowing). And well done again on a very well written piece.


A Great Subtlety

Post 12

hikermike - guardian of the wa

Just to add to the last comment, after you`ve all been plastered at the izakaya, and said everything you wanted, you will return to the work environment the next day, and not a word will be said about it. (It being your calling your Japanese boss a drunken old fool-fool being the biggest insult out- or anything). And as such tatemae returns.

And if you have any notes to share after your visit, I would also be very interested to hear them.


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