To an extent we all display a form of Honne and Tatemae, yet in Japan it is an important cultural value. Honne is known as the true inward feelings that a person has, while Tatemae is known as the behavior or opinions that one displays in public to other people. One’s words and true feelings do not always agree. How many times have you been friendly toward someone outwardly when you actually did not care to be around them? This is the careful balance of Honne and Tatemae.
In Japan harmony is more important than truth. Given that Japan is a densely populated country, the development of a cultural value based upon harmony with others became necessary. Hence the need for Honne and Tatemae is said to have been developed over a long period of time. To not directly express one’s feelings and intentions is considered to be a great virtue in Japanese culture. (Unlike American culture.) Rather than telling people directly what one thinks, an indirect system exists to help create harmony by “saving face”. Because of this system it can be difficult to tell whether someone is telling what they actually think or believe versus what they want you to hear in order to help create a sense of harmony. When communicating with Japanese people this can create some serious issues for Americans!
Only over a long period of time can a foreigner learn to do what Japanese call “read the air”, meaning to discern what is actually being said in a conversation. (A highly valued skill in Japan.) In Japanese, context is necessary to understand conversation, as opposed to English where context is not as important with our direct form of communication. So, for instance in Japanese culture if I were at someone’s house and they said, “Won’t you dine with us?”, it would not be an invitation to stay and eat, but rather a subtle hint that it is time for me to go, to which I would respond, “Thank you very much, but I am not very hungry.” These kinds of communication are generally understood amongst Japanese, which makes it all the more difficult for the American to understand what is happening!
Please pray that we would be able to understand the true thoughts and intentions of Japanese people!