To many western cultures, candor is valued highly. However, to the Japanese, “it is considered a virtue not to directly express one’s real feelings and intentions” (The Japanese Mind).
For the Japanese, there are two mindsets: first there is tatemae = 建前, meaning how one shows their feelings in public, and the other is honne = 本音, meaning one’s true feelings.
“Almost all feelings are tatemae,” says Kanako, our cultural expert. “Sometimes my sempai (senior) takes me out to dinner, and I don’t want to go because I want to do something else like homework. So my honne is I don’t want to go, but my tatemae is ‘I want to go, but I have to do something.’
Kanako notes that Japanese people sometimes sense tatemae, but they understand, and don’t get offended, because the purpose of tatemae is to hide your true feelings, for the respect of others.
“We really don’t like to make others sad, so we sometimes tell a lie to keep them from being unhappy. I think it’s a good thing, because you tell a small lie for their benefit,” she says.
The Japanese Mind also notes that an invitation to stay for dinner is often a subtle, polite way of asking the guest(s) to go home. The proper response to such an invitation is “thank you very much but I’m not hungry.”
Although western cutlures certainly use a similar concept for politeness, the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae extend far beyond western culture in their willingness to lie to be polite.