Japanese Tatemae (建前) and Honne (本音) - What Japanese speakers say vs. what they actually mean; can you tell the difference? ⑤Max. difficulty level! Kyoto version


What image do you have of Kyoto?

The streets lined with historical shrines and temples are known as one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations, and many of you may have already visited the area on vacation.

In fact, Kyoto residents are known among Japanese for their ability to distinguish between their real intentions and their tatemae. (Of course, not all people in Kyoto are like that!)

In this article, I will introduce some of the honne and tatemae that people in Kyoto often use!

Tatemae: お( じょう ) さんピアノがうまなりはって(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) :お( じょう ) さんピアノが上手( うま ) くなりましたね)

(Ojōsan piano ga uma nari hatte (hyōjun-go: Ojōsan piano ga umaku narimashita ne))"
"Meaning: Miss, you're getting better at the piano.
(Standard Japanese: Your piano playing has improved.)"
Honne: ピアノの( おと ) がうるさくて迷惑( めいわく ) やわ(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) :ピアノの( おと ) がうるさくて迷惑( めいわく ) です)
Meaning: The sound of the piano is so loud it's annoying. (Standard Japanese: The sound of the piano is so loud it's annoying.)

It may sound like a compliment, but do not take it as such and do not say "Thank you".
The phrase, "お( じょう ) さんピアノがうまなりはって" is a tatemae, and the honne would be: "I can hear you practicing the piano from inside my house! It's too noisy!".
You are conveying your feelings of "annoyance" to the other person in a roundabout way by including the words "You're getting better at it".

Tatemae: 元気( げんき ) なお( ) さんですね (Genkina okosandesu ne)

Meaning: Your kids are so full of energy.
"Honne: あんたのとこの子供( こども ) がうるさいから( しず ) かにさせて(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) :あなたの子供( こども ) がうるさいから( しず ) かにさせて) Anta no toko no kodomo ga urusaikara shizukani sasete (hyōjun-go: Anata no kodomo ga urusaikara shizukani sasete)"
Meaning: Your kids are making too much noise, make them quiet. (Standard Japanese: Your kids are noisy, make them quiet)

This one has similar honne and tatemae.
It may sound like a compliment to say your child is "full of energy", but the honne is, "Your child is annoying, so make them quiet."

Tatemae: もう一杯( いっぱい ) ( ちゃ ) どうです? (Mōippai ocha dōdesu?)

Meaning: Would you like another cup of tea?
Honne: そろそろ( かえ ) って (Sorosoro kaette)
Meaning: Please go home already.

When you visit someone's house and you are asked, "Would you like another cup of tea?", that is tatemae. The honne is "Please go home already".
So, be careful to not say, "Yes, one more, please".
They might talk about you behind your back later that you really went home after drinking one more cup (Standard Japanese: They really had another drink before leaving).

"Tatemae: ものすご( ) 上品( じょうひん ) なお( あじ ) やさかい、うちにはもったいないです(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) :とても上品( じょうひん ) ( あじ ) なので、( わたし ) にはもったいないです)

(Monosugo~ ojōhin'na oajiyasakai, uchi ni wa mottainaidesu (hyōjun-go: Totemo jōhin'na ajinanode, watashiniwaa mottainaidesu))"
Meaning: It's too good for me because it has a very elegant taste. (Standard Japanese: It's too good for me because it tastes very elegant.)
Honne: ( あじ ) ( うす ) すぎて( わたし ) ( くち ) ( ) いません (Aji ga usu sugite watashi no kuchi ni aimasen) Meaning: The flavor is too light for my taste.

Suppose a friend invites you over and even prepares dinner for you.
It is hard to say to a friend who has gone to the trouble of cooking for you, that "味が薄すぎる!(The taste/flavor is too light!)".
At such times, people from Kyoto use the polite expression, "上品( じょうひん ) なお( あじ ) (It has an elegant taste)" or "うちにはもったいない (It's too good for me)" as tatemae and try to tell the other person that "( あじ ) ( うす ) すぎて( わたし ) ( くち ) には( ) わない (the flavor is too weak/light for their taste)" without being rude.

"Tatemae: 玄関( げんかん ) ( さき ) ですんませんねぇ(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) 玄関( げんかん ) ( さき ) ですいませんね)

(Genkan-saki de sunmasen nē (hyōjun-go: Genkan-saki de suimasen ne))"
Meaning: Sorry for keeping you at the door. (Standard Japanese: Sorry for keeping you at the door.)
Honne: ( はや ) ( かえ ) ってほしいからなんですよ (Hayaku kaette hoshīkaranan desu yo)
Meaning: It's because I want you to leave as soon as possible.
This is a situation where an acquaintance suddenly visits your home.
When they talk to the person at the door and then say, "玄関( げんかん ) ( さき ) ですんませんねぇ (Sorry for keeping you at the door)", they are not really saying, "すみません (I'm sorry)", but rather, "( はや ) ( かえ ) ってほしいから玄関( げんかん ) ( さき ) ( はな ) すんですよ (I want you to leave early so I'll talk to you at the door)".

"Tatemae: よろしいなぁ(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) ( ) いですね)

(Yoroshī nā (hyōjun-go: Iidesu ne))"
Meaning: Good/I like it. (Standard Japanese: Good/I like it)
Honne: どうでもいい (Dōdemo ī)
Meaning: I don't care/It doesn't matter.

This tatemae is often used when the other person's story is boring or when they are talking about a topic that you are not interested in.
"よろしいなぁ" includes the meaning of "I don't care", "It's boring" and "It's a long story," which are implying that the person listening is getting bored.

"Tatemae: ええ時計( とけい ) してはりますなぁ(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) ( ) 時計( とけい ) してますね)

(Ee tokei shite harimasu nā (hyōjun-go: Ii tokei shitemasu ne))"
Meaning: You have a nice watch. (Standard Japanese: You have a nice watch)
"Honne: あんた( ばなし ) ( なが ) いねん(標準語( ひょうじゅんご ) :あなたの( はなし ) ( なが ) すぎます) (Anta hanashi nagai nen (hyōjun-go: Anata no hanashi wa naga sugimasu))"
Meaning: You're talking too long.

If you are talking to someone in Kyoto and they say, "You have a nice watch" be careful!
The honne is: "時計( とけい ) ( ) て!あんた何分( なにぶん ) ( しゃべ ) ったと( おも ) ってるの?あんた( ばなし ) ( なが ) いねん!(Look at your watch! Do you know how long you've been talking? You've been talking too long!)".
There was a story that went viral on social media about a person who was unfamiliar with Kyoto's honne and tatemae concepts, and gave a more detailed explanation about the watch, even saying: "ありがとうございます、○○というブランドの時計( とけい ) でして~ (Thank you very much, it is a watch from the brand XX..)".
In Kyoto, you have to read behind their words.

What do you think?

People in Kyoto use far-fetched expressions only out of consideration for the feelings of others.

If you know even one of them, some might say that you are quite familiar with Japanese culture!

The next article will be the final one of this series! I will talk about why Japanese people use honne and tatemae, how to distinguish between honne and tatemae, and more.