本音 (their true intentions) & 建前 (what they say)
You most probably heard about these 2 words "本音 (Honne)" and "建前 (Tatemae)". "Honne" represents your true feelings, while "Tatemae" means outward thoughts that conceal one's true feelings.
If you have ever lived in Japan, or have worked with Japanese people, you might have been confused by Japan’s unique culture of “honne & tatemae,” which can often be found in the following situations: not knowing exactly how the Japanese people feel, or feeling out of place because you say things too straightforwardly.
In this article, I will introduce you to "honne" and "tatemae", commonly used by Japanese people, through a variety of situations.
Let's go through a couple of "honne" and "tatemae" scenarios that could occur between friends:
Tatemae：行けたら行くね (Iketara ikune)
I'll go if I can.
Honne：行かない、行きたくない…面倒くさい… (Ikanai, ikitakunai... mendōkusai...)
I won't go, I don't want to go... it's too much trouble...
In this situation a friend invites you to join them for a drink: "We're all having a drink together this Friday, would you like to join us?".
In most case when Japanese people say 行けたら行くね (I’ll go if I can), it is actually “tatemae”, meaning in reality, they are thinking: 行きたくないな…面倒くさいし、金曜の夜は家でゆっくりしたいな… (I don’t want to go... it’s too much trouble, and I’d rather relax at home on a Friday night...), which would be their “honne”.
Whatever the reason, almost no one says 行けたら行くね (I'll go if I can) and then actually goes.
For Japanese people it is quite difficult to decline directly saying 行きたくない (I don't want to go), so they give a more vague response, such as: 行けたら行く (I'll go if I can).
Tatemae：優しそうな人だね (Yasahishō na hito da ne)
They seems like a kind person.
Honne：かっこよくは (きれいでは) ないね…特に褒める所が見つからない… (Kakkoyoku wa (kireide wa) nai ne... Tokuni homeru tokoro ga mitsukaranai...)
They're not good looking (nor pretty)... I can't find anything to praise...
In this situation a friend is asked to show a photograph of their partner.
When a Japanese person says 優しそうな人だね (They seem like a kind person), they are usually just being polite and using "tatemae", but most of the time their "honne" is: かっこよくは(きれいでは)ないね…特に褒める所が見つからない… (They're not hot/good looking/pretty... I can't find anything to praise...).
Japanese people feel that it can be ironic and even impolite to say かっこいいね/きれいだね (good looking/pretty) to someone who is obviously not good looking (pretty).
So, in these cases, they choose the term “優しそう (they seem kind)” as a safer choice of words.
Tatemae：個性的なファッションだね (Kosei-tekina fasshon dane)
That's a unique look/fashion choice.
Honne：何そのファッション！変だよ… (Nani sono fasshon! Hen dayo…)
What's with that look/fashion choice! It looks weird...
In most cases, when a Japanese person says 個性的なファッションだね (That is a unique look/fashion choice) to a friend, it is "tatemae," and what they are really thinking, aka their "honne" would be: 何そのファッション！変…私には理解でき ない…(What's with the look/fashion choice! It looks weird... I don't get it...)
Japanese people find it hard to straight out say 変だ、理解できない (It's weird, I don't understand it), so they convert 変 (weird) to the most positive way possible and choose to use the word 個性的 (unique) instead.
That looks delicious.
Honne：一口ちょうだい (Hitokuchi chōdai)
I want a bite.
When you go out to eat with friends, some of them may look at what their friends have ordered and say, おいしそう (That looks delicious).
The "Honne" in this case would most often be: 一口ちょうだい (I want a bite).
One of the ideas that Japanese people value is that 親しき仲にも礼儀あり ("there is courtesy even between close friends", which is similar to the expression "good fences make good neighbors").
The idea is that no matter how well you get along, you can maintain good relationships with people by being reserved and considerate.
Even if they are on good terms with someone, a Japanese person would try to get their friend to understand that they want to try it by saying おいしそう (That looks delicious), rather than directly saying 一口ちょうだい (I want a bite).
They seem to be popular.
They seem like a player.
Oftentimes, saying “モテそう (you seem popular)" to someone, especially when you are not close to them, can have a negative meaning to it.
In most cases, they actually mean the opposite. For example, it can mean “you seem flirtatious, untrustworthy,” or you give off an impression that you are a “player.”
Tatemae: 良い意味で頑固だよね (Ii-imide ganko dayone)
They are stubborn in a good way.
Honne: 悪い意味で頑固だよね (Warui-imide ganko dayone)
They are stubborn in a bad way.
The term “頑固だ (stubborn)” itself contains negative nuances, such as being inflexible and unable to bend one’s opinion.
No matter how many times you add “良い意味で (in a good way)” to that term, it does not make it into a positive comment. However, Japanese people feel that they cannot just straightforwardly say, “they are so stubborn,” so instead they say, “they are stubborn in a good way.”
Many Japanese do not like this expression because when you start a sentence with “良い意味で (in a good way)” it is almost always followed by a negative comment.
Tatemae: 最近太っちゃったんだよね (Saikin futocchattan dayone)
I've gained some weight lately.
Honne: そんなことないよ、痩せてるよって言って！ (Sonnna koto naiyo, yaseteruyotte itte)
Tell me it's not true, tell me that I'm skinny!
This is an especially common “tatemae” used amongst women.
When someone tells you that they “have gained some weight lately,” you should never, ever say “yeah, you have gained some weight.”
They just want you to respond with, “no, you haven’t gained weight, you’re still skinny!”
Were there any phrases that you have actually heard? In my next article, I would like to talk about the “honne" and "tatemae” that Japanese speakers often use when dating!