Many newcomers to Japan first encounter “wrapping” in their experience of being guests. The carefully screened appearance that the Sasakis created for Peter has a name in everyday Japanese: tatemae. This term details the process of social wrapping in Japan. The expression of tatamae comes out of a cultural tradition in which much effort is spent making guests comfortable. All families create a cocoon of tatamae for guests, not because they deliberately want to withhold things from them, but because they are honoring them deeply as guests in their home.Tatemae is created not only in families, but in offices, schools, and virtually every other social sphere in Japan. All newcomers must learn how to differentiate tatemae from honne, and to understand when they are being “wrapped” as guests. This is especially important for Prof. Witherspoon, Ms. Elainius, and Abby.
Because Peter came to the Sasakis from the U.S. (which is very distant to them) and it was his first visit, the Sasakis tried their best to treat him well. Most of this effort fell on the okaasan. The Sasakis didn’t treat Peter much differently than they would treat a first-time Japanese guest. And, in most ways, they expected him to behave like one.
Tatemae exists in every society. We often answer “I’m fine” when asked “How are you?” even when we’re not fine at all. We encourage a friend who is struggling on a diet by saying that she is really looking slimmer. We don’t tell beginning language students that they are far from fluent. We do not tell someone who is ill that he is looking pale and wasted.
In other words, more than one “truth” is involved in social situations: the “truth” we know in our “heart-of-hearts,” and the “truth” of what is appropriate in our relationships. We often screen “truths” from our bosses, friends, and students when we feel it would be inappropriate to reveal them. The tatemae created by the Sasakis for Peter is not deceitful or false. On the contrary, they are doing their utmost to make Peter comfortable in his new surroundings. They don’t want to reveal more “truth” about Peter’s “cultural child” deficiencies than he can bear.
The gap between what we present as tatemae and what we really feel in our “heart-of-hearts” is inevitable, no matter what society we live in. Differences between cultures exist, not at the juncture between tatemae / honne, but at the juncture where we feel we should drop tatemae and confront our friends and colleagues with difficult truths that are bound to bring them face-to-face with uncomfortable realities: that one’s illness is serious, that one’s attempts at speaking a new language are not easy to comprehend, or that there are areas of serious disagreement between us.
Japanese is distinctive, not for the existence of tatemae, but for the value placed on avoiding direct confrontation of “uncomfortable truths,” no matter what the juncture. This is not to say that direct confrontation doesn’t take place, but simply that it is not highly regarded to communicate this way. Host families don’t feel comfortable sitting down to directly discuss problems that have arisen in the homestay. When “direct” communications do happen, the situation is often beyond repair.
Tatemae as “wrapping” is not limited to host/guest behavior in Japanese families. It is pervasive outside the family as well. Doctors often “wrap” a patient’s illness, preferring not to tell a patient he is seriously ill (and families often collude in this wrapping). The national bureaucracy consistently wraps problems. For example, the finance ministry has wrapped the problems of the considerable indebtedness of Japanese banks (and taxpayer bail-outs) so as to avoid public reaction. (And of course such wrapping is not limited to Japan.) The public was long “protected” from the “lost decade” of serious economic downturn by the government’s focus on a tatemae of promises and plans for recovery, rather than concrete implementations of these plans. The press participates in this wrapping by muting stories that aren’t wrapped and by avoiding stories that directly “unwrap” or criticize
Personal criticism is also avoided to a considerable degree in Japan. Mothers will often criticize their children in a roundabout way, telling them that other people will criticize or ridicule their behavior, while avoiding the fact that it is the mother herself who is doing the criticism. It is difficult to critique someone’s face-to-face performance, so that evaluation in Japan often carries the meaning of self-evaluation.
The range of these examples makes it understandable that skill at creating tatemae is both important and highly regarded by the Japanese. Most manage it so well that it seems effortless. Japanese are also highly skilled at keeping tatemae and honne distinct, so that what is kept behind the scenes is not “leaked” into the tatemae they present to others. This is what makes Peter—and all the other newcomers—unaware of the gaps between their own perspectives and those of their hosts (or caretakers) in the organizations they have just entered.
Japanese houseguests, on the other hand, are well aware that they are being presented a “reality” that has been wrapped with tatemae, and that a different honne “reality” exists behind the scenes. They recognize both these “realities” for the simple reason that all Japanese have spent time “behind the scenes” and most have experienced being in the position of hosts who wrap guests.
As an American, Peter has certain difficulties in distinguishing tatemae from honne. But according to those who have extensive experience with students abroad in Japan, all newcomers, no matter what country they come from, have difficulties accurately interpreting distinctions between tatemae and honne. Differing assumptions (or “cultural bubbles”) get in the way here for everyone, (even occasionally for Japanese). But this makes it all the more important for foreigners in Japan to develop the ability to recognize subtle clues that hint at honne.