Being a Guest: Tatemae/Honne

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.

Honne is another everyday concept that communicates the underside of wrapping. Honne is what you really feel, but can’t come out and say. Peter wasn’t aware of the extent of the Sasakis’ efforts to make him comfortable, but just assumed that the smooth and effortless way that things worked out in his family just happened naturally.

In fact, the Sasakis worked extremely hard to create this smoothness. In the same way, school personnel will also work hard to wrap the ALT; a company group-head will wrap the new employee; university personnel will wrap the visiting professor; and her own employees will wrap the new branch manager. Like the Sasakis each will work hard to keep any foul ups, confusions and problems carefully behind the scenes, creating the appearance of effortlessness, while shielding their newcomer from the efforts involved.

If a Japanese host were to communicate honne directly to a guest, with no cushioning, the guest would not be comfortable. For example, if the Sasakis had told Peter that his Japanese is hardly comprehensible, and that he is constantly making mistakes in everyday family life—if they had told him the true state of affairs—it could have been quite devastating to this “cultural child”. So they worked to “wrap” his situation with a carefully constructed tatemae. This is true for some—but not all—of the other newcomers as well. It’s important for you the newcomer to figure out how much (or how little) you are being “wrapped” at your entry point, as well as how (and why) this distinction is being made by your hosts.

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