Some thoughts

Amor tussisque non celantur       –  Ovid

So, I’ve decided to kick start every post with some kind of quote.  I’m thinking a mix of Greek wisdom, Latin prudence, and Japanese Buddhist philosophy will keep things entertaining.  Some of these are ones I have come across while reading while others will be ones I’m aware of through more tangential means. 

Japanese have two words that are inseparable from their culture,  建前 and 本音 – tatemae and honne respectively.  The Japan Times Online wrote a scathing write-up a few months ago about 建前(tatemae) and how it is destroying the very idea of a democratic Japan.  I’m not sure I go that far, but the article did have many true points.

As I’ve illustrated before Japanese to English translations often times don’t exist or are very limited.  I will not give a one word translation, but neither will I get too bogged down in explaining each of these in depth.  At least that’s the plan.

建前 is your public veil, or facade, that you wear and display outwardly to the world.  This takes the form of mundane things like little white lies (sure your hair looks good), and life-altering things that are downright immoral (no, the radiation is perfectly safe in the area). 

The fact that I don’t actually believe in the existence of immoral things will wait for a different post, or not at all. 

So, 建前 ar the lies, deceits, frauds, niceties etc. that you give outwardly in order to make other people comfortable, happy, keep them from getting offended, or just to save face, another giant aspect of Japanese culture.  In western countries we think of these as acceptable when on a small level (of course I like the bow tie you gave me for our 50th wedding anniversary) but repulsive on a larger level (after 15 years you just NOW tell me that my kid is the rudest child you’ve ever met?)  To a Japanese person these are all part of the same package. 

Also, Japanese people tend not to think of these as lies as they are simply different versions of the truth. 

本音 then is the opposite of this.  This is your true, inward feelings about the world around you.  Yeah, you told the co-worker you go out for drinks with 5 times a week for the past 10 years he’s a cool guy but really every second around him makes you want to put his face through the window.  You might have heard about the fake Japanese smile and to be wary of what it might actually mean.  Essentially, this is the person displaying their 建前 and withholding their 本音, completely normal.

In fact, it’s not entirely to be unexpected that you will never experience someone’s 本音, even after 30 years of friendship.  Again, this sounds to a western person like you don’t actually get “to know” the person; to a Japanese person you simply know one side of them, and what’s the problem with that?

This creates friction with westerners often times.  Imagine you have a co-worker who talks to you, goes out drinking with you, invites you to company outings, carpools with you places, eats at your table in the break room and generally acts like a good chum all around.  You’ve worked together for 12 years.  Then, one day you overhear a conversation where he is telling everyone what a slimy bastard you are and how just the mere sight of you makes him want to puke.  I think we all know people who are cordial to us despite clear animosity.  But, how many of us have had a friendship that functions great, for an extended period of time, despite the parties actually thinking the other is satan reincarnate?  I’m guessing not many.  Yet, to a Japanese person this really isn’t anything to write home about.

The Japanese also have an expression I’ve been on the receiving end of a couple of times: 馬鹿正直(baka shoujiki).  This might translate to something as “stupidly honest”, although there’s a bit of a nuance here.  This isn’t the person who, when asked what he thinks of the modern state of American politics, says he believes Jews have taken over the world at his best friend’s son’s bar mitzvah.  No, “stupidly honest” to a Japanese person is simply telling someone your 本音 in most cases.  This is seen as incredibly childish, really something only an immature socially inchoate person would do. 

“Did you like that movie?”  “Well, Bob, it kind of sucked.” 

Ok, to be fair I do know people back home that through a fit every time I say something like this.  However, I usually hold that person responsible, falling back on the ol’ “well you asked!” defense.  Plus, we are entitled to our own opinions, right?  Plus, yes, some movies just effin’ suck.  Sorry to burst your bubble, “Fast and the Furious” lovers.  Anyway, in Japan here the fault not only lies completely on the not-Bob person, but it also reveals something deeper about his character: he’s a bit childish and clearly not ready for the adult world.  In Japan, the more you lie the more you are respected.  To me, the main difference here with back home is that everyone knows you’re lying.  And they like you more for it! 

This remains an aspect of Japanese culture I’m not terribly fond of.  I’m all for being polite to people; in fact, that’s one of the things I love about Japan.  People treat each other with respect here.  At least to one another’s faces they do.  However, the simple fact you’ll never get a straight answer from anyone on anything, let alone actually know how people think and feel about you can really start to wear you out. 

I once had a conversation with a great Japanese guy who lived in California for a very long time.  He explained it to me this way:  Japanese people live in a country with the population about 1/3 that of the U.S., on a chunk of land about the size of California, with actual habitable space somewhere around the size of New Jersey (not seeing a mountain is basically impossible from any given point within Japan).  Needless to say there isn’t a lot of privacy or “having space” around here.  So, people are forced to interact with each other on a constant basis (also, Japanese seem genuinely to enjoy everyone knowing what they are doing every hour of the day.  This explains urinals and such built into the side of a wall on the side of the road without even the pretense of a curtain.  This also explains why if I go to the doctor for diarrhea I hear about how often I’m sitting on the toilet and being asked if I’m still experiencing issues from everyone in my company the next day.)  So, 建前 shouldn’t be thought of as “lying”.  It’s really just a social lubricant.  Imagine if, in this sardine packed country, everyone was running around like Americans or many other western cultures and speaking their actual minds.  Good grief, it would not be a very peaceful country at all.  建前 helps them all get along and work together in harmony.

Ok, so he made me see the light.  Kind of.  After my talk with him I saw things in a different way and had a bit more understanding of the existence of the “public face” and “private face”.  Still, that doesn’t make it any easier when things happen like thinking you made some good friends, who suddenly quit talking to you out of the blue for no apparent reason.  Why?  Well, they probably never really liked you in the first place but were only pretending to.  Stuff like that is still hard to take and still incompatible to my western way of thinking.

Love and a bad cough are not hidden    –    Ovid      Mostly because I have had occasional bouts of a hacking cough over the past week.  In a country where people will force a giant white mask on your face the second you clear your throat this is a bit of a stresser.

You probably thought I was kidding, didn't you?


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