The Effects of Honne no Tatemae on Japanese Society


Honne I win. Tatemae you lose


The other day, I watched a documentary called Freakonomics. And in one of the sections of the film, the filmmakers decided to focus on the controversy surrounding the sport of sumo. On its exterior, sumo is probably one of the, if not the, “purest” sports still around today. Many ancient traditions and values of the Shinto religion have been preserved within the sport. On top of that, a very strict set of rules, codes and discipline are endowed upon the wrestler.

Well, it turns out, the sport isn’t as “pure” and “true” as everyone thought. Within the last few years allegations of match fixing have become public and the death of a young sumo wrestler through extreme hazing has rocked the sumo image. The film goes on to talk about 本音の建て前 (Honne no Tatemae) -something I will explain soon-, and its influence on the sumo world along with other parts of Japanese society.

Prior to seeing the movie, I read an article last week from Rocket News 24 that was translated from a Japanese website called that basically talked about why Japanese people are victims of their job and five perceived problems from a non-Japanese perspective.

The article was in response to a question posed by the Japan Times, “Why do Japanese people work such long hours?” Unsurprisingly, much of the comments were overly negative. However, it really got me thinking about where Japan went wrong in the eyes of the world, and how Honne no Tatemae has affected the culture.

What is 本音の建て前 (Honne no Tatemae)?

In Japan there’s a very basic concept called 本音の建て前 (Honne no Tatemae) that has shaped much of the foundation of the Japanese culture. The basic idea is that there are two forces that personify our being. There is Honne that describes a person’s true feelings and desires and there is Tatemae that describes our obligations and what is expected of us.

For example, a lot of movies, books, plays, etc. show a protagonist who is torn between pursuing the love of his/her life (Honne) or setting those feelings aside and carrying out his/her obligations to family, work, etc. (Tatemae).

This is something that probably a lot of us deal with on a very subconscious level: e.g. do I want to travel the world or should I settle down, find a good job, raise a family, and take care of my parents?

However, it is the first time in my life that such a concept has been been given a label, which has ultimately brought the idea into consciousness. Thank you Japan for making my life that much more difficult.

Japan’s Efforts and Image

During the 80s and early 90s, Japan’s economy was booming. Japanese automakers were selling cars like pokemon cards, and everyone wanted to get their hands on a Sony Walkman. You can take your music and listen to it as you walk!

Around the world, Japanese companies were being lauded as the gold standard. Anyone who worked for a company were offered good pay, great benefits, incremental promotions, a nice pension, and the most important thing, a lifetime of employment. All companies wanted in return was a hardworking and loyal employee. Needless to say, Japan’s production was at an all time high and people were working more than ever.

However, since the 1960s cases of 過労死 (Karoushi) [1] began to appear, but really didn’t come to attention until Japan’s economy began to stagnate in the mid 90s.

In response, the government has been trying to limit the number of working hours in a year. On the surface, it seems as though the country has been making a tremendous amount of progress. According to the OECD, Japan has continually scaled its work hours down from 1,910 hours in 1995 to 1,765 in 2012, which is 9th among developed nations.

However, cases of Karoushi continue to persist and non-native Japanese views are growing more and more negative with each year. What gives?

Low Unemployment Rates Keep the Same People in Power in a Shaky Economy

From here on out this is where things get a bit tricky, and while I hate to generalize, this is what I think is happening.

According to Trading Economics, Japan has enjoyed relatively low percentages of unemployment throughout the years with 5.6% being the highest in 2009. As of this moment, September 2013, the unemployment rate currently is at 3.6%, which is an incredibly low number.

However, a lot of economists believe that having an unemployment rate in the five to six percent range is most ideal because there are different types of unemployment that are actually good for the future of a nation’s economy. It shows that one of three things are happening.

1. People are unemployed because they were fired or laid off – Bad. 2. People are laid off because advancements in technology have out sourced jobs – Good and Bad. 3. People are in a period of unemployment because they’re in the midst of starting a business or changing careers – Good.

On the other hand, if you look at the data, within the last 10 years there have been two spikes with the last one being particularly sharp. Again I have to say that 5.6% is an incredibly low unemployment rate, however these drastic fluxes have put the job market on shaky ground.

As stated before, the Tatemae is that people latch onto one job and rise through the ranks for their entire career. So now when you look at the CEOs and upper management of most companies, the majority of these people are older Japanese men who have enjoyed relatively high amounts of success particularly when the Japanese economy was booming. And now they are passing their values onto this current generation.

Now you have a large employed workforce that has been rocked twice within the last ten years. The Honne is that the Japanese once had a system that worked for older generations, but is now facing uncertainty.

Spartan Economy Where Only the Strongest Will Prevail

The popular belief around Japan is that from an early age, there is a tremendous amount of pressure exerted on students to succeed. The common notion is that if you do well in school, you’ll go on to obtain a high level position in a noteworthy company.

So now you have a lot of young people entering the workforce each year who are all trying to outdo each other by proving their loyalty for a few “elite level positions”. Everyone has the same idea, “If I do what my father did by showing that I’m working hard by putting in an ungodly amount of unmarked overtime, make sure I leave after my boss, and not take any time off, I’ll be seen as a hardworking person so that one day I’ll make the big money.”

The Tatemae of it all is that this is what it takes to succeed in society, and if you try to jump around from company to company to find better working conditions, you’ll end up doing more damage to your image than if you were to just stay at your current company. So better to keep your head down and make it look like you’re working hard.


While I can’t say for sure, I believe that many Japanese want to throw their hands up in the air, curse the heavens and walk out on their company, but feel reluctant out of fear of how to provide for themselves and their family. The irony of it all is that people tend to be more productive when they don’t feel chained to their desk, and are given certain freedoms.

As well, there are a tremendous amount of undocumented overtime hours, which can skew the data provided by OECD. However, some companies are beginning to change their ways, but until a more variety of young, female, and/or non-Japanese start opening up their own businesses, or taking over companies, a lot of the problems that persist today will probably continue for years to come.

Only when both Honne and Tatemae are balanced can they improve the workforce, but now a days, it seems like there is a lot more Tatemae going on.

Anyhow, what are some examples of Honne no Tatemae being played out in your life and society?

Japan Times
Rocket News 24
Madame Riri
Trading Economics
Honne no Tatemae

1. Karoushi refers to death from working too much.


2 responses to “The Effects of Honne no Tatemae on Japanese Society

  1. I think the same thing is true for many Asian countries. In Taiwan, employees who have desk jobs are expected to work unpaid overtime. If they don’t, they may be considered lazy and not dedicated to their jobs. I have one friend here who is an engineer (from Australia) and he never works overtime. One evening, he decided to stay around after 6pm to see what people actually do and told me most were chatting, writing e-mails, facebooking, etc. Basically, most were doing non-related work activities. But, they were there; therefore, they are considered great workers because of the amount of time spent at the office, not by the great work produced!

    • From what I can tell, it seems as though conditions are improving in some sectors. However the country still carries this stigma that if you’re one of those people who’ve changed your jobs for whatever reason outside of being laid off, you’re not considered a “team player”, and it can be very difficult to find work. So a lot of people put up with whatever their employers demand just so they can keep the safety of having a job. This is of course very generally speaking. Again, thanks for your comments. They’re always very much appreciated.

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