Honne and Tatemae are two very important terms to understand the behavior of Japanese people within their society. Honne could be defined as the true desires, opinions and thoughts of each individual; while Tatemae refers to how the social obligations and the opinions of each individual adapt to the society in general. It is the “face” that a Japanese person shows in public.
Tatemae is displayed when the words and the true intentions of somebody don’t really match completely. What is expressed in the words of the individual is the Tatemae and what he really thinks is the Honne. This can be found in any country in the world; maybe we could even define it as “hypocrisy” if we translate it in a brutal way. However, in Japan it is something that is used in daily life and not in a negative sense, on the contrary, it considered a virtue to be able to express the Tatemae and the Honne in the proper situations.
From a Western point of view, to conceal the truth is usually not well seen. However in Japan it is very important to maintain harmony, thus most of the time the true feelings and thoughts (Honne) are usually not expressed in a direct way in order to not hurt the feelings of others. We could say that the Tatemae is used as a lubricant in the relations between people. It is also frequently used in companies and the corporate world in general, where established protocols have to be strictly followed.
Let’s suppose that a Japanese person invites us to coffee in their house and at the end of the evening we are asked: Would you like to stay and have dinner? (that is Tatemae, it is something that it’s mandatory to say), the answer should be something like I’m not hungry but thank you very much. This can look kind of stupid and confusing to Western eyes but that’s how things work in Japan. To foreigners living in Japan it’s quite complicated to understand what a Japanese person truly wants and thinks. Another example would be when buying a ticket for some show and they are sold out. The sales clerk won’t answer directly saying “Tickets are sold out”, it is very probable that you will have to wait while he is looking at something in the computer, he will start putting weird faces and say “chotto” (a word that you will hear a lot if you come to Japan), he would even go to talk with his boss, etc. The final result, after making you lose your time there waiting, will be that he will say to you something like “It is very difficult to find available seats… chotto…”; that is the damn Tatemae in action.
Honne is usually displayed outside the working world; for example it exists in the events known as nomikai, where work colleagues gather to chat, eat and drink in an ikazaya (traditional Japanese bar). On those occasions you are supposed to show your Honne, talk about your work problems, family problems, etc; so that your colleagues can help you and give their advice. Nomikai are also the moment to complain about your boss or about the asshole of some other department. Let’s say that alcohol plays an important role when evolving from your Tatemae to your Honne mode. I always say that a Japanese guy/girl after drinking a couple of beers is a COMPLETELY different person that when he/she is completely sober. The most extreme case that I’ve experienced was when a very serious and strict boss from another department that I didn’t know very well came with us to a nomikai. The atmosphere was very formal and tense until he drunk a couple of beers and started to tell me how he got divorced the last weekend, as if I had been a close friend all his life!! In that moment all the books and articles about Japanese culture that I had read came to my mind to know what to do and what to say 😉