My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column 45 Nov 1, 2011: “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit”


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Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011
The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit
By ARUDOU Debito

There is an axiom in Japanese: uso mo hōben — “lying is also a means to an end.” It sums up the general attitude in Japan of tolerance of — even justification for — not telling the truth. (sources here and here)

First — defining “telling the truth” as divulging the truth (not a lie), the whole truth (full disclosure) and nothing but the truth (uncompounded with lies) — consider how lies are deployed in everyday personal interactions.

Let’s start with good old tatemae (charitably translated as “pretense”). By basically saying something you think the listener wants to hear, tatemae is, essentially, lying. That becomes clearer when the term is contrasted with its antonym, honne, one’s “true feelings and intentions.”

Tatemae, however, goes beyond the “little white lie,” as it is often justified less by the fact you have avoided hurting your listener’s feelings, more by what you have gained from the nondisclosure.

But what if you disclose your true feelings? That’s often seen negatively, as baka shōjiki (“stupidly honest”): imprudent, naive, even immature. Skillful lying is thus commendable — it’s what adults in society learn to do.

Now extrapolate. What becomes of a society that sees lying as a justifiably institutionalized practice? Things break down. If everyone is expected to lie, who or what can you trust?

Consider law enforcement. Japan’s lack of even the expectation of full disclosure means, for example, there is little right to know your accuser (e.g., in bullying cases). In criminal procedure, the prosecution controls the flow of information to the judge (right down to what evidence is admissible). And that’s before we get into how secretive and deceptive police interrogations are infamous for being. (source here)

Consider jurisprudence. Witnesses are expected to lie to such an extent that Japan’s perjury laws are weak and unenforceable. Civil court disputes (try going through, for example, a divorce) often devolve into one-upmanship lying matches, flippantly dismissed as “he-said, she-said” (mizukake-ron). And judges, as seen in the Valentine case (Zeit Gist, Aug. 14, 2007), will assume an eyewitness is being untruthful simply based on his/her attributes — in this case because the witness was foreign like the plaintiff.

Consider administrative procedure. Official documents and public responses attach organizational affiliations but few actual names for accountability. Those official pronouncements, as I’m sure many readers know due to arbitrary Immigration decisions, often fall under bureaucratic “discretion” (sairyō), with little if any right of appeal. And if you need further convincing, just look at the loopholes built into Japan’s Freedom of Information Act.

All this undermines trust of public authority. Again, if bureaucrats (like everyone else) are not expected to fully disclose, society gets a procuracy brazenly ducking responsibility wherever possible through vague directives, masked intentions and obfuscation.

This is true to some degree of all bureaucracies, but the problem in Japan is that this nondisclosure goes relatively unpunished. Our media watchdogs, entrusted with upholding public accountability, often get distracted or corrupted by editorial or press club conceits. Or, giving reporters the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to know which lyin’ rat to pounce on first when there are so many. Or journalists themselves engage in barely researched, unscientific or sensationalistic reporting, undermining their trustworthiness as information sources.

Public trust, once lost, is hard to regain. In such a climate, even if the government does tell the truth, people may still disbelieve it. Take, for example, the Environment Ministry’s recent strong-arming of regional waste management centers to process Tohoku disaster ruins: Many doubt government claims that radioactive rubble will not proliferate nationwide, fanning fears that the nuclear power industry is trying to make itself less culpable for concentrated radiation poisoning by irradiating everyone (see!

Apologists would say (and they do) that lying is what everyone in positions of power does worldwide, since power itself corrupts. But there is the matter of degree, and in Japan there is scant reward for telling the truth — and ineffective laws to protect whistle-blowers. It took a brave foreign CEO at Olympus Corp. to come out recently about corporate malfeasance; he was promptly sacked, reportedly due to his incompatibility with “traditional Japanese practices.” Yes, quite so.

This tradition of lying has a long history. The Japanese Empire’s deception about its treatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants under the Geneva Conventions (e.g., the Bataan Death March, medical experiments under Unit 731), not to mention lying to its own civilians about how they would be treated if captured by the Allies, led to some of the most horrifying mass murder-suicides of Japanese, dehumanizing reprisals by their enemies, and war without mercy in World War II’s Pacific Theater.

Suppressing those historical records, thanks to cowardice among Japan’s publishers, reinforced by a general lack of “obligation to the truth,” has enabled a clique of revisionists to deny responsibility for Japan’s past atrocities, alienating it from its neighbors in a globalizing world.

Even today, in light of Fukushima, Japan’s development into a modern and democratic society seems to have barely scratched the surface of this culture of deceit. Government omerta and omission kept the nation ignorant about the most basic facts — including reactor meltdowns — for months!

Let me illustrate the effects of socially accepted lying another way: What is considered the most untrustworthy of professions? Politics, of course. Because politicians are seen as personalities who, for their own survival, appeal to people by saying what they want to hear, regardless of their own true feelings.

That is precisely what tatemae does to Japanese society. It makes everyone into a politician, changing the truth to suit their audience, garner support or deflect criticism and responsibility.

Again, uso mo hoben: As long as you accomplish your goals, lying is a means to an end. The incentives in Japan are clear. Few will tell the truth if they will be punished for doing so, moreover rarely punished for not doing so.

No doubt a culturally relativistic observer would attempt to justify this destructive dynamic by citing red herrings and excuses (themselves tatemae) such as “conflict avoidance,” “maintaining group harmony,” “saving face,” or whatever. Regardless, the awful truth is: “We Japanese don’t lie. We just don’t tell the truth.”

This is not sustainable. Post-Fukushima Japan must realize that public acceptance of lying got us into this radioactive mess in the first place.

For radiation has no media cycle. It lingers and poisons the land and food chain. Statistics may be obfuscated or suppressed as usual. But radiation’s half-life is longer than the typical attention span or sustainable degree of public outrage.

As the public — possibly worldwide — sickens over time, the truth will leak out.

Debito Arudou’s novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale ( Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Twitter @arudoudebito. Send comments on this issue to
The Japan Times: Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011


— UPDATE: On a more personal note of thanks, I see that as of Midnight November 5, 2011, this column is in its fifth day after release still placing in the top ten “most read stories” on the Japan Times website (go to the story, look down the right-hand column at the Poll, and click on the upper tab that reads “Most read stories”). I think, other than my column last year on the JET Programme, this is the first time one of my columns has been read this much this long. I want to thank everyone for reading! Debito

77 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column 45 Nov 1, 2011: “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit”

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  • Its from Móng Zi.大人者,言不必信,行不必果,惟義所在
    If I directly translate that, it means: for uber man, his word does not need to be trust, his act does not need result, all he need is justice(or essence ).

  • @ML,
    ‘his word does not need to be trust, his act does not need result, all he need is justice(or essence ).’
    It’s a long way from that to ‘uso mo hoben’, don’t you think?
    But, since you are claiming that this is part of confucian philosophy that Japan has absorbed, let me correct you.
    Mong Zi was a student of Confucius’s grandson, and his particular reinterpretation of confucianism was based on avoiding conflict rather than the rectification of names. That is to say, he may well have approved of lying, rather than have the conflict of an up front discussion. Mong Zi’s school of thought was largely unsuccessful in the face of the Warring States Period (NB; Japan was not even a country at this time). Another brach of confucianism (legalism), which had no qualms about conflict, was the philosophical model of the Chin empire of the first Emporer, the rest is history.
    If the Japanese are influenced by confucianist thought, then you should look to the neo-confucian scholars of the late-edo jidai, who were anti-bakufu, and concerned with confucianism only in so far as it gave a mandate to restore power to the Emporer. See the Bucky article posted on debito.

  • @MattD

    (and anyone else implying it’s unacceptable to point out negative cultural traits)

    Time for YOU to honestly state your opinion clearly by answering 3 questions:

    In your opinion, DOES a group exist called the “Japanese people”, Yes or No?

    If Yes, then DOES this cultural group possess general cultural traits, Yes or No?

    If Yes, then is it acceptable to point out traits which need improvement, Yes or No?

  • @Anonymous:

    “and anyone else implying it’s unacceptable to point out negative cultural traits”

    This presumes that traits adhere to culture. One could criticize an institution, and then say that institution is prevalent in Japan. What’s wrong with that? The point would be to make sure when we talk about an institution, it’s something readily identifiable as such. The way a school chooses to organize students and assign responsibility is a readily observed institution. However, tatemae/honne is something for which there’s no general agreement about what it means — ask ten people, get ten answers. Entering into nihonjinron to explain problems in Japan is like entering into a wormhole — it needs to be avoided at all costs.

    To put it all differently, I’m not telling anyone not to criticize, I’m explaining how to criticize effectively.

    “Time for YOU to honestly state your opinion clearly by answering 3 questions”

    Of course, time for me to be honest. Right. So up to now, I haven’t been?

    “In your opinion, DOES a group exist called the “Japanese people”, Yes or No?”

    An emphatic no. Here are some comments I wrote back in January of 2007. I’m still pretty much in agreement with what I wrote then:

    If you mean other than in a legal sense, then an emphatic no. I would ask you, anonymous, if you think there is such a thing as the “Japanese people” then what is your specific litmus test?

    — If we’re going to go so far as to say that there is no “Japanese people”, I think a hundred or so million people here (not to mention the millions more who are NOT “Japanese people”) would just as emphatically disagree with that. If it’s becoming this hard to define one’s terms under social science, Matt, this is turning into academic masturbation, sorry. Let’s draw this discussion to a close.

  • @ML,
    Sorry, I never responded to your second point in post No. 47;
    ‘in Japan, people seems don’t really distinguish between criticism and blaming.’
    I want to agree with you on that, and I would attribute it to the effect of confucianism on education, not just in Japan, but in many other asian countries too.
    In Confucian education systems, there is a phenomena known as ‘the illusion of authority’, where the students are subordinated to the teacher, and as such, the teacher will directly transmit information to the students. It is not for the students to ask questions, or analyze that information. The teacher tells them all that they need to know.
    In the West (and many other countries), education is largely based on the Socratic method, which seeks to develop an ‘illusion of equality’ between the teacher and the students. The teacher will impart important information, but there is the expectation that the student will internalize and digest this information, making independent critical analysis in order to ask questions, do research, and improve understanding. It is implicitly understood that the teacher has a wealth of knowledge and experience, but also that the teacher is not infallible, and may make mistakes, or have limits to their knowledge, which the students should seek to fill for themselves.

    The Confucian education system, in having no expectation that the students should make critical analysis for themselves of any information that they receive, ensures that students can perform well in exams that can be passed by wrote learning of answers without implicit understanding. Moreover, in robbing the student throughout their academic life of the need to make independant critical analysis, and form theories based thereon, the japanese (for example) are very poor at accepting sound and constructive criticism, because they so rarely experience giving or receiving it growing up. All criticism is seen ‘blaming/insulting/being offensive).

    To link this back to tatamae/honne (before you ask, Debito), it is possible that because Japanese people have an understanding that others will see any constructive criticism as a form of attack, they feel that they are unable to speak the truth if it differs from what others want to hear (that’s just my theory). However, this theory has a shortfall. If all Japanese people are aware that this form of lying takes place to avoid being treated like an attacker when offering constructive criticism, why don’t they ever talk about what a drag it is? My Japanese friends never say ‘some guy at work did some stupid thing, and I wanted to help him out and give him some advice, but I didn’t because he will just be angry with me. You know what it’s like..’

  • @Debito:

    >>”If we’re going to go so far as to say that there is no “Japanese people”, I think a hundred or so million people here (not to mention the millions more who are NOT “Japanese people”) would just as emphatically disagree with that.

    Of course, you undermine your own claim to be Japanese by saying this. Are you now saying your legal status doesn’t settle the question? I’m genuinely surprised at this.

    In my opinion, your legal status settles the question. You are Japanese.

    >>If it’s becoming this hard to define one’s terms under social science, Matt, this is turning into academic masturbation, sorry. Let’s draw this discussion to a close.

    The difficultly in defining “Japanese people” falls entirely on those who assert there is a Japanese people. I haven’t made any such assertion — I think a person’s legal status settles the question.

    But it’s not only the case that you now seem to be asserting there is an adjective “Japanese” that can be affixed to a person, regardless of their legal status, without defining in any way whatsoever what you might mean but that others here have claimed that such people are “inherently handicapped in the ‘telling the truth dept” — and you’ve not bothered to correct them.

    This doesn’t boil down to what some social scientists says or doesn’t say; it boils down to the correct way to talk about human individuals. We don’t tell lies with our blood, but nor do we do so with some lose idea of which ethnic group we belong to or don’t belong to.

    And by the way, I’m sure I could find a hundred million or so people to say my sons are both “haafu”, but they are not.

    — Matt, Matt, Matt, this is getting tediously pedantic. A few answers:

    1) I agree my legal status settles the question about whether or not I am Japanese. But that is not what the article was about.

    2) There are limitations to what a 1000-word opinion column can undertake. Having to get into a discourse about “what is a Japanese?” was one of those limitations.

    3) “You’re not bothered to correct them.” I’ve said this many times before: Just because I approve a comment does not mean I necessarily approve OF the comment. See the Posting Guidelines for the ethos behind approving comments. The debate was chugging along just fine without me, so I read and approved.

    4) About the whole identity debate you’re fixated upon: I remember one academic acquaintance many years back (a Mr. Cornel Ceric IIRC) who had to preface every paper he sent to me about Japan with his definition of “Japanese” with something like “the Ainu are the only true Japanese”, and then he had to add that caveat throughout his paper. It came off as similarly distracting and tediously pedantic. Enough already.

    We got your point, thanks, but let’s get our eyes back on the ball of what socially-justified lying does to a society and its public discourse.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @ Matt D(and to anyone involving in the issue)

    >> I think a person’s legal status settles the question.

    It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. I am living evidence of this.
    Here’s a truth about me:

    “I am Japanese. I was born and raised in the south side of Tokyo. My both parents are ethnic Japanese. I have a red passport and resident certificate. ”

    How many of the folks here are gonna take these words seriously? Dunno. What would be a possible reason that some people suspect I am not? Is it the assumption that there are so many non-Japanese people who can write and speak English fluently– in this blog, while there are very few Japanese who can do that? (Holy Crap!) No, it’s not. Why? That’s because there is no way to verify my legal status at this blog, even though I have very clear evidence to do so. It’s personal info. Who’s gonna risk your life by showing your information to unknown persons online?

    This clearly shows that legal status doesn’t always settle the question of citizenship.

    >>It boils down to the correct way to talk about human individuals.

    Then who else would be the right one(s) to decide civil manner/speech of Japanese talking about a civil society in a broad scale? What factors are considered “civil” as Japanese or non-Japanese when you talk about Japan? And what’s/are not? Is language choice—Japanese or English—a part of condition for what you call “the correct way to talk” about Japan? If so, I guess many of us here—including you and myself– are guilty for violating that norm.

    I’ve said several times that debito’s criticism is not targeting Japanese as individuals —but a social/political order that manipulates the conventional norms in a way to mislead/deceive the citizens by distorting a mythology of ‘truth and façade.’ You apparently ignore this, and instead, shift your focus on taking swipes at debito for his critique of Japan’s institutional discourse. The problem is not the way he addresses the issue. You’ve thrown a barrage of questions on what constitute Japanese people to us, but you didn’t give a clear definition or a fine example of it.

    I still don’t understand why many people who scorn those non-Japanese addressing the problems with Japan as anti-Japanese while ignoring–or even praising!– many Japanese who are doing exactly the same thing. In my impression, it’s none other than a double-standard. If this is what undermines the civic engagement of Japan’s democracy today, it is a very serious problem to all people living in a tiny island nation. We need really to take it seriously because it eventually affects all of us(yes, an entire 127 million people) in the end.

    This is the end of my statement. I’m not gonna dig any further after this. Thanks for your patience.

  • Most people within a culture choose (consciously or unconsciously) to value what the group values.
    This lemming-like copy-cat monkey-see-monkey-do nature of humans is what causes cultures to even exist.

    Currently a reality exists (like it or not) where the Japanese culture doesn’t value truth highly.
    Japanese culture puts a higher priority on “avoiding conflict” than it does on “admitting truths.”

    All cultures try to rationalize lying, but comparatively, Japanese culture does it relatively more.
    Tatemae is so prevalent that even tatemae isn’t admitted to be what it is: lying to get something.
    The lying isn’t really done for the benefit of the listener, it’s done for the benefit of the liar.

    * Is there somebody you want a favor from in the future? Just lie to them today and profit later.
    * Is there somebody you don’t want to deal with? Just lie to them and hopefully they will go away.
    * Is there any situation where admitting the truth could result in a slight loss for you? Just lie. 🙂

    At least the culture I come from will admit that we are masterful bullshit-artist-extraordinaires.
    Japanese culture, currently, unfortunately, values tatemae more than honne: yet won’t admit this fact.

    The #1 priority here is “doing what is best for yourself while pretending it is for group harmony.”
    If you have been living here long-term and you claim tatemae is not lying: you are lying to yourself. 🙂

  • >>what socially-justified lying does to a society and its public discourse.

    I regard this as a moral claim. The claim is people are lying, and this is because lying is socially accepted as justified by most people (in Japan).

    So the solution then for most people in Japan to stop this. People should just *stop* allowing lies to be socially justified.

    Is that not the case? No matter how good the intentions, an argument like this will almost inevitably slide toward something that intellectual is akin to racism. The focus is on each individual moral proclivity — and that moral proclivity is being condemned. If this is the case, then we desperately want to know who is doing this — and people will supply some group of actors (“ethnic Japanese”, “real Japanese”, etc.)

    A group of people are being faulted, and we basically have to just know these people when we see them. I regard this as *not* racism, but as making the same intellectual error that racism clearly makes. It presumes that there is a group of people out there that is different from us in some fundamental way. How are they different? They accept socially justified lies, we don’t.

    *Us* (we don’t accept socially justified lies) versus *them* (they accept socially justified lies).

    You maybe feel, bosh, I haven’t time for this — but I would argue you haven’t time enough to ignore it.

    Note this issue you raise can be dealt with in a completely different manner.

    I don’t want to make this argument. I’m not sure I like it or agree with it, but I think it clearly can be made, and it will demonstrate a better way of dealing with this issue for anyone who so chooses to deal with it.

    Observe the following claim:

    **When responsibility for an act (bad behavior in a class room, performance of one’s section at work) is assigned to a group and not an individual, it behooves us to lie when one of the members of our group has done something wrong.**

    When a group will be punished collectively for each individual’s acts, the logic of the situation is vastly different from when only individuals will be hold accountable for their own acts. It’s very easy to imagine cases where *anyone* being put in this situation will find it better to lie than to tell the truth. If someone sees somebody do something wrong in their group, should they report it? If someone sees someone lying in their group, should they report it? If they do, they will be held accountable for that act, even though they didn’t perform it.

    Note this claim is universal. It has *nothing* to do with Japan. Moreover, the claim can be further investigated, even tested via game studies. In fact, there may be studies out there.

    So there’s no hint here of moral judgement. So there’s no need to find any actors here. We’re talking about a potentially *universal* human phenomena.

    Now in Japan, there is a lot of variety in how various institutions like school or business are organized — but I have seen the claim that in many cases in Japan responsibility is doled out towards the group and not the individual. This is not an abstract or nebulous idea. We can research this to see if it is the case or not. It’s clear what’s being asserted here.

    If that is the case, and if my claim above is correct, then it would suggest that in many situations in Japan, lying is a good strategy. People caught up in this *might* become acculturated to lying; they might not. But note, where does the problem lie in this case? It lies entirely with a *universal* phenomena.

    How much might this phenomena exist in the US or in Russia? Doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on the truth of the assertions. We’re not comparing cultures, we’re talking about *universal* problems that might be of particular relevance to Japan.

    So I’ve made two claims:

    1. Assigning responsibility to the group promotes lying, anywhere and everywhere.
    2. The institution of holding a group responsible as opposed to an individual is prevalent in Japanese society.

    There is a *weak* third claim, that maybe people in such an environment become more acculturated to lying.

    Are these any of these claims correct? That’s not my point. My point is that we need to view problems and their solutions in a universal manner. This is a universal way of viewing the problem. People caught up in a situation as I’ve described it are tragic victims — not *others.*

    However, when we talk about Japanese anecdotes and what tatemae/honne *really* means and so on, we are saying culture (or Japanese society) is in some way the problem. We’re actually fostering a group identity that in a limited extent might feed the problem we wish to attack. We make the problem *worse* not better.

  • I will add to the above that a lot of people in Tokyo are also using tatemae to avoid incurring “giri” or obligation. This can take the form of a polite disclaimer such as “I am not good enough for that” when the sub text or honne is “I do not want to enter any kind of agreement or relationship with this person, or I do not believe anyone would offer something purely out of selfless kindess”.
    It is sad people think like this, but they do. This kind of person just does not want anything to do with you. They think everyone, especially in big, bad, scary Tokyo, (arguably where tatemae is strongest vis a vis say, Osaka) has an ulterior motive. Hey, maybe a lot of people do in the urban areas.

    But try lending your spare, crappy, 100 yen transparent umbrella to someone getting soaked, they will rarely take it from a stranger, and they may say “Warui kara” but you are standing there with 2 umbrellas, it is no inconvience for you, you do not need two, you have a new one now, so the “honne” is they want to avoid incurring some kind of obligation or the need for future contact, like (in their mind) having to return the umbrella. Sure this happens in other countries, to a lesser extent, but usually people will finally take the damned umbrella instead of standing there for minutes saying “ie, warui warui” (or just walking off with a hand waved in royal refusal, as if YOU were trying to sell them something).

    Now I will extend this to the macrocosm. The GOJ is often reluctant to accept foreign aid in times of crisis, most recently with 3/11 and Fukushima. China`s PM offered it, and was bemused he was turned down at first with a reply along the lines of “Well you can if you want but we don`t really need it!” This was not the time for pride, people were dying, but it seems certain J-officials do not want to borrow that Chinese umbrella, because of the “giri”, and also “loss of face” it entails.

    Tatemae makes it easier to refuse help and you can pretend you are stronger than you are (an old Japanese war strategy apparently, though I do not have the source handy, its a cultural study from the 60s).

    Now some people and certain guidebooks on Taiwan, China etc will try to tell you this is an “Asian” thing. Yet only the other day in Asia in the rain was I offered an umbrella on the street by the lad who, it turned out, works at McDonalds. He did not need to do it, there is nothing for him to gain (although I can imagine some cynics saying “he is promoting Macdonalds” to which I reply “You have been in Tokyo too long, friend!”).

  • MattD, on the 19th you wrote “An emphatic no.” to the question “DOES a group exist called the “Japanese people”?”

    But 2 days later, on the 21st, you wrote “blah blah blah … is prevalent in Japanese society.”

    So you admit that the “Japanese SOCIETY” exists, and that the members have prevalent behavior.
    So stop playing dishonest word games, in which you contradict yourself day to day. Be honest!

    * A group DOES exist called the “Japanese people”, you simply like to call it “Japanese society.”
    * This cultural group DOES possess general cultural traits, you simply like to call them “prevalencies.”
    * And yes, it is acceptable to point out traits which need improvement, as long as it is phrased like this:
    “this is a *universal* problem that is of particular relevance to Japan.” (Who ever said otherwise?)

    OK, here’s a summary, rephrased with the magic *universal* disclaimer, hope it gets the MattD approval:

    LYING (and “withholding truth” and “intentionally giving false impressions”) is a *universal* problem that is of PARTICULAR relevance to Japan, because this negative action is PARTICULARLY PREVALENT in Japanese society, meaning that the members of Japanese society commit this *universal* act relatively MORE than members of non-Japanese societies.

    (Some blame “the Japanese institution of holding a group responsible as opposed to an individual” but regardless of the excuse one tries to give, the fact remains that this negative action is PARTICULARLY PREVALENT in Japanese society.)

    To put it briefly: Lying is bad, all humans do it, the Japanese do it more than most, it causes harm, it kills people, it prevents solutions (like cement entombing of the power plants), so please Japan, for your own sake and for the sake of all humanity, start lying less and start telling the truth more. M’kay? 🙂

  • The trouble with calling it “lying” is that this implies blame and sensitive people`s defences up. Probably better to say a need for greater “openness”, ie. Glasnost, literally “transparency” is needed.
    It worked for Gorbachev at the time, in another country that liked to keep their nuclear accidents secret, a country that the GOJ sometimes seems to resemble in its lip service to democracy and public accountability.

    Or how about saying that admitting mistakes is ok, M`kay?

    Those who have taught a language in Japan often say that the students are scared to make a mistake, but the NJ teacher tries to get them to actually learn from mistakes.

    Easier said than done; I would say this is a common error of the naive western teacher in Japan. It is a massive cultural readjustment in thining and even if they do it in the classroom, risk ostracism if they then dare to apply Sensei`s recommendation in their lives.

    Hofstede-who is looking somewhat dated nowadays, said that pre Glasnost Russia and China had high Power Distance Indexes and Japan had a low one. Other cultural scientists point out that in ways of expression, indirect negotiation etc, Japanese communication actually resembles that of Russia. Indeed, just watch that Kevin Cosner movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis and watch all the tatemae, “saving face” issues that almost lead to world war.

    To make you all want to throw up at the cliches, here is what Hofstede means:

    Low power distance
    . Superiors treat subordinates with respect and do not pull rank.
    . Subordinates are entrusted with important assignments.
    . Blame is either shared or very often accepted by the superior due to it being their responsibility to manage.
    . Managers may often socialise with subordinates.
    . Liberal democracies are the norm.
    . Societies lean more towards egalitarianism.

    Well that sounds like heaven on earth!
    I wonder how true this is of modern Japan? Egalitarianism seems to have all but gone since the 80s, and to call Japan a “liberal democracy” is pushing the definition of one, although on paper of course it is. Other than the socializing bit, Japan looks only semi low power distance at best (unless you mean that in Japan you work in an open plan office and your boss looks over your shoulder all the time, ie. a “low” or close distance, haha), and needs a Glasnost of its own.

    Hopefully with a rising individualism index in Japan-another key indicator of Hofstede-and the need for safety information in the wake of Fukushima, the people will push for transparency. Though of course the old guard in the Kremlin, sorry I mean the Diet, will resist, same old, same old.

  • My own subjective impression is that most people I encounter in Japan are very honest. This is obviously of such a subjective nature, I just don’t find it a useful starting point as a discussion. I never regard my *subjective* impressions as reflective of the overall truth. My encounters with people are mostly on a small scale; I’ve never worked for any large institution in Japan.

    If people are lying out of moral weakness, this is generally looked down upon universally. If people are lying institutionally, because it’s felt justified, then it must be serving a purpose. It must solve some type of problem — so people need to look at what that problem is, and propose an alternative solution — or look to see what was giving rise to the problem (e.g. holding an entire group accountable as opposed to an individual). The problem and the solution are almost surely something *universal* and not some special unique trait that relates to some ineffable quality about the “Japanese.”

    I think the comment anonymous makes shows me I haven’t yet effectively communicated what I wanted to say, but I feel I’ve already been given ample chance, so will not add anything new. I will say I see the term “Japanese society” as just being a topic marker — if there’s an institution that exists in Japan, then it’s part of Japanese society. Gay bars in Tokyo are part of Japanese society. Having noted that, I would not therefore say Japanese are gay.

    — This is relativistic discourse at an undergraduate level, Matt. Yawn, already. I’m drawing this discussion to a close.

  • James Grey wrote this underrated gem on the “flyjin” thread but it ties in with tatemae also.

    “the very culture specific explanation of 黙殺 (mokusatsu; to ignore deliberately). Simply put, the Japanese just chose to pretend to carry on as normal rather than face the potential reality of nuclear disaster simply because they didn’t want to have to think about it (nuclear disaster ruins an otherwise dreamy day).”

    Hilarious that, “Nuclear disaster ruins an otherwise dreamy day”. However, it rings true. Tatemae is the facade on the front of that dreamy day, and Mokusatsu is the technique we Japanese (“We Japanese” being the “we the people” as spoken by GOJ officials) employ to keep it in place.

  • Person A: Comparing my 20 years in Japan with my 20 years abroad, I’ve noticed that people raised in Japanese culture BOW relatively more often than people raised in Western culture.

    Person B: I can easily admit that difference between cultures exists (it’s not embarrassing).

    Person A: I’ve also noticed that people raised in Japanese culture USE CHOPSTICKS relatively more often than people raised in Western culture.

    Person B: I can easily admit that difference between cultures exists (it’s not embarrassing).

    Person A: I’ve also noticed that people raised in Japanese culture LIE relatively more often than people raised in Western culture.

    Person B: I can NOT easily admit that difference between cultures exists (it’s embarrassing).
    Instead, I’m going to waste our time and energy illogically claiming that differences between cultures do not exist at all (even though I have in the past already admitted that difference between cultures exist). I’m even going to start illogically claiming that since everyone is an individual, “cultures” do not even exist!

    Person A: I’m also noticing that you yourself are now lying, in a vain attempt to prevent people raised in Japanese culture to feel embarrassed about a negative action which they commit relatively more often than people raised in Western culture.

    Person B: But, but, I feel obliged to deny any embarrassing truths about tendencies of the culture I live in. On a deep level, I am worried that if I admit such an embarrassing truth about the country I live in, that this country will somehow be penalized by the global community, and thus eventually I would experience a slight loss. So in the best interests of my self, I will deny to the death any embarrassing truths such as “The Japanese often lie.”

    Person A: That’s stupid. I can admit embarrassing truths about Western culture. I’ve noticed that people raised in Western culture PUNCH relatively more often than people raised in Japanese culture. Why won’t you admit that people raised in Japanese culture LIE relatively more often than people raised in Western culture? Relatively speaking, lying is more forgivable than punching, right? Start being honest. Admit that no culture is perfect, that every culture has room for continual improvement (kaizen), and admit that Japanese culture needs to START telling the truth MORE!

  • Finally, (Nov 25th) Matt Dioguardi writes, “Most people in Japan actually are pretty honest.”

    After wasting everyone’s time and energy claiming, emphatically: “Japanese people do not exist, everyone is an individual, we can’t make generalizations about cultural behavioral traits, blah blah blah…” it turns out the truth is Matt feels that it *IS* acceptable to make generalizations about Japanese people: as long as the generalization is POSITIVE!

    Bottom line Matt, as you yourself wrote yesterday (I’m paraphrasing here) “If you walk around with the idea in your head that most Japanese are honest most of the time, then proof of this will come out of the wood work, thus your nice-rosy-incorrect-filter will fool you into thinking that most Japanese are honest most of the time — but guess what — it just ain’t true.”

  • Anon, I strongly suspect that you and a few of your fellow critics of Matt D. have not given much thought to what “prejudice”, “racism”, and “bigotry” mean.

    To be frank, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot logically support arguments that criticize some Japanese who fear foreigners based on the actions of a select few, extrapolate from those negative experiences, and then condemn an entire group for it. Meanwhile, the opposite is happening in this case. Carefully selected (and some would say debatable anecdotes) are presented to argue that Japan fosters a “culture of deceit”, when many would easily conclude that the presented argument is the same kind of fallacious reasoning.

    I applaud Matt D for having the courage to post on and attempt to inject some polite and serious food for thought here, despite the unhelpful jeers and unnecessary chiding he received.

  • @Greg No67
    By the complete tone of you post, I take it you are the ‘Greg’ on

    ‘I applaud Matt D for having the courage to post on and attempt to inject some polite and serious food for thought here, despite the unhelpful jeers and unnecessary chiding he received.’

    Are you serious? MattD rarely made any sense, couldn’t state his position any any issue,flip-flopped back and forth, and refused to answer simple ‘yes/no’ questions in order to clarify his opinion. No one jeered him, they just got tired of his wriggling and lack of forth-rightness.

  • “Most Americans (over 50%) are habitual over-eaters.”
    This generalization is TRUE.

    “Most Japanese (over 50%) are habitual liars.”
    This generalization is TRUE.

    “Most Non-Japanese (over 50%) are habitual thieves.”
    This generalization is FALSE.

    It is not wrong to make generalizations.

    It is wrong to make INCORRECT generalizations, it is right to make CORRECT generalizations.

    Some people try to deny CORRECT generalizations about their culture (or their “adopted” culture.)
    Cultural pride, a.k.a. nationalism, is rightfully described by Einstein as “mankind’s mental disease.”
    If your culture (or the culture you have emigrated into) deny CORRECT generalizations: you deny reality!

    Pointing out that “the majority of a certain culture does X” is simply stating reality: like it or not.
    This first step to solving a problem is ADMITTING that the problem exists: Japanese lie too much.
    Reality-deniers are guilty of preventing/delaying the positive goal here: more Honesty in Japan. 🙂

  • To be honest, I think this thread is being trolled by MattD and Greg, in order to try and show up how ‘racist’ Debito and his readers are. MattD is incapable of participating in a discussion. Greg is posting on that debito posters are giving him an unfair bashing.

    ‘Matt Diaguardi joins the list of self-restrained former Debito Arudou supporters, who finds himself publicly censored, chided and even mocked because he disagrees in a reasonable tone with one of Debito’s columns.
    Debito knows Matt’s posts threaten his limited support base with self-doubt and confusion, so he tells Matt to shut up and go away without ever engaging Matt’s concerns in any intelligible and coherent way. Meanwhile, Matt politely talks about how it is impossible to label “Japanese” as fostering a “culture of deceit”, while at the same time attacking alleged anti-NJ racists who label and attack an entire foreign community living in Japan based on the actions of a few isolated anecdotes. Quite a logical and reasonable point, to be sure.
    This thread had the potential to really make Debito think. Instead, what happens? Debito shuts it down because he’s afraid, as always, of what will happen if people think too deeply about his op-ed columns and take them too seriously.
    It’s sad and entertaining at the same time.
    Ken: someone should approach Matt D, Scott Hards, Olaf Karthaus, et al. and thank them for their thoughtful contributions.’

    @debito note that they make the incorrect claim that you have shut down the thread to prevent criticism. I would suggest closing the thread to prevent intentionally escalating this into another crisis.

  • The reason I first went to Japan, if I am really honest with myself, was to escape reality. Japan offered that. I was having a hard time in a gruelling job in a grim, western city, and I wanted to have fun, be pampered and looked after, and not be “bothered, verbally abused” etc- I wanted a quiet life. So I took a year out.After the year passed, things started to get tough as I realized-through a series of unpleasant incidents- that there was a huge reality gap between the “tatemae” image of life in Japan, and the “honne” reality.

    For the foreign guest or the person who has just adopted Japan, the tatemae has usually yet to be torn from their eyes. Everyone can do tatemae to a guest- they are leaving soon, after all.

    I was also completely convinced, in the eighties, than Japan was socially and culturally more advanced than vulgar America. I completely bought into this.

    Naturally, to function in harmony with my new adopted country I had to ignore certain unpleasant truths I had known from before, like Japan`s wartime atrocities,and had to tolerate certain stereotypes about other races, foreigners, etc brought up in conversation in an effort to get on with people like a company director (of an American company, no less) saying stuff like “Sorry, I am just not interested in working with foreigners”, “Foreigners tend to have a higher AIDS rate etc” but try as I might, as time went on, these slights started to grate and wear away, little by little, the nice tatemae preconceptions I had built up about Japan.

    I learnt to live through these bad experiences by localizing the blame; I put them down to certain individuals, of certain generations, or in one case when I was attacked with racist epithets, to that bad area I was in that taxi drivers feared to go to (so much “for safety Japan”, another out and out propaganda lie which at least I rarely hear post Fukushima).

    After a few years though, with the lies coming from so many diverse directions, and my tatemae image crumbling to be replaced by resigned cynicism, it is hard not say that tatemae/lying is quite prevalent in many parts of Japanese society. I do not say all parts, nor can I accurately speask for any rise and fall in tatemae usage; post Fukushima, tatemae may be on the retreat if only as regards to demands for greater transparency for nuclear safety (“Safety Japan” being one of the hallowed tatemae tenets of Japan`s image, justification for charging higher prices for products etc)

    It is simply the widespread denial of unpleasant truths- nuclear disaster/petty crime/nasty words really do darken an otherwise “dreamy day”!

  • John (Yokohama) says:

    Restaurant to be avoided for ripping off foreigners (namely Chinese visitors):

    Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

    ‘Yakiniku’ sold Chinese tourists mislabeled beef
    SAPPORO — A “yakiniku” barbecue restaurant in Hokkaido admitted Saturday that it has been passing off domestic beef produced in various areas as high-end Matsusaka beef and serving it to groups of Chinese tourists.

    Barato Garden North Hill in the city of Ishikari started swindling Chinese tourists — whose tours were arranged by a travel agency in Hong Kong — four or five years ago, company President Shigeru Oka said.

    The falsely labeled beef was not sold to Japanese customers.

    Matsusaka beef is produced in Mie Prefecture and is considered one of Japan’s top brands of beef.

    The Hokkaido Prefectural Government dispatched two officials to the restaurant Saturday afternoon to investigate the case, as falsifying a product’s origin is prohibited by law.

    The restaurant used the mislabeled beef for sirloin and fillet steaks, each weighing about 180 grams and costing around ¥3,700, which the Chinese tourists could order as an optional dish. The tourists ordered several dozen “Matsusaka beef” steaks a month.

    “Matsusaka beef is famous, so I thought the steaks would sell well. The quality of the beef served (to Chinese tourists) was almost comparable to that of Matsusaka beef, so I thought it would be all right,” Oka said.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Jim Di Griz

    I second your opinion. It’s quite a shame to see some folks joining in the conversations turn out to be the dwellers of an oily pod–a.k.a. the site for disgruntled losers. Regarding the persons like MattD or Johnny/Jenny-Who, it’s hard for me to give them any benefits of the doubt. If they don’t like Debito’s blog or our thoughts, that’s fine. But, accusing us of being racist because of where we belong to–instead of what we are talking about—is simply preposterous. It’s a sandbox mentality.

    — I really think we’ve reached the end of this discussion. Matt, I’ll let you have the last word if you want.

  • Recently, Satoshi Tanaka was fired from his position in the defense ministry for alluding to a “sexual crime” when referring to the central government’s failure to inform the governor of Okinawa of when a environmental impact statement would be delivered about the relocation of the Futenma air station to Henoko. Mr. Tanaka was accused of making a remark which was blatantly sexist. The comment was widely reported as saying “You don’t tell a woman beforehand when you are going to rape her.”

    However, the expression in question could just as easily have been interpreted as, “You don’t tell the people of Okinawa when you are going to screw over them before you actually do so. (Even if you use the term “fuck over” rather than “screw over”, in English, that wouldn’t be a sexist comment and probably wouldn’t even be a sexual reference.) Mr. Tanaka’s “sin” was in suggesting that the Okinawan people are about to get screwed again by the same central government that has been screwing over them for a very long time, at least since Okinawa reverted to Japanese government control.

    In short, Mr. Tanaka’s crime was in telling it like it is. His drunken honne remarks were not consistent with the tatemae lies being presented to the people of Okinawa, violating the country’s position in favoring the whims of United States over the people of Okinawa. This makes a very good example of the the country’s culture of deceit, as discussed here.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Hi Debito!

    I remember when this JBC came out a lot of apologists attacked you for it. Seems you were right after all!

    Synopsis; J-TV show surveys people from 39 countries re; telling lies, then makes an international ranking for the answers. Result; Japanese are #4 for telling the most lies. Apologism; J-TV newscaster puts this down to Japan’s unique culture of tatemae/honne which made Japan’s ranking look so bad- the people surveyed didn’t understand that tatemae *isn’t* lying (Japanese only use tatemae to protect others feelings).

    Opinion; other cultures protect other people’s feeling by not telling the truth too! We call this a ‘white lie’ sometimes, but understand that since it is not telling the truth, whatever the motivation, it is still lying! By way of analogy, the Japanese have 2 words for duck, ahiru and kamo, but in English (whatever Japanese think the difference may be) they are still both ‘duck’! Therefore a proper ‘uso’ and ‘tatemae’ are both still rightly identified as lies in English!


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