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Nihonjinron (日本人論)

A most curious thing happened to me as I was walking home from work the other night. I was ambling along, past the local Jolly Pasta, and walked by a middle-aged Japanese man. Rather than just ignore me or stare for a few minutes, he jumped right into action, running to catch up with me. I know enough Japanese to be understood and have a basic conversation, so I asked him what he wanted. He refused to speak Japanese, preferring to stick with plain old English, and asked me in broken sentences how long I was staying in Japan.

I told him in Japanese another six months or so, and he looked delighted. "I am a carpet person," he said with zeal. "Do you drink? Do you drink? Please, come!" After refusing as politely as I could, telling him I had just finished work and was hungry, I eventually got him to part ways from me and I headed home. He never spoke a word of Japanese the entire time.

So what just happened here? I was had, yet another victim of the "free English lesson" Japanese crowd. 90% of the time in Japan, you can do well enough minding your own business, even as a foreigner. But the other 10% of the time, you have people walking up to you, refusing to believe that you can speak Japanese so that they can practice their English with a real, live, foreigner! This is more entertaining than insulting, as most of us can communicate in Japanese with such simpletons. I can only imagine what it’s like for those who don’t speak English – any testimonials?

Perhaps he was slightly drunk from before, but this man’s behavior is contrary to the Japanese society. I know, I know, there is not "one rule" to define the behavior of an entire country, but in general, certain standards are recognized and followed. In public, you are expected to conform, not stand out as an individual. This is known as tatemae (建前). Therefore, shouting across a sidewalk and running to talk in fractured English to one foreigner would not be typical outward social behavior.

The antithesis of this phenomenon is referred to as honne (本音), the true feelings and inward desires of all people, but not the face you are expected to show in a public environment, whether you like it or not. In the business world, I have noticed and genkiness and tatamae go hand-in-hand. Although no one is "expected" to be pleasant in a street environment (in fact, you can be quite mellow and coarse if you like), in the workplace, it’s very important to let your tatamae shine through in the form of genkiness – an excited, enthusiastic, yet at its core, false appearance.

Although one could argue that these traits are givens in any culture, I would venture to say they are more pronounced in Japan than the rest of the world, especially among business professionals and senior citizens (the conservative of the conservative in Japan). However, there are always exceptions, and every society has certain double standards.

This is a huge part of learning exactly what it is to be a "gaikokujin" in Japan; more than just exploring the language and sightseeing spots, there is the inward journey of discovering your true self, and how this behavior affects you. Honne and tatamae are just two small pieces of the Japanese puzzle, ones which I have broached before. Onomichi and the Shimanami Bridges are still looking good for the next holiday weekend. Stephen Colbert’s word of the day: ephemeral. Soak up the sweaty knowledge the I secrete for you… I could have picked a worse metaphor.