Japanese remarks are not what they really think (Real intention and stated reason)


The goal of choosing “place” for communication is to exchange true opinions with the other person in a more personal setting.

Real intention (“Honne“: True opinions) means expressing one’s real feeling, and stated reason (“Tatemae“: Polite rhetoric) means using diplomatic language or taking a different stance in public. These are important concepts for understanding Japanese people’s communication style.


Depending on the place or person we are talking to, Japanese people choose carefully to use “Honne” or “Tatemae” when we exchange opinions.

This technique is to preserve the “Wa” (和: harmony) with all people, and this knowledge lets us interact in a smooth, stress-free way with others.


Japanese :  I was just using polite rhetoric, but they thought it was my real feeling.

Foreigner :  On top of being hard to understand, we can’t build a relationship of trust this way.



To understand “Honne” and “Tatemae”

Once “Honne” and “Tatemae” have been understood, it is necessary to learn about the concepts of “Uchi” (inside) and “Soto“(outside).  “Uchi” is the group one belongs to, one’s community, and one’s country.

The family is the smallest unit of “Uchi“, but in Japan, the people one works with all the time are particularly looked on as “Uchi“, and one constructs not just business relationships, but personal ones as well.


People and groups that are not part of “Uchi” are “Soto“, and are basically dealt with in a formal way. Telling what one really thinks to people who are “Uchi” is “Honne“.

When one talks to people who are “Soto” about those things using superficial, tactful ways of speaking, it is “Tatemae“.




At foreign – owned companies

Discord brought about by this concept can often be seen at foreign – owned companies. When working at these companies, Japanese people don’t feel like foreigners are part of our in – group as we would with other Japanese, so we are not able to express our real feelings. In other words, it’s difficult to think of the other people as “Uchi“.

No matter how long we are at foreign – owned companies, Japanese people can’t treat our own organization as “Uchi“. The discord between these mentalities is an issue that never goes away at foreign – owned companies.




If something’s not possible, I want you to say it directly. Why not say it?

Among Japanese, it is thought that rather than refusing directly, telling the other people your thoughts in that manner will hurt the other people’s feelings less. However, most foreigners find this unspoken mutual understanding confusing.

This type of euphemistic approach may give the other person misgivings such as ” Is this person really responsible?” or ” Can I really trust and do business with this person?”

The harmonious Japanese spirit fosters good will in Japanese people. It’s sad to have it be misunderstood for the opposite of what it is. But that is the reality of a different cultural environment.




When Japanese people say it’s difficult, is it really difficult?

Enkyoku” (euphemistic) are words used to tell a person your way of thinking without giving your opinion clearly, by saying something indirectly, or by suppressing your emotions.

For example, when a proposal is made to Japanese people, we often respond to the person by saying “It’s difficult.” Most of the time, it means no. In other words, in order not to be rude to the person, we refuse using euphemisms.


However, if the non – Japanese person takes it literally, he or she will say, “I know that it’s difficult. So what is difficult, and how can we overcome it?”

For Japanese people, there is mutual understanding without words or actions only with other Japanese. If you say it’s “difficult”, the other person can sense your refusal through your facial expression and mood at that time, or through a uniquely Japanese gesture. But in a different cultural environment, these are not understandable.




I was told she was going to think about it, so why didn’t anything happen after that?

Even more troublesome than the “It’s difficult,” from the previous case is when Japanese people answer “I’ll think about it” when we receive a proposal. In places like Kyoto, with its deeply rooted traditional culture, this is said to mean no, and even in other regions, it is certainly not a positive response.

However, if you say you are going to think about something, foreigners may think that you are really going to consider it. After that, many Japanese people get annoyed because we receive a lot of inquiries asking, “What happened after that ?”



In addition, if one answers, using vague expressions, or if after crossing one’s arms and closing ones’ eyes, one suddenly says, “I’ll think about it,” depending on the individual, a Japanese person may be judged as having no interest or as being pessimistic.

In any situation, you should endeavor to look the person you are talking to in the eye and tell the person your answer clearly, with an expressive face. Then, if the answer is no, it’s important to give an easy – to – understand explanation of the reason.