Befriending Japanese People

Hi Jin Han,
How prevalent is honne and tatemae? And how might it be possible to build friendships with Japanese people especially for non-Japanese people?

Reader M sent me the above message. I added the word “reader” just to avoid the misunderstanding that it’s the same girl whom I was supposed to marry. Quick note: Always assume the same letters are referring to different people in different posts unless otherwise stated.

Interestingly, a significant number of people have asked the same question through my 7 years writing this blog. Wow, I didn’t even imagine myself continuing this blog for this long. When I first started, I had assumed it would be gone in 6 months when I finish my studies. Who would expect me to do this for 7 years? Rhetorical question, don’t bother responding.

I’ve never really given that question much thought until I meet more and more people with whom I have very shallow relationships. I have very good relationships with many Japanese people whom I can truly call friends. But like everywhere else, as you meet more people in regular events and your social circle expands exponentially, you (and everyone you meet) begin to pick and choose those whom you want to have a meaningful friendship with. But you remain nice to everyone else because you shouldn’t be a prick. That creates the gap between honne (what they actually think) and tatemae (the facade). This discrepancy is often misconstrued as “being fake” when two individuals approach each other with different intent.

In Singapore, our social circle doesn’t expand as quickly as in Japan. As I’ve mentioned in a very much earlier post, when we have BBQ or go for drinks in Singapore, we usually do it with people we know. An outing of a group of 10 is pretty huge. But in Japan, every BBQ or drinking party you go to easily has 40-over participants and you probably only know 5 of them. That’s why the honne and tatemae discrepancy is very prevalent in Japan. In many cultures outside Japan, the difference between honne and tatemae is called “being polite.” In Japan, it’s called “being fake” for the simple reason that, Japanese people take hospitality to an extreme. They are overly nice to people regardless of what they think of you because, like Monica of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, they have an uncontrollable urge to please people. It’s in their blood. This over-niceness causes people to misunderstand their intentions. It makes us think they want to befriend us, but when we find out otherwise, we feel betrayed.

Once you meet more and more people here, you will find that among the people who seem to want to befriend you, there will be some who want to speak with you only because you speak English and they want to practice on you; because you are foreigner and make for an interesting setting when they bring you to a gokon event; because they want you to join MLM. It doesn’t matter, as long as both your purposes are compatible. For example, you want to join a gokon event.

People have asked me to introduce Japanese friends to them because they want to practice speaking Japanese. In that case, I usually only introduce them Japanese people who want to find a speaking partner to practice speaking English. Otherwise, who would want to spend time doing that? If one party does that because they want to make friends, then their purposes are not compatible and someone will eventually be hurt. If both start out with compatible purposes and eventually become friends, then great! The friendship would be built on an initial compatible interest resulting in similar approaches toward each other leading to the friendship.

Perhaps the reason we don’t get so much flak is because we are straightforward with our choices. If I don’t enjoy spending time with a person, I make it obvious. That’s why the Japanese people may think we are “very direct” bordering on being rude. The only reason they don’t fault us on it is because we are foreigners, and they accept that we don’t have to be measured by their standards. That’s why we get to play the gaijin card when we want to.

Interacting with Japanese people is an art. The bottom line is whether you are interacting with people with compatible purposes. And how do you find someone whose purpose is compatible with yours?

Keep going until it happens. That’s when you would find friends worth treasuring.

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