Truth and The Mask - part 1

Hi guys, GTY_Ponzorz here. I mainly translate Bleach. I am not sure why but it came to my realisation lately that this certain aspect of Japanese culture actually crops up in anime/manga more than we realise, so I thought I’d just write a post about it for anyone who is interested. Since I translate Bleach, many general examples I give will be Bleach related so please bear with me, but hopefully it’s not too bad. What would be awesome is if you could leave in the comments your own analysis/views about your favourite anime/manga in relation to this topic!

This post will be divided in to five parts which will be posted weekly, on Sundays (GMT) – to save you from reading a super long post all at once. Promise it will be good. :x

Okay, so here is what I want to talk about:

The truth and the mask: Honne and Tatemae

This is a very distinctly Japanese concept, and may be a little difficult to explain and grasp so please bear with me.
As a short-and-sweet summary to give you an idea;

Honne is the truth; someone’s true feelings, their inner desire, what it is they themselves want. In Japanese society, this is not something that is revealed easily. You’d have to be considerably intoxicated or be very trusting of someone (close friend) to disclose your honne.

Tatemae is a facade; I don’t want to call it a lie, but in many cases you can’t deny that the tatemae is a lie. It’s the polite exterior mask you show to the world, to avoid conflict and preserve pride.

This concept is deeply, deeply entrenched into Japanese culture, and small children, knowingly or unknowingly, learn to grow up maintaining their two different codes of conduct. (Kids are legit taught to have a Tatemae face in the classroom, regardless of their personal thoughts on an issue.)

This is not to say that such a concept is unique to Japan. A lof of people who are familiarised for the first time with Tatemae say, “Oh wow wata bunch of flaming liars the Japanese people are then.” I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume people of the Japanese society lie more or less than any other group of people on this planet. For starters, in many oriental cultures with confucian values, the idea of honor, pride, saving face, doing what is right vs what you want, has been prevalent through centuries and centuries of civilisation. I am sure in your respective cultures, there is such a standard of maintaining a facade, being polite, telling white lies- things which you learn to adapt to - and gradually get a grip on what kind of stuff you do and say flies in your society, and what just really doesn’t.

Why I say this is a distinctly Japanese concept though, is the fact that they have coined specific words such as “honne” and “tatemae” to explicitly talk about this social convention - it is a big deal to them - and this concept of a polite facade is definitely more evident in Japanese society, and more acceptable too. (There are also many anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, who do research on this stuff! ) and having an understanding of it, even a basic understanding, can help to better understand a lot of the other issues, behaviours, events, that happen in Japanese society - because once you’ve learnt to identify Honne/Tatemae, boy is it obvious sometimes - and as a reader , some of the things people/characters do can make a deeper impact/ hold more significance than before. : )

As a translator of Japanese, having a solid grasp on this concept is especially important in order to make solid translations of the meanings in the dialogue. How do you translate a conversation that means on thing on the surface, but may imply something else completely?

To quote Jay Rubin (Translator of many of Murakami Haruki’s novels, and Japanese literature lecture at Harvard University)

“The Japanese language can express anything it needs to, but Japanese social norms often require people to express themselves indirectly or incompletely.”

I’m sure Dino and Vox have written many a post about how vague the Japanese language can be in comparison to English, and the challenges translators and readers alike face in reading a story that’s been translated to a different language. I guess this post will build on their posts, and hopefully this post will connect to previous blog posts.


Next week I will cover some ground on the applications of the concept of Honne/Tatemae in Japanese society, so don’t forget to come back and have a look.

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