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In a world of pretense, are Japanese just more honest about lying?

by Nicolas Gattig

Special To The Japan Times

Like most people I know, I’m a truth-loving liar. I get upset about the lies of others — how dare they, do they think I’m stupid? — but then, caught in a pinch, I’ve had to bury my grandmother twice to get extensions on urgent projects. I’ve misrepresented my age, my weight and my girlfriend’s hairstyle, and I cheer vacuous Facebook pics of identical bowls of ramen, just to finagle your “like” for my new motivational message. And no — no no — I cannot fathom what sort of doofus would jam the copier and then not have the guts to fess up.

The Japanese have a proverb that says lying is a means to an end: uso mo hōben. There can be candor in stating the obvious.

Except for those cocooned in denial, most people would agree that everyone lies. But while each culture has its own codes about how and to whom to do it, there is a notion that Japanese people are more insincere than others, that their concept of tatemae — which means that the true, honest self should be hidden behind public pretense — not only mandates but values deception. Ironically, the Japanese themselves, unversed in explaining their ways to others, can give ammunition to ethnocentric attacks.

Last year, a Japanese TV show surveyed people from 39 countries on whether they often told lies. Japan ended up ranking fourth — chasing Latino legerdemain in Peru, Argentina and Mexico — which stirred waves of vindication on the Internet.

“In Japan, nothing is what it seems. Nobody believes in anything they say,” wrote an American on a blog discussing the news.

In defense of polite fictions, a netizen named Japanboy explained the demands of harmony: “Lying is only kindness, to help smooth life.”

The quick Western retort: “What a load of crock!”

But if people admit to their own lying, doesn’t that make them . . . well, honest?

The net sum of lying may be similar in Japan and America, but in their acceptance of life exigencies — and in their lesser reliance on language to define an objective truth — the Japanese may be more realistic, more charitable and forgiving about the role that deception plays in our social relations.

The West is conflicted about falsehoods. The second of the Ten Commandments and the New Testament condemn untruth categorically, marking deception of any kind as lies. Of course, since biblical times morality has become more nuanced. A canon of theologians and philosophers has set up baselines for true and false, mulling with logical rigor whether lying can ever be justified. Despite exceptions, however, we still hold that untruth erodes public trust and corrupts our spiritual integrity, which isn’t straying too far from the Gospel of Matthew.

Alas, no commandment forbids hypocrisy. In fact, according to Pamela Meyer, author of “Liespotting” and a popular Ted Talk alarmist, the U.S. in particular is facing a deception epidemic.

Meyer cites research that on any given day, Americans are lied to between 10 and 200 times (depending, perhaps, on TV exposure). Besides interactions with parents and spouses, the truth is most absent during introductions, with an average of three lies served up in the first 10 minutes. Whatever happened to the home of the straightforward?

Most likely, on first meeting strangers, Americans use pretense as a lubricant, not unlike the much-maligned tatemae. The Japanese gasp in awe at each platitude from a higher-up, while Americans fake they’ve seen movies that adorably feature your hometown. The main difference is shamming success: More than Japanese people, Americans pad their resumes with achievements, painting a two-month stint as a gofer as “extensive experience in office administration.”

In his provocative book “The Varnished Truth,” philosopher David Nyberg suggests we all give each other a break. Almost a proponent of Japanese tact, he holds that morality doesn’t always require being honest — that in fact there are times when we like our truth kindly edited.

“Deception,” writes Nyberg, “is an essential component of our ability to organize and shape the world, to resolve problems of coordination among individuals who differ, to cope with uncertainty and pain, to be civil and to achieve privacy as needed, to survive as species and to flourish as persons.”

The Japanese crave authenticity, and yet they seem less expectant of truth. They may take for granted that, ruled by fear, desire and convenience as we all occasionally are, people will lie and pretend if they think it helps. Such embrace doesn’t equal endorsement — surely not of untruth that harms others — but it might make the Japanese less concerned about seeing facades, about the loss of control, whether perceived or real, when we are acting on incomplete information.

Not to be seen as gullible fools, Western people have turned to science to smoke fibbers out of their holes. Since the first squiggly lines of the polygraph (which is also used in Japan, but — no kidding — only as multiple choice!) we have tried out hypnosis and truth serums, analyzed heart rates and facial expressions and even parsed out sentences and word choice, to where aspiring lie-spotters can choose from a range of titles such as “You Can Read Anyone” and “Never Be Lied to Again.” Along with divorce litigation and Ponzi schemes, truth-seeking has become an industry.

But all this ado — all the clawing for full disclosure and the outrage and disappointment at what we find — must strike the Japanese as absurd. We resolve to get to the bottom of things, whereas they ask what we mean by “the bottom.” In a sentiment echoed by Nyberg, they may think that sometimes truth is whatever works and gets everyone through the day.

Likewise, if you must deceive, make it quick. The Japanese play along with farcical protocol, but they keep personal lying short, to save face for the liar and avoid adding insult to injury. A fib may get cleared with a look in your eye that means “I get it, and let’s leave it at that.” There is no patience for lengthy excuses, which all too often are simply more lies we pile onto the first.

For an expatriate, not knowing the local modes of deception can be a problem — a lesson I learned the hard way.

One day, I planned drinks with a woman from work — nothing serious, but I enjoyed the innocent flirt — and I gave my girlfriend a story about a meeting. Struck by a sudden feeling of guilt, I kept lingering on the subject, learning again that a Japanese female is the hardest to fool on the planet.

Their intuition alarmed, American women bombard you with questions, which lets you see where the lie needs support. In other words, they cooperate. A Japanese woman, however — suspicious of language, that stooge of the two-timing wordsmith — holds your gaze in a silent accusation, unnerving with sheer ambiguity. You make the liar’s No. 1 mistake: embellish the humbug with details.

Yapping away like a hapless Pinocchio, losing faith in the power of words to make anyone believe in anything, you’re almost begging to be dismissed when you slip on an inconsistency and fly off into a deep hole of mess — the silence affording no hint of which part of your lie was ever in doubt.

When I came up for air, my girlfriend lowered her eyes and said merely, “I will believe you.” Defeated, I canceled the drinks — more feeble excuses still — and vowed never to meet with another woman.

Thus I agree with Nyberg, who says that “to live decently with one another, we do not need moral purity, we need discretion.” The authentic life is a ceaseless struggle. Let’s not make it harder than it needs to be.

Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. Foreign Agenda offers a space for opinion on Thursdays. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Michael H

    Great story – thoroughly enjoyed that. Honestly.

  • Max Erimo

    The age old question isn’t it.
    Is it OK to lie?
    I’d be lying if I said yes.
    I’d be lying if I said no.
    So what I will say is, ‘Don’t get caught!’

  • Mark Makino

    Funny story, but bad attempt at linking it to larger cultural issues. Neither Japan nor “the West” are homogenous cultures, and “the West” in particular comprises multitudes of different languages, cultures, and (probably) conventions on when to expect truth and falsehood in public discourse. Dichotomies of this type should have stopped being used sometime early last century.

  • KenjiAd

    The Japanese most likely lie when lying is socially expected (“tatemae”) and no self-interest is directly involved.

    Lying is expected when the opposite (truth) is not socially acceptable. For example, you are expected to apologize when your subordinates screw up things badly, even if that’s all their fault and you had no control over what happened. If you don’t lie (apologize), you risk the lowering of your reputation.

  • Starviking

    Whilst Japanese people may lie for different reasons from other countries, that does not mean that their lies are without consequences. The biggest have to be the lies of omission, where foreign employees for the chop get strung along up until the day contracts are due for renewal, only to be cast aside just as the hiring season has closed.

  • Steve Jackman

    Liars exist in every culture, so Japan is not unique in this respect. The article, however, misses a few important points.

    First, many Americans (since, I’m an American, I can only speak for my country) believe that Japanese are more honest than people in the U.S. The survey cited above clearly contradicts this.

    Second, there is an important distinction between individual lying and collective lying by groups of people. In a diverse and individualistic society like the U.S, it is very difficult to propogate collective lies or to keep such lies secret. On the other hand, people in cultures like Japan which are more homogenous, group oriented and place higher emphasis on group harmony, may feel more pressured to go along with lies which protect their group.

    Third, following on the second point above, people can feel that if everyone in a large enough group tells the same lie, and if it is repeated enough times, it somehow miracleously becomes true.

    Lastly, I feel many lies in Japan are actually lies of omission. The Japanese culture of not asking too many follow-up questions and the often vague language used makes it very difficult to uncover these types of lies.

  • gracey

    I think females are hard to fool.Period. Not just Japanese females. It’s just that they’re less hung up on monogamy. I’ve done my own survey-and all Japanese respondents I asked, male or female, regarded “professional” services as not “cheating”

  • sandifjm

    No society, or personal relationship for that matter, could function if everyone told the truth all the time. But it’s more important in Japan, and even expected that people lie in order to maintain the superficial illusion of harmony. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but you just can’t say it. I’m not sure if that’s more or less honest, just different.

  • James

    “I’m going to say this once. I never had a sexual relationship with THAT woman”
    I have never come across a lie as blatant as this, uttered by a leader, on live television to millions of people. Japan can never be compared to the US when it comes to lying,

    • http://twitter.com/iceymoon iceymoon

      Politics is like a world of its own in terms of lying, and I would be surprised if its not like that in most places. I would be willing to bet that politicians, good and bad, tell lies of varying degrees of magnitude more often than any other occupation just by the nature of their job.

      I believe it has ended up this way because there are people with things to hide (corruption/selfish agendas/laziness coupled with greediness/etc), but also because the people they serve – and the media that covers them – demand resignations if they don’t appear to be perfect human beings (cheating on spouses/saying something rude to someone/recorded talking behind someone’s back/being gay/etc, things most people can do without risking their career).

      I believe President Clinton should have told the truth at that point, but most likely he was advised against it with the objective people forgetting about it quicker if there was no proof. Of course proof turned up in the end, and that it only took only a year or so for it to just become a running joke rather than a serious issue… so even from a strategical point of view (which is how politics operate) would have been better to have him admit it from the start.

  • Al_Martinez

    On occasion, I love Japan’s tatemae because it means I get to use it, too. For example, in answer to the frequent received question “Do you like Japan?” I reply after a slight hesitation, “Yes.” The Japanese pretend that they’re happy with the answer, but we both know I’m lying. Of course, I could give a much more honest, nuanced answer, but why bother? This is Japan, do as the lomans do.

  • dosdos

    Lies that allow people to coexist peacefully is one thing. Lies that put peoples’ health and lives at risk for the sake of profit is another.

  • Warren Lauzon

    One great truth though still remains, everyplace in the world – if a politician is talking, he is lying.

  • 8675309

    Technically speaking, there is no biblical commandment that forbids lying per se (if there were, there would have been plenty of damnation for many famous characters of the Bible from Adam to Moses to Noah to Jacob to Rahab to Simon Peter).

    And I don’t know what version of the ten commandments you looked at — or whether you’re even familiar with the ten commandments at all — but commandment #2 that you cited as “condemning untruth uncategorically…” is incorrect, as the second commandment has nothing at all to do with lying as you so allege. On the contrary, the second commandment specifically relates to the prohibition against idolatry: “Thou shalt not make any graven images…”

    That said, and again, contrary to your assertion that the “commandments forbid hypocrisy…”, you’ve neglected the fact that there is plenty of biblical admonition against hypocrisy in BOTH Old and New Testament specifically:

    Matthew 7:5 -”You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye…”; or

    Matthew 6:1 – “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”, or

    Matthew 15:7-9 – “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” or

    Matthew 7:1-5 – “Judge not lest you be not judged.”

  • dawnshine

    “What a tangled web we weave, once we practice to deceive.” Oh so true! But, in the Southern US we call regular spoken lies, being “cordial” and “hospitable.” :) The other lies, to allow life to co-exist with others might fall under the same or other “ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies” necessary means to interpersonal peace. Truth has no appreciation, even if it’s flattering. But, certainly if it is not… or holds great expectations for others to be similarly truthful. US Americans may not admit the requirement for lying often, it is a silent truth that is not supposed to be admitted! As you said, “The authentic life is a ceaseless struggle. Let’s not make it harder than it needs to be.” And, it is so hard…

  • dawnshine

    If only “superficial relationships, depression and low life satisfaction [...] unproductive marriages, record suicide rates, largely ignored widespread mental health issues…and so on” were a result of the attitude of “being polite” and accepting lies, then we could easily cure the entire world society of these epidemic problems faced throughout, with mere honesty and verbalizing thoughts!!! If those things were only that simple and isolated to Japan, then that would be great… But, such things are not.