There is an axiom in Japanese: uso mo hōben — “lying is also a means to an end.” It sums up the general attitude in Japan of tolerance of — even justification for — not telling the truth.

First — defining “telling the truth” as divulging the truth (not a lie), the whole truth (full disclosure) and nothing but the truth (uncompounded with lies) — consider how lies are deployed in everyday personal interactions.

Let’s start with good old tatemae (charitably translated as “pretense”). By basically saying something you think the listener wants to hear, tatemae is, essentially, lying. That becomes clearer when the term is contrasted with its antonym, honne, one’s “true feelings and intentions.”

Tatemae, however, goes beyond the “little white lie,” as it is often justified less by the fact you have avoided hurting your listener’s feelings, more by what you have gained from the nondisclosure.

But what if you disclose your true feelings? That’s often seen negatively, as baka shōjiki (“stupidly honest”): imprudent, naive, even immature. Skillful lying is thus commendable — it’s what adults in society learn to do.

Now extrapolate. What becomes of a society that sees lying as a justifiably institutionalized practice? Things break down. If everyone is expected to lie, who or what can you trust?

Consider law enforcement. Japan’s lack of even the expectation of full disclosure means, for example, there is little right to know your accuser (e.g., in bullying cases). In criminal procedure, the prosecution controls the flow of information to the judge (right down to what evidence is admissible). And that’s before we get into how secretive and deceptive police interrogations are infamous for being.

Consider jurisprudence. Witnesses are expected to lie to such an extent that Japan’s perjury laws are weak and unenforceable. Civil court disputes (try going through, for example, a divorce) often devolve into one-upmanship lying matches, flippantly dismissed as “he-said, she-said” (mizukake-ron). And judges, as seen in the Valentine case (Zeit Gist, Aug. 14, 2007), will assume an eyewitness is being untruthful simply based on his/her attributes — in this case because the witness was foreign like the plaintiff.

Consider administrative procedure. Official documents and public responses attach organizational affiliations but few actual names for accountability. Those official pronouncements, as I’m sure many readers know due to arbitrary Immigration decisions, often fall under bureaucratic “discretion” (sairyō), with little if any right of appeal. And if you need further convincing, just look at the loopholes built into Japan’s Freedom of Information Act.

All this undermines trust of public authority. Again, if bureaucrats (like everyone else) are not expected to fully disclose, society gets a procuracy brazenly ducking responsibility wherever possible through vague directives, masked intentions and obfuscation.

This is true to some degree of all bureaucracies, but the problem in Japan is that this nondisclosure goes relatively unpunished. Our media watchdogs, entrusted with upholding public accountability, often get distracted or corrupted by editorial or press club conceits. Or, giving reporters the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to know which lyin’ rat to pounce on first when there are so many. Or journalists themselves engage in barely researched, unscientific or sensationalistic reporting, undermining their trustworthiness as information sources.

Public trust, once lost, is hard to regain. In such a climate, even if the government does tell the truth, people may still disbelieve it. Take, for example, the Environment Ministry’s recent strong-arming of regional waste management centers to process Tohoku disaster ruins: Many doubt government claims that radioactive rubble will not proliferate nationwide, fanning fears that the nuclear power industry is trying to make itself less culpable for concentrated radiation poisoning by irradiating everyone (see www.debito.org/?p=954!)!

Apologists would say (and they do) that lying is what everyone in positions of power does worldwide, since power itself corrupts. But there is the matter of degree, and in Japan there is scant reward for telling the truth — and ineffective laws to protect whistle-blowers. It took a brave foreign CEO at Olympus Corp. to come out recently about corporate malfeasance; he was promptly sacked, reportedly due to his incompatibility with “traditional Japanese practices.” Yes, quite so.

This tradition of lying has a long history. The Japanese Empire’s deception about its treatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants under the Geneva Conventions (e.g., the Bataan Death March, medical experiments under Unit 731), not to mention lying to its own civilians about how they would be treated if captured by the Allies, led to some of the most horrifying mass murder-suicides of Japanese, dehumanizing reprisals by their enemies, and war without mercy in World War II’s Pacific Theater.

Suppressing those historical records, thanks to cowardice among Japan’s publishers, reinforced by a general lack of “obligation to the truth,” has enabled a clique of revisionists to deny responsibility for Japan’s past atrocities, alienating it from its neighbors in a globalizing world.

Even today, in light of Fukushima, Japan’s development into a modern and democratic society seems to have barely scratched the surface of this culture of deceit. Government omerta and omission kept the nation ignorant about the most basic facts — including reactor meltdowns — for months!

Let me illustrate the effects of socially accepted lying another way: What is considered the most untrustworthy of professions? Politics, of course. Because politicians are seen as personalities who, for their own survival, appeal to people by saying what they want to hear, regardless of their own true feelings.

That is precisely what tatemae does to Japanese society. It makes everyone into a politician, changing the truth to suit their audience, garner support or deflect criticism and responsibility.

Again, uso mo hoben: As long as you accomplish your goals, lying is a means to an end. The incentives in Japan are clear. Few will tell the truth if they will be punished for doing so, moreover rarely punished for not doing so.

No doubt a culturally relativistic observer would attempt to justify this destructive dynamic by citing red herrings and excuses (themselves tatemae) such as “conflict avoidance,” “maintaining group harmony,” “saving face,” or whatever. Regardless, the awful truth is: “We Japanese don’t lie. We just don’t tell the truth.”

This is not sustainable. Post-Fukushima Japan must realize that public acceptance of lying got us into this radioactive mess in the first place.

For radiation has no media cycle. It lingers and poisons the land and food chain. Statistics may be obfuscated or suppressed as usual. But radiation’s half-life is longer than the typical attention span or sustainable degree of public outrage.

As the public — possibly worldwide — sickens over time, the truth will leak out.

Debito Arudou’s novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Twitter @arudoudebito. Send comments on this issue to community@japantimes.co.jp

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