Tatemae as truth, culture clashes and Arudou’s dangerous myth

Some responses to Debito Arudou’s Nov. 1 Just Be Cause column, headlined “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit“:

Tatemae a type of truth, not lie

Although I agree with fellow activist Debito Arudou on most things, I must take issue with his recent piece claiming that Japan has a “culture of deceit” that explains many social ills.

While liars can be found in all cultures, I see no evidence that Japanese culture has anything but contempt for lying. Tatemae is often confused with lying, but it actually means something more like telling the truth, albeit through “pretense” (the translation Arudou dismisses). Tatemae is used when both parties — speaker and listener — know the truth so there is no need to voice it. Its intention is not to deceive.

Ironically, if you ask a Japanese person about Arudou’s theory of Japanese culture, many might answer “yes” for the sake of tatemae and (closely related) humility, assuming the questioner knows it is not her true feeling.

The government’s coverup and downplaying of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is a case in point. The public outrage is focused on the government’s “lies” (uso), which are not accepted as tatemae. Far from it. Tatemae would have meant an official overplaying his own responsibility — to say “It was all my fault,” even if he clearly doesn’t think so.

What happened was the government downplayed its responsibility and the danger — good old “lying.” It is hard to see how Tokyo’s lies differ from Washington’s after Three Mile Island or Moscow’s after Chernobyl. Nearly all Japanese and many foreigners use tatemae. To say we are all lying when we do so is simply to misunderstand tatemae.

The loopholes in the U.S. Freedom of Information Act gape wider than those in Japan’s. Our union has had extraordinary success uncovering contracts between private ALT agencies and school boards around the country.

Mizukakeron — or, more commonly, itta-iwanai — is a concept used commonly in court, not to mean a “lying match,” as Arudou claims, but rather what it means in English: “he said, she said.” It refers to a specific situation in which the only evidence for a particularly assertion is one person’s testimony countered by one other person. Since each testify for their side, there is no way for the judge to determine which side is telling the truth, and so the assertion cannot be established. If there is even one piece of physical evidence, the concept of itta-iwanai no longer applies.

Like most cultures around the world, Japanese culture highly values the truth. Like most governments, the Japanese government lies.


Executive President

Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union

Exaggeration spoils argument

“Do you think anybody believes these tales about food safety they are dishing out these days”, I was asked the other day by a Japanese lady. I was surprised by her frankness but I also realized that mistrust towards the government and officialdom was more endemic than I had thought.

With so much distrust around, you would think that Debito Arudou had a just cause for his polemic, when he writes about lies seemingly embedded in Japanese culture. But then he spoils his whole argument — as so often — through his gross generalization and exaggeration.

First of all, he quotes the Japanese expression uso mo hōben, which he translates as “a lie is also a means to an end”. The word “hōben” is originally derived from the Buddhist concept of “upaya”, which means that skillful means have to be applied to help deluded people on the spiritual way. In other words, If you are afraid that your kid could fall into the well and think that this danger is beyond its grasp, you might as well tell the child that a fierce beast lives in the well that devours young kids if they get too close. A lie, yes, but one that stands to reason by any standard.

So which are the despicable lies lingering around? Another Buddhist concept to progress on the spiritual path is jiko o korosu, or “kill the small ego”, in order to embrace the true and universal self.

But just as with the above-mentioned word “hōben,” the original meaning has been lost. The place where you might encounter this expression nowadays could be your workplace, meaning that you should give up all egoistic thoughts in favor of the bigger association, in this case the company.

The Japanese group system has incorporated these Buddhist or Confucian values in order to enhance the dynamics and the clout of the group and, it has to be emphasized, Japan has still a very particularistic group-oriented society. So if loyalty to a certain association takes priority to accountability towards the general public, then a “white lie” may well be an acceptable means for an individual to advance their interests, or save the face of the association.

I think that at this level, lying is widespread and embedded in the Japanese culture, and that is exactly what is happening at Tepco and Olympus.



Purveyor of a dangerous myth

Debito Arudou’s most recent Just Be Cause column is entirely out of character from most of his previous writings. Arudou takes Japanese culture and society to task for being deceitful. Well, it needs to be asked, who is being implicated here? Arudou speaks with guarded ambiguity when he says, “consider how lies are deployed.” We are forced to ask, by whom?

Japanese men or Japanese women? Japanese office workers or Japanese factory workers? Japanese entrepreneurs or Japanese bureaucrats? Japanese young or Japanese old? Single Japanese or married Japanese? Rich Japanese or poor Japanese? Zainichi Koreans or indigenous Ainu? Does Arudou include himself or not? Or is he somehow excluded? Is his analysis for Japanese Only?

On Sept. 19, 1999, Arudou took his two daughters to an onsen in Hokkaido. One of his daughters was denied entry because she looked foreign, while the other was told she could enter because she looked Japanese. I believe it was at this point that Arudou began to earnestly fight against discrimination in Japan.

He has waged a very long and hard battle here. One he should be commended for. So one must ask, when he says Japan is a culture of deceit, is he including one or both his daughters or neither? This is the problem one faces when they paint with a brush so broad.

The very idea of discrimination hinges on the idea that there is a group that can be singled out from others. There is a myth of Japanese homogeneity that Yoshio Sugimoto, in “An Introduction to Japanese Society,” sets out to show is completely unwarranted, yet Arudou has now entered the foray as a purveyor of that myth. As Sugimoto notes, this myth is not dependent on any notion of race, but can be adequately conveyed via ideas about culture and society. Without the myth that Japanese are different in some way, the need for discrimination vanishes. So why does Arudou now want to perpetuate this myth?

Sugimoto has noted there are three largely unscientific arguments that figure into the entire perpetuation of this myth. The literature focuses on using: 1. key Japanese terms, 2. selected anecdotes, and 3. kotowaza (proverbs). It would appear Arudou is three for three here in his editorial.

As if this were not sufficient, the myth of Japanese as being deceitful has a long and notorious history. This is detailed in John W. Dower’s “War Without Mercy,” where I think the suggestion is that Japanese internment might not have been regarded as necessary if there hadn’t been a concern over the honesty of the “Japanese” population in the U.S.

In general, the weakness of Japanese character has often been used as a justification by foreign powers for whatever actions they take toward Japan. Given the history here, are these ideas that The Japan Times wants to provide a forum for? Isn’t Arudou basically just saying ‘Japanese are a bunch of liars.’ Really?


Obu, Aichi

A difficult West-East transition

Debito Arudou again brings up a brilliant point, and gives me a new favorite word: obfuscation. I would like to congratulate him for it.

I don’t know how destructive tatemae culture is to Japan itself — they seem to be doing fine — but it’s a serious barrier to understanding and fitting into Japanese culture.

After years of living here, thinking Japanese people were unbelievably accommodating, friendly and unthreatening, I only recently realized how stupid I have been in thinking everyone is my friend.

“Everyone loves me,” you think. Such an ego boost. Of course, the reality is that just like anywhere else, some people are and some aren’t your friends. The difference is that Japanese are more likely to whip out the tatemae and pretend, to keep social harmony.

Growing up in a family and society where deception is frowned upon and makes you few friends, and then coming to a place where tatemae is considered a point of refinement and intelligence, is a difficult transition, particularly because it is a form of deception by Western standards. Of course it’s nothing like deception by Japanese standards, where different — not deficient — morals and norms rule.

I see fresh foreigners all the time honestly delivering their feelings only to be played by their Japanese “friends,” who are really being facetious, putting on a good face, perhaps looking for English conversation.

I don’t put up with it. Still, I wonder and admire how Arudou puts himself on the line for the seemingly unreachable cause of changing Japanese ways.



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