Saving Face

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed.”

II Timothy 2:15

Saving Face

Like many men, I am not inclined to linger long in front of a mirror for visual inspections. However, during the long, cold winters in northern Japan when I often let my beard grow, I became more preoccupied with my face as it required more attention. Most Japanese give a lot of attention to another kind of “face” that is sociological in nature. In this usage, “face” represents the honor, dignity, status or reputation of an individual that one strives to protect or maintain at all costs. This concept is somewhat similar to what we refer to as “having a good name” in western culture.

In Japan, one can save face (menboku o tomatsu—面目を保つ), lose face (menboku o ushinau—面目を失う), give face, show face, fix face and even loan face. All of these variations are centered on the personal goal of maintaining respect or the opposite incentive of avoiding shame and humiliation. Japan’s shame culture, which is also prevalent in other parts of Asia, is perhaps the main driving force that prompts this extensive preoccupation with one’s “face.” No one wants to lose face or be embarrassed in front of others, which also motivates people to be careful to maintain the face of others. Therefore, public disagreements are often avoided as someone could lose face in such an encounter. One might refrain from asking direct questions or making requests that may inconvenience the other person. It is also generally considered socially unacceptable to publicly declare someone has made a mistake. Personal relationships and social harmony are considered to be the bedrock of Japanese society, so great care is usually taken to protect each other’s face.

Such a concern for others is commendable in many regards, but taken too far, this kind of superficial interaction can lead to potential misunderstandings and fractured relationships. In the famous song “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles sang of a woman who “wore a face in a jar that she kept by the door,” that somewhat reflects the common practice in Japan to put on different faces for different situations. One’s “face” then, is not just what other’s see, but what we want them to see. This projected face may not be in true alignment with the feelings and thoughts that lie underneath, which in turn, makes the art of saving face and maintaining relationships in Japan a rather complex endeavor.

Behind the efforts to save one’s personal face or reputation is often a latent desire to earn the approval of others which can unwittingly invite other negative, or even sinful outcomes. While it is good to be considerate of others, taking into account their opinions and feelings, we must be careful as to who and to what extent we empower with such control over our lives. Our efforts to save face, or not to lose face, can lead us down a dangerous path where the approval of others becomes more important than the approval of our Creator. As the Apostle Paul reminds his young protégé Timothy, there is no shame if we have the approval of God (II Timothy 2:15). This “face” requires our utmost attention and should never be placed in a jar by the door.