Real Truth

“Do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.”   James 5:12

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Every husband, who values his well-being, knows the correct answer if his wife asks him the paradoxical question: “How do I look?” The stock answer of “You look fine dear!” is certainly the safest reply, but it may not necessarily be the most truthful one. This is what the Japanese call a “tatemae” answer and they have elevated this form of communication to an art form that many foreigners find difficult to comprehend. Tatemae (建前) means literally “built in front” or “façade,” in contrast to its opposite term, “honne” (本音), which can be translated “true sound.” Honne, simply put, is one’s true feelings and opinions, whereas tatemae is what one perceives others want to hear. In this sense, honne is the real “sound” or voice of an individual, but for various social or personal reasons, the speaker deems it best to express a safer alternative, or tatemae, answer as a form of protection. This “safer” response could be intended to protect a personal or working relationship, and it is certainly common in diplomatic communication, which can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

Some consider the use of tatemae as a subtle form of lying, but in reality, every culture employs a certain degree of such communication to avoid needlessly hurting or offending those around us. In English, we may call a slight stretching or distortion of the truth a “white lie,” but such falsehoods often stem from selfish, ulterior motives. In contrast, the Japanese propensity towards using tatemae responses is generally far more complex. In Japan, the group usually takes precedence over the individual so there is an invisible, but widespread pressure to ensure that things go smoothly. Therefore, great care is taken not to potentially disturb harmony in relationships. Avoiding possible conflict is a high value in Japan and tatemae answers can be very useful to that end.

However, such a practice can lead to other challenges where one is constantly required to discern when an invitation, compliment or offer is genuine or just a tatemae response. This intentional vagueness is why sociologists classify Japan as being a high-context culture, meaning that communication is often implicit and relies heavily on context. Direct answers are often eschewed and ambiguous, innocuous replies like “daijoubu” (it’s all right), “omoshiroi” (interesting) or “yōji ga aru” (I have something to do) are frequently employed in everyday conversations. Most people are reluctant to state a contrary opinion and stand out, so they “build a wall” using tatemae, which serves to ward off unwanted scrutiny.

Because of people’s natural propensity to tell lies and not follow through on their promises, oath taking became a common practice to demonstrate the veracity or trustworthiness of an individual in both ancient and modern times. While culture can certainly complicate the best of intentions towards honesty, as a general principle, God’s people should be characterized as truth tellers. James exhorts (James 5:12) us to avoid the taking of oaths by simply being people of our word. This verse is almost a direct quote lifted from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37) where He challenged His listeners to strive for a higher, God-honoring form of communication. A “true sound,” or honne, flows naturally from a true heart that belongs to God.