This Japanese concept made a whole lot more sense to me when I read Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons, a deeply researched and scary portrait of modern Japan. A picture is painted of a nation that is ravaging its own cultural heritage, not to mention its economy, environment, and way of life.
The bureaucracy of Japan is an unbelievable swamp of financial quicksand, and the Japanese government has been directing its funds in surreal directions for decades now. The opening chapter of the book details the environmental destruction caused by the construction projects aimed at preventing erosion, such as the gigantic cement tetrapods that cover vast stretches of coastline, and actually cause more erosion than they prevent. Kerr goes into excruciating detail not only about the environmental destruction of Japan, but also the educational system, the economy, and of course, the bureaucracy which is the engine for this rapid degeneration.
The salient issue here, is a psychological one, and the underlying metaphor chosen by Kerr is based on an old Chinese saying, wherein a painter explains to an emperor that demons are much easier to paint than dogs. That is, the monstrous images of our imagination are much easier to deal with than the subtle nuances required by something as simple as dogs, which we see every day around us. Kerr’s analogy is that the Japanese culture spends an enormously disproportionate amount of money and energy on superficial, gigantic band-aids, such as monuments or irrelevant construction projects, while ignoring the quiet, underlying reality beside them.
In Japan, the concept of tatemae and honne refer to the public appearance and the underlying feelings of a person, respectively.A guest’s faux paus, when ignored by the group, demonstrates the functioning of tatemae, the maintenance of harmonious surface interactions. The group works together to maintain a common social harmony, which can have its downsides, but I won’t get into those here. This common understanding and connection is what makes the system work, and many say it is why Japan has such low crime rates and a much more smoothly functioning society.
When carried to an extreme, however, tatemae becomes a surreal monstrosity, and the subtle honne becomes buried and disconnected. My interpretation of these two concepts is slightly more abstract than the accepted norm, because I am translating it to a simpler psychological function. In other words, to me, tatemae and honne is like saying form and function. Focusing on form and ignoring function can have disastrous results. Again, this abstraction is mine alone.
Perhaps my connection between Kerr’s book title and tatemae and honne is not what he intended, but it may also be exactly what he intended. Either way, I feel that this imbalance in tatemae‘s favor precisely describes the cultural problem at work here.