How Japanese Honne and Tatemae Separate Work and Home Life, and Why You Should Too

I taught English lessons at a for-profit Japanese eikaiwa (conversation school) in Yamanashi Prefecture from 2009 to 2011, and one of the things that most struck me about the Japanese work environment was how easily the Japanese separate their work lives from their home lives.  There’s a lot of cultural factors at work here, but the one people explained to me most often was the idea of honne and tatemae:

honne (本音) literally means true sound, but more easily translates to true feelings

tatemae (建前) literally means built in front, but a better way to explain it would be a personality constructed for the sake of appearances

Now, whenever a language has a single, common word to explain something, it’s a good sign that the thing in question is common in that language.  Look how the Japanese have a single word to explain something that just took me eight words to explain in English (well, six if you don’t count the and a)—having a single, common word helps them describe the concept of work performance more easily.


Honne and tatemae came into play most often when I talked with Japanese people about their jobs.  For them, going into work for a strict Japanese company every day meant putting on a black jacket and pastel tie (or a black jacket and pastel scarf for women) nodding along and saying Hai during meetings, and supporting their companies at all costs.  Japanese work culture was built around the idea that a company that employs many people and takes care of its workers is more important than any individual within that company, since the combined work of many people is greater than what any one person can do on their own.

Everybody in Japan knows that they’re supposed to completely devote themselves to their companies and work hard, and from an outside perspective, they seem to really believe that work is the most important thing in the world—at least during work time.

All the people I met in Japan worked hard—like, really hard.  At work they were focused, serious, and did their work without fucking around.  They didn’t complain about their bosses, shirk projects they were asked to do, or duck out early on Fridays.  With very few exceptions (mostly with me, because I was a foreigner), they never joked about work or complained about it.  It was hands-down the most rigorous workplace I’ve ever been in, ever.

All of the above was true—at least during work time.  After work, though, was another story.

In addition to working the hardest and feeling the most pressure I’ve felt at any job ever, I also had more after-work fun with my coworkers than I’ve had at any job ever.  We took trips, went to festivals, held parties, sang karaoke, and of course, drank a lot.  During these outings (alcohol or no alcohol) I saw another side to my coworkers that was open, honest, fun, and compassionate.  They helped me out when I needed it, and told me what they honestly thought about Japan, work, and life in general.

Then the next day we’d come into the office again and it’d be back to business, because there were lessons to teach and textbooks to sell.

I’d discovered honne and tatemae.

When I met my coworkers after work for a night of drinking (nomikai), karaoke, and solid fun where we could be open and honest, that was honne, where we showed our true selves.  In the office, though, where there was work to be done and we all had to do what our bosses wanted, we had to be completely devoted to the task at hand, and that was tatemae.

At first I thought of tatemae as a kind of acting, where everyone just pretended to care about their companies until after work, when they could share how they really felt.  Acting, though, is the wrong word—it’s more like a person’s personality shifted depending on the situation.

This was really hard for me to understand, but I found a lot of benefits to viewing work as a separate world.  The biggest one was that after work, the Japanese were able to shut out the stresses, responsibilities, and pressures of the workplace and have the most unadulterated fun I’d ever seen.  This also meant that they didn’t complain about their jobs outside of work.  Work was tatemae, and what happened there didn’t matter at the end of the day.

I not only found this divide amazing (so much so that I wrote an entire novel about how foreigners don’t understand it), but also an expanded version of how people in American workplaces put on facades and pretend to care about work more than they actual do.  I’ve often wondered how my coworkers at American jobs felt after they’d gone home, and sometimes after talking to them it felt like even they weren’t sure how they felt about their jobs and whether they could put up with them anymore.

The great thing about the Japanese honne and tatemae divide was that everyone knew that work was work and required seeing the world in a work way, while everything else was separate, truer, and allowed you to see the world in a real, honne way.  Keeping work separate made the workplace harder, but everything else more open and genuine.

If you’re like me and paying your bills requires working jobs that aren’t that interesting, think about this: work is just work, and separate from everything else.  Everyone there is just performing the same dance you are because they have to pay their bills too—the difference is, they might not be aware of it.

If you can shift the work part of your life into a tatemae realm that’s separate from everything else (which you probably partly do anyway without realizing it), shutting that part of your personality off makes you feel more open, honest, and productive after work because you can focus on your other goals without fretting over office emails or work drama at the end of the day.

This isn’t to say that Day Jobs aren’t important (because, again, we all have bills to pay), but that seeing them as distinctly separate keeps your mind focused on what really matters.  If you can master that art of separation, you’ll feel better about your Day Job and what it’s doing for you, and your own work will come more easily.


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