What are Japanese people like?

(In comparison to American…)

*Disclaimer* – This article is about how Japanese people (as a whole) act in general and on the surface rather than individual personality traits, which will vary greatly depending on the person.

Well, on the whole you can categorize most Japanese people as 1. Polite, 2. Respectful, and 3. Helpful. And I think that any foreigner who has been to Japan will agree with those statements. However, with those labels being drawn…it is also necessary to  mention the tendency for Americans to view the Japanese as being “closed-off” or “unemotional”, which, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding of typical Japanese culture.

One of the first lessons that anyone coming to Japan must learn is the cleverly basic and important cultural concepts of tatemae (建前) and honne (本音). Tatemae refers to the outward self, the one that you present to society, while honne refers to your inner self, which is comprised of your true feelings and person. In America we have a similar constructs but with emphasis placed on different values, like individualism and freedom. However,  in Japan it is more important to fit in and be in harmony with those around you (particularly your circle of friends) than to be unique. With these values in mind, the Japanese use the concepts of tatemae and hone to maintain an air of politeness no matter what situation they are in.

When it comes to creating harmony, it’s very important that the Japanese are able to understand their social situation at any given time. Whether that means knowing where they stand in a group’s hierarchy or being able to guess where someone else wants to eat, unconsciously reading a situation is necessary in order to be able to fit in. So, what this translates to is another cultural concept called joushiki (常識). While joushiki is often translated into English as “common sense” it is also used to describe a process called “reading the air” or understanding the social situation around you. While typical Americans expect others to express their emotions (either verbally or physically), in Japan it is expected of you to know how others are feeling without them having to say anything.

As one can imagine, this creates can often create a large cultural misunderstanding when Americans and Japanese people are trying to communicate with each other because a Japanese person will do their best to maintain politeness no matter what. Rather than “open up” about how they are feeling, they will put forth their best tatemae (outer self) expect that you will do your best to know what they are feeling by using joushiki (reading the air). Hence why you often have Americans who interpret Japanese behavior as “closed off”, cool or “shy”. Sure, you’ll have some Japanese folk who are going to be more quiet than others, but that’s because it is a part of their personality and not their culture. However, as a nation whose culture focuses on harmony and unity, this creates overall values of being polite, respectful and helpful to others (especially when it comes to foreigners), which is why so many Japanese will come across as having these sort of characteristics.

IN SUMMARY… So, if and when you come and visit Japan be aware that people are going to be really nice to you! BUT just because they are being polite and helpful doesn’t mean that they don’t have other feelings underneath the surface. If you are striving to become more culturally in-tune and aware while being in Japan you should take the time to listen and observe those around you and make sure that you aren’t causing anyone else extra-trouble. Don’t be afraid of being yourself but also work to create harmony with those around you!

– Elena Potts