Tattemai and Honei

Ozawa. General Secretary of the ruling party.

Giving mid-year and year-end gifts.


Nods of agreement, plastic smiles of friendship and presents for just about every conceivable occasion. This is called tattemai in Japan; ass-kissing in the west. Smiling and never showing your true self seems to be pre-eminent in Japanese culture. Japanese people are never themselves in public. A facade of kindness, understanding, patience and interest helps maintain harmony in society. Indeed Japanese become somewhat afraid, when meeting someone for the first time, who is not smiling and bowing. We all know politicians have their smile and “trust me” winks down pat, when pontificating on television talk shows or at a podium in some town hall as they beguile the credulous throngs. In Japan, however, tattemai is ubiquitous and therefore, important to learn and understand for a foreigner living in this country. As mentioned, presents are part of this tattemai society and are given in various situations. To list all occasions would require another couple of blog entries, so I’ll give you a couple to digest. 

 1. Ochugen and Oseibo (mid-year and year-end present): These gifts are given to teachers, doctors, bosses, seniors from university; the go-between of a married couple and so forth. The gifts range from a box of cookies to a case of beer or wine. When presenting a gift to a another person, both hands are used and there is a great deal of bowing, followed by the words, ” kore kara mo yoroshiku onegishimasu” (please continue helping me and I thank you deeply for everything you have done and will do for me in the future).Many young people these days, wishing to avoid excessive bowing and tattemai, with have the “lagniappe” shipped by carrier.  Married couples, who have used a “go-between” (Nakodo), with give the go-between and his or her family a mid-year and year-end gift for – in recent years – three years after the wedding. Traditionally, the go-between received these offerings until the day of their death.     

 2. The giving of gifts is something that is performed when someone moves into a new house or condominium. The new tenant must visitor his or her neighbor, bow and hand the neighbor a present – usually washing powder or some other household product. The above greeting of “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” again uttered as the presenter bows. The custom of presenting the neighbors and friends from the past neighborhood is also practiced. Indeed, when preparing to move house, one is suppose to hand out little gratuities to the people in your vicinity.    

As mentioned above, politicians around the world, are masters of tattemai and Japanese politicians are no exception. However, unlike their western counterparts, Japanese politicial figures seem – to this writer – more insincere.  I watch them outside the city’s stations wishing the populace early morning greetings and spouting on how the present government is not doing a good job, but offering no policies of their own. With painted smiles they try to win votes with quixotic plans for the future. The masses smile incredulously as they enter the station. The politician is not fazed by the lack of interest, he or she continues their inane gum flapping until rush hour is all but over. There is one particular Japanese politician that really is a sleazy bastard. He is actually the General Secretary of the now ruling government. This man is actually – many say – controlling the decisions of Prime Minister Hatoyama. His smiling face adorns our TV’s almost nightly. This man is the epitome of Japanese tattemai. The opposite of tattemai is honei (true face, honest and natural). There are only a few occasions that Japanese are truly themselves. When with family, naturally they are themselves, with close friends, during sporting events and drunk in a snack bar somewhere whining to the mama san about how bad their pathetic life. Generally western people are far more up front than Japanese. We (westerners) can be “read” by our emotions and facial expressions. Japanese are not able to be read as they seem to have a perpetual smile. Behind the smile, however, the real Japanese person lurks and no one ever sees this “real” person  other than the aforementioned people.    


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Betty Chatterjee
    Mar 15, 2010 @ 08:40:46

    This is extremely interesting. You provide us with a fascinating insight into Japanese society. How do Japanese bloggers cope with this kind of set up?

    Thanks for your last generous comment Ian. Yes, I value your friendship too. Take care!


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