Is That Your Face?

It’s not so unusual with different Asian cultures that the idea of personal reputation should take precedence over all other concerns. As a codified system of behavior, its roots can be found in Chinese Confucianism, which dictated a strict hierarchy of behavior and protocol. Breeches of this protocol were considered extremely embarrassing, since they could hardly be hidden or ignored — after all, everybody else also knew the proper protocol that was just violated!

It’s not so unusual with different Asian cultures that the idea of personal reputation should take precedence over all other concerns. As a codified system of behavior, its roots can be found in Chinese Confucianism, which dictated a strict hierarchy of behavior and protocol. Breeches of this protocol were considered extremely embarrassing, since they could hardly be hidden or ignored — after all, everybody else also knew the proper protocol that was just violated!

When concepts of Confucianism were brought to Japan in the 6th century AD, it helped to solidify these relationships into strict hierarchies. Relations between all people were given some formal status, be they  parents and children, eldest son, and younger sons, or vassals and liege lords. Carried along with these codified relationships was the idea that violations of protocols within these relations could carry embarrassment. In this way, the Japanese concept of “face” was slowly developed.

The Japanese concept of face refers to both the public face as well as the private face. Foreigners who live in Japan for many years will sometimes complain that it’s impossible to know how the Japanese really feel about you, since presentation of a harmonious face in public takes precedence over the quarreling face that one may truly feel in private. This idea of public behavior, or tatemae, and private behavior, or honne, is crucial to understanding Japanese behavior.

In the preservation of harmony via tatemae, very small cues become extremely important in determining what a person’s true feelings are. The Japanese can seem very intuitive to Americans, who often will not act without explicit directions, while the Japanese will act on very small cues. While this can be an obvious advantage in making relations smooth and harmonious, it can also create ambiguity in interpreting someone’s wishes or desires, especially when it might be embarrassing or unseemly for that person to directly say such things. In fact, much of Emperor Hirohito’s defense about his role in World War II relied on the argument that his ministers misinterpreted the minuscule cues that he gave while presenting his god-like tatemae face.

Historically, it was not so unusual for there to be conflicts between one’s duty (giri) and one’s family or group feelings (ninjo). In such cases, ritual suicide was seen as an acceptable way to resolve this conflict. During the Edo period, many tragedies were written around this idea of conflicting duties that would lead to suicide.

The Japanese language has many expressions that use the word “face” to express different concepts. Someone with a “broad face” knows a lot of people, while someone with a “smashed face” has been shamed. On the other hand, to make your “face stand” is to save face.

The use of masks, in Japanese theatre and makeup in Japanese society are all ways in which to conceal the true face of the person. The concept of kyojutsu (interchange between truth and falsehood) suddenly seems entirely natural within this context of Japanese social behavior.


(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 1/20/06. Author retains all copyrights.)

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