Looking inside the Japanese mind: the difference between the professional and a private persona

Key subjects:

  • The role of the working environment in communication
  • The prevalence of ‘Tatemae’ and the difficulty to find ‘honne’
  • The impact of ‘unspoken rules’ and etiquette in common culture
  • Japanese act differently

A summary from Kim Christian Botho Pedersen: Looking inside the Japanese mind: 7.1 – Difference between the Japanese employee / professionals and the individual / private Japanese.

Kim is exposing the difference between how Japanese people behave as individuals versus how they their behaviour may differ in their professional life. Indeed, Japanese people often act very differently in the workplace, from the way they do in private, however they will also act differently depending on your relationship with them.

Read the full article from his LinkedIn profile here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/looking-inside-japanese-mind-71-difference-between-private-pedersen/


In a professional relationship, Japanese people are bound to their company policy and all unwritten and written Japanese business rules. The language itself also has its role. For example, if you communicate in English the rules are looser than when speaking in Japanese because of strict Japanese etiquette and expected responses. As a professional a Japanese is obliged to act on behalf of his company and not as an individual. That means that if you ask him a question, he may think for a long time before giving you an answer because he may feel he has to take a lot of consideration.

Japanese fear that what they say will be taken as a promise or commitment, and worry about the consequences. That is why it is difficult to know their “honne” (honest opinion) instead of “tatemae” which is what they are ‘supposed to’ say or way they are ‘supposed to’ act. The opinion they share openly in a work or public situation my only be the one they feel they are supposed to have, and little more than a reflection of the common, expected way of feeling or acting.

The Japanese business culture, common sense and company rules also influence Japanese. For example, in the majority of Japanese Companies, everybody wears similar clothes, if not a uniform so all feel the same and nobody is an outsider.

Additionally, Kim adds: “If you ask for his honest opinion (Honne), a lot of thoughts go through his mind before he decides what to answer you:

Is this something I can be honest about?

What does the company rules say?

Am I the right one to answer this question at all?

What will be the consequences of telling the truth?

What will the foreigner use my information for?

Can anyone be harmed if I express my honest opinion?

Why does he want to know my honest opinion in the first place? Didn’t he understood what I said between the lines? How explicit do I have to be before he understands it?

Once a salesman explained to Kim that wearing a suit can actually be a disadvantage in sales, because everybody knows you are a salesman. The customer can be immediately defensive. Wearing casual clothes on the other hand, creates a friendly atmosphere. The solution is not however that you must stop wearing a suit, as that too would have consequences and can be seen as disrespectful.

Finally, it is easy to see the big gap between what friends say to friends, and what business partners and colleagues say to each other. Japanese can be more direct, open and share their honest opinion as an individual with friends, and non-Business or work related acquaintances, where the mutual obligations and unwritten expectations are less, but he will still be loyal to Japan.