Saving, losing and giving face in Japanese culture
Of all the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture, the concept of ‘Face’ is perhaps the most difficult for Westerners to fully grasp. And because ‘save face’ (mentsu wo tamotsu) is such a strong motivating force in Japan, it’s also one of the most important concepts in understanding the Japanese Mind.
In Western culture there is an underlying assumption of equality, that even people of different ranks are basically the same and should be treated in a similar way. Thus, in the West it is OK to disagree with someone who ranks higher in the social hierarchy. However, in Japan along with other Asian cultures, there is the ever-present concept of ‘face’ (mentsu). Within Asia to disagree with someone in public, thus causing them embarrassment, is to make them ‘lose face’ (mentsu wo ushinau). On the other hand, something that helps to build up a person in front of others can be said to ‘give face’ (kao o tateru). The VIP treatment that Japanese are so good at giving to honoured guests and high-ranking people can be seen as an example of ‘giving face.’
‘Face’ was not a concept that even existed in English before Westerners encountered Chinese and Japanese cultures in the 18th and 19th centuries. American and other western cultures tend to put a lot of focus on straightforwardness – ‘telling it like it is’ and ‘calling a spade a spade’. Worrying about someone’s feelings – which is basically what ‘face’ is – is not something that is considered to have first priority in western business culture. Rather, facts and the truth are given the highest degree of emphasis, whilst feelings are relegated. What many westerners fail to realize when working with Japanese is that failure to pay attention to matters of face can cause such offense that it may completely sour the business matter at hand. In other words, feelings are truly important.
Western Face vs. Japanese Face
‘Western face’ is a more self-oriented and individualistic pride or ego, and is more about how one is viewed by others. ‘Japanese face’ is about how one treats others not about the self, and can be given or earned. It can be also taken away or lost.
As a general sociological statement, Western cultures tend to focus on the individual as an independent, self-reliant being. In raising children, the focus is on helping them develop a strong sense of personal integrity and individuality where misbehaviour is often blamed on lack of self-esteem.
In contrast, Japanese culture has downplayed the concept of the individual, instead emphasizing the supremacy of the family and group. It was all about bringing honour to your clan. With the emphasis on the collective, the sense of self blurred so much that it practically didn’t exist. In fact individualism was seen as immoral.
You can’t handle the truth!
Western cultures tend to think in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘rightness’, where children are taught to respect objectivity and facts. The law applies equally to everyone and behaviour is something that should be directed by personal consciences.
In the West, honour or face is more about personal integrity. There is admiration for the integrity of those who uncompromisingly face objective truth, regardless of how self-damaging the results may be. Westerners can admit and apologize for personal shortcomings and gain respect for honest efforts to learn from the past. They are generally forgiving of someone whom takes responsibility for such problems.
In contrast, Japanese society has always functioned on the basis of personal relationships and social harmony. Indeed, the rules and laws laid down in Japan were often to serve those in power, and were often arbitrary and ever changing. Complicating matters, Confucian teachings advocate that people should be treated differently depending upon their relative status.
Similarly the Japanese concept of the ‘truth’ is not black and white. The emphasis is less on always telling the objective ‘truth’ and more about the situation and what the relationship calls for. As a result, Japanese ‘ethics’ was never based on universal principles of good and bad. Instead, ethics were more based on the circumstances of the moment – a system that the West calls ‘situational ethics’. This obviously has made doing business in Japan difficult for Westerners.
This explanation helps to explain the cultural differences of ‘lying’. The Japanese will go to great lengths to protect face, their own as well as others. In fact, in Japan it’s perfectly acceptable to tell a lie – even a bald-faced one – if it serves to protect face. Japan’s culture of shame doesn’t think of lies in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, instead the goal of Japanese truth is often to protect the face of an individual, group or even the nation. In these situations, both parties can usually read between the lines and know when the ‘truth’ is being pre-packaged to help protect face. Unfortunately Japanese will often assume that Westerners will know as well.
For instance, a hotel receptionist might tell you an obvious lie that they don’t have any vacancies. This might be their face-saving way to avoid having to tell you that their hotel doesn’t allow foreigners. Westerners often have a hard time with this, not liking to be lied to. A Westerners’ reaction is to call the offending party out on a lie. In most cases open confrontation is counter-productive and will often result in denials or feigning ignorance.
Looking at Japan through the lens of face
A better appreciation of face can go a long way in helping visitors better understand Japan. For instance, foreigners will often notice that Japanese employees will go to great lengths to steer clear of them. Most visitors chalk this up to ‘being shy’ or their inability to speak English. That’s just part of it, since for the average Japanese person talking to a foreigner is scary. In conversation with a foreigner Japanese believe there is a lot of potential for appearing incompetent and losing face, especially in front of other employees or the boss.
Even though they are in their own county many Japanese feel obliged to speak English when talking to a foreigner (instead of the other way around). Even if they do speak English there’s the fear that their English may not be understood, needs correcting or may be even laughed at. In general, the Japanese avoid situations when others can see them making a ‘mistake’, often as simple as incorrect pronunciation.
While all Japanese people know the ground rules governing face, they fear the responses of potentially unpredictable, emotional and loud gaijin (‘foreign devils’). For better or worse many Japanese have a perception that Westerners easily lose their cool and will fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. Worse, they may have personally witnessed or experienced past incidents where an angry foreigner exploded in frustration leading to a loss of face for all parties involved.
Thus the average Japanese person on the street can be apprehensive when being approached by a foreigner who is asking for directions, taking a photo or making conversation etc. In these situations a visitor can increase their comfort level by not acting like a loud, back-slapping foreigner – a reputation that unfortunately many Americans have earned. It is recommended to take John Wayne’s acting advice: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much.” In other words one should act like one is trying to feed a nut to a nervous squirrel – approach at an angle, do not attract too much attention and make no sudden moves!