I think many foreigners who have lived or worked in Japan heard this set of words, “Honne 本音– real intent” and “Tatemae 建前– outward reason.” Actually many expatriate colleagues I had worked with in office used to use “Honne and Tatemae” as it is in Japanese.

According to Kenkyusha’s Japanese English Dictionary (KJED), Honne is ‘one’s real intention, underlining motif.' Tatemae is ‘principle, a rule, one’s public position’

For example, we use “Honne” and Tatemae” as in,

  • What you are saying is Tatemae. You cannot live only on Tatemae. Look at the reality.

  • He says he decided to live apart from his wife, considering the convenience of commuting office, but it’s Tatemae. His Honne is to get divorced from her.

  • The company says they transfer a group of middle managers to the frontline of sales force to give them a chance for self-development. But it’s Tatemae. The company’s Honne is to get rid of them.
  • North Korea says development of the rocket is for space exploration purpose. But it’s Tatemae, their Honnne is development of ICBMs with nuclear-head.

I’m fine with the KJED’s definition of ‘Honne’ as one’s real intent, but not comfortable with the definition of ‘Tatemae’ as a principal and rule, because it isn’t principal or rule, but is outward / superficial, sometimes a disguised excuse (reason / claim) as shown above.

Interestingly, Google Ngram shows that the usage of ‘Honne’ can be traced back to circa. 184o, which had been leveling off at 0.000001 emergence level until 1980, when it suddenly started to draw a sharp rise in combination with ‘Tatemae’ to 0.000005 level. I don’t know what made a leap of the incidences of both words during 1980 – 2000.

With that said, do you have a set pair of words in English corresponding to ‘Honne and Tatemae’? Do you have the time to have to manipulate Honne and Tatemae in your actual life, as we do, not very often, but as needed?

Could you suggest to me English alternatives that you think are closest to the original meanings of ‘Honne and Tatemae’?

  • 1
    The leap of Japanese terms in English in the '80s was due to Japan's bubble economy of that time. Lots of people starting studying Japanese in hopes of getting some of their money, lots of English teachers started going to live over there to make very good money, etc. Commented Aug 2, 2013 at 4:19

5 Answers 5


jwpat7's answer is very good.

Just as an aside, there is one word for the “Honne and Tatemae” phenomenon, but it is pejorative: hypocrisy! A slightly less pejorative and more up-to-date word is spin. I do not know where the term originated, but let's assume for fun that it came from either public relations or politics. To spin, of course, is to put the best possible face on something embarrassing. As the saying goes, however, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

As far as a two-word answer to your question is concerned, I thought of the words diplomacy and honesty. In the “Honne and Tatemae” dyad, Honne would correspond to honesty and Tatemae would correspond to diplomacy. In analogical form:

Honne : honesty : : Tatemae : diplomacy.

There is a time to be diplomatic, and there is a time to be honest. When a wife asks her husband

"Dear, do I look fat in this dress?"

the husband is free to be honest and say yes if he thinks the dress does make her look fat, but he does so at his own peril! He is much better off saying either

"No, my dear, you look positively svelte in that dress!"


"To be honest, my dear, I much prefer you in the red dress. I find it kind of sexy!"

While a person cannot be brutally diplomatic, diplomacy can be overdone, particularly when many human lives are at stake, as when two superpowers are on the brink of war. Sometimes one has to hit the mule over the head with a two-by-four simply to get its attention!

Who knows what would have happened in 1962, for example, had President Kennedy not given the Soviets an ultimatum (the two-by-four) to get their nuclear missiles out of Cuba!

How did Kennedy respond to the Soviet threat of delivering more nuclear missiles to Cuba? Of the seven options Kennedy's advisors gave to him, he chose to place a blockade around Cuba.

What many Americans do not know (or choose to forget) is that Kennedy, in response to the Soviets' acceding to his ultimatum to stop delivering missiles to Cuba and to remove the nuclear missiles already inside Cuba, also agreed privately to remove American nuclear weapons from Turkey.

Here we have an excellent illustration of both honesty and diplomacy. What makes Honne different from honesty, however, is that the former is hidden or surreptitious--primarily, I assume, to allow each side to "save face."

One the one hand, Kennedy needed to convince the Soviets (and Krushchev in particular) that he was not going to take the diplomatic approach in solving this challenge to American sovereignty that was occurring a mere 120 miles from our shores.

On the other hand, he knew that he had to balance his apparent "tough guy" approach with a concession to the Soviets that would allow them to save face. Playing up his ultimatum and playing down his concession turned out to be a win/win for both America and the Soviet Union!

Neither the Soviets nor the Americans had any interest in starting a nuclear war, but they acted as if they did in order to get something from each other; namely, the removal of U.S. nuclear warheads from Turkey and the removal of Soviet warheads from Cuba.

In terms of “Honne and Tatemae,” the Soviets' outward and disguised reason--Tatemae--was to show America that they were just as free to place missiles in Cuba as the U.S. was to place missiles in Turkey. The Soviets' real intent--Honne--was to get the U.S. to remove her missiles from Turkey, not to start a nuclear war.

Likewise, President Kennedy's outward and disguised reason--Tatemae--was to stand up to the Soviets and show them that U.S. resolve would not be shaken. Kennedy's real intent--Honne--was to save face following several embarrassing incidents related to American involvement in Cuba's affairs (e.g., the Bay of Pigs fiasco; the Soviets' finding parts for nuclear weapons aboard an American naval ship; and the Soviets' shooting down of an American U2 spy plane that flew over Cuba).

The concept of face-saving may not be as inherent and as pervasive in American mores as it is in Japanese mores, but it still figures prominently in American diplomacy internationally.


The words ostensible and agenda may be related to this. Ostensible, “appearing or claiming to be one thing when it is really something else” or ostensibly can be used as in the following example sentences from dictionary.cambridge.org:

Their ostensible goal was to clean up government corruption, but their real aim was to unseat the government.
He has spent the past three months in Florida, ostensibly for medical treatment, but in actual fact to avoid prosecution.

Agenda, when modified by hidden, secret, private, or personal, refers to private reasons for doing things. For example, Collins Dictionary (via thefreedictionary.com) defines a hidden agenda as a “hidden motive, secret plan, secret intention, hidden ploy, ulterior motive”, and gives the example sentence “They were accused of having a hidden agenda.”

Note, ostensible and agenda are not a set pair of words like Honne and Tatemae. It would be good to have such a set pair, because doing things for low or mean reasons, and then explaining the actions with a fine-sounding rationale, is quite common in American life.


One of the idiomatic expressions that sprang to mind when I first read your question, was "hidden agenda" but I couldn't think of one that fitted "Honne". jwpat7's inspired suggestion, ostensible, was brilliant and I doubt there are any other valid alternatives.

Therefore, any further suggestions I provide are not because I believe them to be more appropriate but because I think they would interest you. Their meanings are linked to secrecy and superficial appearances, but none, unfortunately, come very close to the meanings of Honne and Tatemae.

I even tried thinking of a few in Italian but failed pretty miserably. If there is a difference between the anglophone world and that of the Mediterranean one, it is (of course this is a generalization) that Italians are unafraid and feel quite comfortable in being direct with one another. The idea of covering up your thoughts out of a sense of propriety and discretion is very foreign to us. When words fail, and our thoughts and emotions travel at high speed, we use our hands and alter the pitches of our voices. An ex-boyfriend of mine, English, used to say I shouted when I spoke above 10 decibels. "Nothing of the sort", I protested, "it is me talking". This is how many Italians communicate. So that might explain why I couldn't think of any off hand in Italian...

In no particular order here then are some expressions I thought you might not be familiar with linked, as I said earlier, to secrecy and superficiality.

  • read between the lines infer something (from something else); to try to understand what is meant by something that is not written explicitly or openly.

"After listening to what she said, if you read between the lines, you can begin to see what she really means." "Don't believe every thing you read literally." "Learn to read between the lines."

  • on the face of it: used for saying that something appears to be true but might not be true when you have examined it in more detail

"We do not believe on the face of it that there has been illegal activity by the banks."

  • to cover up [intransitive/transitive] to hide the truth about something by not telling what you know or by preventing other people from telling what they know.

"It was a real scandal, but the school tried to cover the whole thing up."

  • cover up for:

"He got his powerful friends to cover up for him."

  • cover up something also, cover something up: to keep something secret or hidden

"Others accused her of covering up her financial dealings."

  • motive behind: the reason that makes someone do something, especially when this reason is kept hidden:

"The motives behind the decision remain obscure." "The violence was clearly prompted by political motives." "It's not the kind of thing he'd do unless he had an ulterior motive" (=a reason he kept hidden).

  • sweep under the rug - to conceal something in the hopes it won't be discovered by others;

"The president tried to sweep the embarrassing incident under the rug"


The closest thing I can think of is the difference between reason and excuse/explanation.

For example:

The explanation that the boss gave for scheduling the meeting on such short notice is that there are scheduling conflicts at later times. But I think the real reason is that, since the meeting is about addressing criticisms our company has received, he wants to treat the matter superficially, and doesn't want people to have time to prepare for the meeting.

  • I've heard this as "the real reason" vs. "the good reason". As in, 'The "good reason" Bob gave his boss for needing a new laptop is to run Excel faster, but we all know the real reason he wants it is to play WoW.' Commented May 24, 2014 at 5:54

A parallel concept in English is denotation vs. connotation: what is literally said contrasted to what is meant, or the underlying implications (similar to honne & tatemae). Example: "That dress is bad for your shape." Denotation: it doesn't look good on you. Connotation: because you're fat. However, unlike with "honne & tatemae", the words "connotation & denotation" are not usually in the sentence. This may just be a structural difference between the two languages, though.

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