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Chapter: 10 Lesson: 0 - Honne and tatemae, learn how to respect your homestay parents

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Lesson added on: January 1, 1970 12:00am
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What or Who are Homestay Parents?

If you're like me and are serious about the study of the Japanese language and culture (we are on Jappleng after all), you may have heard of or have participated in homestay. For those of you who have yet to know to familiarize yourself with this term and wish to visit Japan through a college program or something of that nature, get familiar with it. Okay, I'll be honest; it's basically the same idea as foreign exchange… Except minus the exchange.

You get to stay with a Japanese family (or vice versa) and stay with them for a period of time. I have yet to participate in such an enlightening experience but my Japanese teacher has. While he enjoyed himself and immersed himself in a foreign culture, he made one thing absolutely clear; there's a communication issue going on.
What's the problem?
Well you must be thinking: "hey, my Japanese is pretty decent, what communication issue?" Now you've started digging your hole. When I say "communication issue", I am not speaking of a language barrier (though it can complicate things); I am speaking of two schools of training that are almost literally a world apart.

Thus I introduce to you, honne and tatemae.
While it is a deep and incredibly complex part of Japanese culture, I will not get into that but you can take a look at our Japan Life section to learn more. What I will get into is the problem that it presents to you, the gaijin.

Okay, I'm sorry for using that word, it's a little harsh. But the truth is, when your homestay family looks at you, their immediate reaction will be *gasp* "this person isn't Japanese." Of course, they'll nod and greet you with the utmost sincerity but at the same time, your okaasan (the mother of the host family) will be worried if it'll go smoothly. In some way or another, I just described to you, honne.

The concept of Honne

You see, honne, is what every Japanese person's true feelings are. Before I get any deeper, I must introduce another vocabulary term, tatemae. Tatemae is the façade they use to show themselves to the everyday world.

How it works
Pertaining to our homestay situation, it would look something like this: you've just arrived at the home, the family puts you in the nicest bedroom (which quite possibly could be the eldest son's bedroom and he got kicked out so you could stay in it), they feed you with the best meals they could possibly give you, they'll do your laundry for you, they will take you to so many nice places and they'll even let you take a bath first (a cultural phenomenon of its own)!

"My, that is incredibly generous of them" you say?

Well, of course! That is tatemae. The family will do their best to make you feel of the utmost comfort, they will put 110% into you and nearly work themselves crazy for you and what do they expect in return? Zilch. And what should you do in return? Zilch. Yes, you read that correctly, you let them do their thing. You see, it is almost unthinkable for the guest of a Japanese house to feel in any way uncomfortable. The only thing that you have to worry about is making sure things don't get more difficult for them than it already is.

What you do is understand the family dynamic, learn their schedules, do things that convenience them the most and for heaven's sake, do not get in their way. What I mean by that is if otousan (father) has to take a detour while going to work because of you, don't do it. If okaasan (mother) has to take a second off of her grocery shopping time because of you, don't do it. If the children lose their page while studying because of you, don't do it. If ANYONE loses a wink of sleep because of you, do – not – do – it.

Their lives will go on perfectly normally as if you aren't there, except for one little thing, you are there. You just smile and go along your business, and it better not bother them, and pretend everything is peachy. That is your tatemae.

"But how will I know if I'm doing something wrong?" Good question!

When you do something wrong, and hopefully you don't, they may say something to you that may not register at first. Here, I'll make up a scenario for you. Ms. Brown is staying with the Kawamura family who all go to sleep by 10:00 P.M. One night, the chief of police invites her to go drinking, in fact, a dozen people go. They have a blast. Ms. Brown doesn't get home until 3:00 A.M. So that morning as the family is eating breakfast, okaasan says to Ms. Brown, "so did you have fun last night? You were out pretty late weren't you?"

Do you know what that means? It means:
A: okaasan stayed up all night waiting for Ms. Brown
B: her getting home late woke up the house
C: both.

But hey, she was out with the chief of police and a dozen of his closest friends! That does not matter. If the family is going to be asleep by 10 o'clock, you better be home by 9:00. 8:00 would be even better. But you see there, okaasan did not say out right that everyone was awoken by the foreign devil! No, she said it with the utmost subtlety or in other words, honne. What okaasan was feeling was honne, what she actually said was tatemae.

Even before you make such a grave error, you will be told certain things that you will have to remember and interpret correctly for yourself. They will never directly confront you with what is bothering them because as far as you are concerned, everything is dandy. "They'll even speak about you in front of you!" my sensei said once. They'll drop clues, and you better have a magnifying glass.
Like a Survival Horror Flick, or Not...
Thus concludes our nightmare. No, I'm just kidding, have a great time. The thing to remember is to not forget your manners. You will be a guest in not just another home, but another culture. If you do mess up, just try your best not to let it happen again. You will more or less be "informed" of your mistake, so you're not completely in the dark. The trick is to treat your homestay family with respect, and you will have yourself a blast.
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