Honne and Tatemae
Kids say the darnedest things. That’s why Bill Cosby was able to extend his television career with a show about it for several years after the end of the Cosby show. My male students, like young boys anywhere in the world, are obsessed with dirty words. I can’t count the number of times the my students shouted “Penn iss!”as I passed in the halls. Recently, they have upgraded their usage. Since last week, two of them now occasionally say “Keith-sensei, big penn iss. Elephant.” Japan does wonders for my ego.
Today in class we reviewed “I like ~” and some vocabulary to accompany it. We reviewed some sports as a matter of course, one of which was table tennis. On the third set of repeats, I hear a loud, clear voice declare “Table Penn Iss!” Half the class went quiet with confusion and the other half laughed. I replied with a “Nande aho na koto yuta?” (Why are you saying such foolish things?) But secretly I was proud.
I’m faced with my own special brand of honne and tatemae. As an authorty figure I am meant to discourage bad behavior and foul language. Yet in my heart I am proud they are making an effort to learn more of the language and are focusing on the parts that interest them. The teacher facade presents a sense of naivety when they say penn iss, and pretends to misunderstand the word as tennis. Meanwhile, the true teacher in me wants to correct their pronunciation. That could be bad though. The last thing I need are a a bunch of ten year olds running around shouting “PENIS!”more clearly and correctly than before. This is more reasons I am proud he made the table penn iss joke. The joke shows he is paying attention in class and retaining what I’ve said.
A great deal of Japanese culture is about what is expected. No matter how long you studied or how well you’ve mastered the language, some things just can’t be taught in a class room. A lot of the initial culture shock for foriegners coming to Japan are the culture’s intricacies. What to do when, how to do it, who you do it for and who does it for you. Experience is irreplacable in certain situations. As a foreigner we are often exempt and forgiven for the lack of knowledge of many of these things, at first. Part of what is expected is that you don’t understand any of the expectations. Honne and tatemae are part of this, and speaking your mind openly can be done relatively safely. As time passes though, one is expected to learn the culture and adapt.
I wonder as the year passes if the candid nature I posses- a Boston trademark- may have to be something I must reign in. I am always polite and tactful, yet tatemae also means conforming to the group. If I am to teach my students “penis,” “boobs” and “poop,” I suppose now would be the time to do it. I may not be able to get away with it later.