This is a fascinating book. I recommend reading it. It’s small and short and provides a framework for understanding the social world we all inhabit. It explain things that you know are true but didn’t recognize until reading it.

After traveling to Japan, a number of my friends said that as much as I love the place, I might not enjoy the individual’s relation to society there. So I bought this book to learn more.

The title seems to be an allusion to The Undiscovered Self by Jung (another excellent book). It’s a non-literal translation from Japanese. The original title is “Omote to Ura”, one of the main concepts it covers.

Omote means something like “face” or “mask”. It’s the public projection of an individual’s self. Ura is “heart” or “mind”—the internal state of the self. When someone in American culture asks “How are you?”, and you answer “Good.” or “Fine.”, those responses are omote. Telling how you actually feel would be an ura response. But that’s not appropriate in present-day American culture.

Which leads to the next concept: “tatemae” and “honne“. Tatemae are the social rules that apply to a situation. Honne are the internal motivations an individual feels. In American culture, the tatemae is to make an omote response to “How are you?”, when a stranger asks. Only your closest acquaintances can receive an ura response. That doesn’t mean you lie to the stranger by saying you’re fine—you’re just providing the socially-correct (tatemae) response. A German friend tells me that the tatemae in Germany is to answer “How are you?” with ura response. The tatemae are parameters that determine what type of society you live in.

In all situations, individual behavior is the combination of internal drives (honne) AND adherence to social norms (tatemae). But these days in America, honne are treated as dirty and temporal. So, for example, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs will claim to be exclusively mission-driven, rather than seeking to capture the value generated by a startup company that achieves exponential growth. Exposing an opponent as wealthy reveals them as motivated by honne—why else acquire more wealth than needed to subsist? Utilitarian thinking (tiny homes, downsizing possessions, …) is a consequence of the imbalance of tatemae and honne.

I suppose this has been more of a summary then a review. It’s a short book, so if you’ve enjoyed this taste, get a copy here to read yourself. You will enjoy it (tatemae) and I will receive a small commission (honne).