J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Japanese and Western Expressions: The Japanese Fundamental Attribution Error, The Western Honne and Tatemae

There have been several studies on Japanese and American facial expressions. Perhaps the most famous is that of David Matsumoto (see Gudykunst & Nishida, 1994) that found that Japanese were worse at recognising the four negative 'universal' expressions (fear, anger, disgust, sadness) not because these emotional expressions are not universal, but because negative emotions are repressed in Japanese culture where there is a greater stress upon harmony. This interpretation is plausible, but I remain rather unconvinced.

In this post I concentrate, however, on self-consistency in expression of emotions, but first a recap on linguistic self-expression. Westerners, or at least North Americans are almost always positive about themselves, irrespective of social situation (Kanagawa, Cross, & Markus, 2001) and even when what they are expressing is negative. Negative traits are "spun" to be positive ones.

Further, even though Americans "spin" or "enhance" their verbal expressions so that everything is positive, Americans nonetheless believe that the words of others represent their true feelings, even when they are told that the person they are listening to is reading a text that has been given to them whereas Japanese do not (Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002).

The tendency for Westeners to believe in the consistency of verbal expressions and true feeling or self is called "The Fundamental Attribution Bias." In Japan it is however well-known and assumed that people say one thing in social situations (tatemae) whereas they mean another (honne).

I argue that this situation is reversed, or Nacalianly transformed, in Japan when one considers Japanese facial expressions.

The first phenomenon is equivocal.

Gundykunst and Nishida found that when Japanese and Americans were shown a negative film in the supposed absence of an observer (but in fact the subjects were videoed watching the film) both Americans and Japanese showed negative emotions. However, the Japanese, but not the Americans, affected positive facial expressions when describing the movie to an experimenter. This might be construed to suggest that the Japanese are less consistent in their facial expressions, but I suggest that the Japanese would attempt to affect the same smile whether they were describing a negative film or a horrible one, irrespective of who they are talking to.

It is clear at least that the Japanese have "spun" or "enahnced" their expression to make it positive when in some sense the reality was not.

Secondly when asked to rate emotion and expression of others, Gudykunst and Nishida (1994) found that Americans rated other's emotions and facial expressions differently, whereas Japanese rated emotions and facial expressions as being the same. The Japanese appeared to believe that faces expressed only true emotions.

This result is what I would call the Japanese Fundamental Attribution Bias, and the Western version of "honne and tatemae." In respect of the latter, "The face is no index to the heart," says an English proverb, "A fair face my hide a foul heart" says an American one, and the face - being potentiallly and often "two faced" - is the sine qua non of inconsistency.

These phenomena expose the same paradox: despite the fact that both Americans and Japanese "spin" their self-expressions in a positive direction in language and facial-expressions respectively, both Americans and Japanese believe in the consistency and truth of the modality that they are spinning or enhancing, and do not believe in the veridacy of the one that they are not.

This paradox is due to the modality or theatre (Weber, 2004) that matters. Americans are chronically exposed to the ear of the 'generalised other' (Mead, 1967), whereas Japanese to the 'eye of the world' (seken). In each of these theatres each attempts to appease and express their meaning, being, their selves to a hidden, intra-psychic other.

As mentioned in a previous post, Westerners claim that they are talking to only themselves, and Japanese that they are expressing themselves only to other people, but these explanations fall apart since Americans could be verbally honest if only to themselves, and Japanese would know that that they are facially dishonest to others.

The nature of self as being for Other makes us all bullshit and yet, believe it.

The image shows my wife, son and myself from some years ago and was chosen because the Westerner, and partial Westerner, are showing less consistency in their facial expressions.

I am very stupid but disgusting and in a position to realise it. Japanese culture will teach even the most stupid and disgusting of people the truth.

Gudykunst, W. B., & Nishida, T. (1994). Bridging Japanese/North American differences (Vol. 1). Sage.
Kanagawa, C., Cross, S. E., & Markus, H. R. (2001). ‘Who am I?’ The cultural psychology of the conceptual self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(1), 90–103.
Mead, G. H. (1967). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press.
Miyamoto, Y., & Kitayama, S. (2002). Cultural variation in correspondence bias: The critical role of attitude diagnosticity of socially constrained behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1239.
Weber, S. (2004). Theatricality as Medium. Fordham Univ Press. (as yet un-read, but I dig the term and I am a major fan)

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.