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Culture and self: Case Studies of Japanese Adolescents

Listening to real-life stories of about two-dozen adolescents in Japanese high schools over the course of one academic (1989-1990) year, I formulated a hypothesis that their sense of self was divided into two basic domains: one directed toward themselves (I called it self-directed sense of self, or to use a Japanese word, honne, which means "real feelings"), and the other directed toward others (I called it other-directed sense of self or tatemae which means "publicly acceptable self"). Most importantly, these two domains of the self were often in a mutually contradictory relationship. This contradiction generates a prevailing sense of ambivalence and conflict among young Japanese.2

For example, one seventeen year old girl criticized herself severely that she was a cunning and hypocritical (zurui) person. She also told me that her personal goal was to be liked by others, and to like herself. When I asked her to explain why she thought she was cunning, she said that teenage girls stick together as peer groups. So intense was the pressure inside the peer group to be in agreement with each other's opinions and feelings that any sign of discrepancy from this consensus would cause one to feel insecure. She told me about the time when one member of her peer group bad-mouthed about another member as being "mean." While my informant disagreed with this opinion, she nonetheless agreed with her friend: she thought if she did not, the whole group would ostracize her. She felt guilty as a result, and described herself to me as zurui. Her life goal, at this point in her life, was to become strong enough to withstand the inevitable gap between her public and private selves.


Her example is not unique among her peers. Many other girls I interviewed said that they did not always show their real feelings (honne), and felt ambivalent about not being able to do so. A twelve-year-old girl told me that she made up a story to make her friends laugh. She told them that she was walking in the hallway and stumbled although there was nothing on the floor. She felt that by making her friends laugh, she would become more popular among them. However, knowing that she was manipulating her images to be accepted by her friends. She felt uneasy and guilty.


While girls were concerned with the issue of honesty in relationships, boys tended to be concerned with their capacities to carry out culturally idealized male role behaviors. For example, an eighteen-year-old boy told me that he had a grandfather who wanted him to go to a prestigious university and earn a degree to succeed his accounting business. The grandfather had an unusually high expectation for him because the boy was an only male child. The boy wanted to respond to the grandfather's wish, but he loved playing soccer on the soccer team more than studying. He felt guilty (sumanai) because he was not studying as hard as he should. Suddenly, the grandfather became sick and died before the boy entered university. From this day on, he was determined to correct his weakness (konjo no nasa) and selfish desires (wagamama), and to become a successful accountant as his grandfather had wished. What was particularly memorable was that this boy described himself as, and was indeed, a kind (yasashii) person. When a group of delinquents in school destroyed light switches in the bathroom, he volunteered to fix them with his teacher. In so doing, he did not even think that the task was cumbersome. He told me that most of these delinquents came from troubled homes, and it was the right thing for anyone to do, to fix these switches on their behalf.

While girls complained that being "kind and gentle" (yasashii) -- mostly in the form of accommodating (awaseru) others -- often made them feel hypocritical, some boys questioned if they had enough "courage" to be kind to others: i.e., being kind often required them to take a courageous step to stand on their own feet. Such was the case of a fifteen-year-old boy who was a victim of bullying (ijime): a verbal, physical, and emotional abuse of a student by his or her fellow students. He was an only child, and his parents were very protective. When he was young, he had little chance of playing with children of his own age, and played mostly with his father. As a result, he became too precocious for his age during his teenage years. His precocity worked against him when bullying took place in his class. Most of his peers looked the other way for fear of the bullies' revenge. But unlike his street-wise peers, he told the bullies to stop bullying. Being upset by his boldness, the bullies made him the prime target of their attack. Unfortunately, the bullies were physically much larger than he, and he eventually had to submit to the bullies' request to apologize to them on his knees. Not only was he humiliated by this experience, but he also felt defeated by his own lack of courage to stand up against the bullies.


I must add that this boy would not be considered cowardly by Japanese (or American) standards. One popular Japanese saying warns, "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down." A person who stands up against injustice, therefore, is truly noble, although, at the same time, he may be considered to be out of his mind. A more mature approach to combating the bullies would have been to form a group of one's own to stand against them, but because of his tendency to isolate himself, he could not have gained such support from his peers.

Hence, the young Japanese learn to present themselves in two distinctive ways. On the one hand, they must know tatemae of how to present themselves publicly. Girls must learn to act in step with others, even though it requires them to agree (superficially) on such seemingly petty issues as, who in the group is selfish, or which bag sold in department stores is the cutest. Boys, on the other hand, must learn to carry the weight of male gender-role behaviors and responsibilities: to have good exam scores to show respect for their parents (and for themselves), to be physically strong to stand up against the bullies, or to give up a personal dream of going abroad to be a "good" member of the soccer team.


Behind these group-directed activities and overt psychological concerns, however, lies the self who is much more private and authentic. This self (honne) observes the self in the public arenas (omote) from behind the back stage (ura), as the play director observes actors and actresses enact the play script on stage. The private self is often critical of, and thus feels much ambivalence about, the public self. Nevertheless, who is to argue that such a dilemma is unique only to Japanese adolescents? Perhaps we all (Japanese or otherwise) can learn much from these young people if we were to search our own heart's (kokoro) paradoxical yearning for personal freedom and communal acceptance.


1.This article is based on my paper presented at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Data are drawn from my dissertation research, Adolescents in a Japanese School: An Ethnographic Approach to Achievement, Morality, and Behavioral Inhibition.
2.The idea of the "dual" representations of self in the forms of honne and tatemae is hardly new. See Dr. Takeo Doi's 1985 book, Omote to Ura (Tokyo: Kobunsha), for example.

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