The Happy Couple Blog has been oddly quiet this summer, hasn’t it? Wassup with that, sista? I know, right?
Mostly, it was a month of teaching and traveling in Japan with a dozen students, my own kids, my spouse and my pal/assistant instructor Chie. Whew. The journey was … so many of you have kindly asked? In a single, often-overused word: INCREDIBLE. And fabulous. And amazing. And, well, life-changing (for my kids, and hopefully the students too).
But it surely and unexpectedly threw me off the blogging-track. While the bullet trains were always dizzyingly swift, my recovery from jet lag time was nothing of the sort. But the upside is that the quiet of the post-Japan weeks has allowed needed and fruitful reflection time about many of life’s quirky ways, especially what we loud and talkative happy couples of the West might learn from the more quiet Japanese ways of the East.
While the communication and interaction style in Japan is – don’t get me wrong – not all about being quiet, hushed or low-in-vocal-volume, it is for sure guided by the cultural urgency to always preserve wa平和 (harmony). And I mean always: in every context and interaction. What a cool concept, wa. Often it’s simply the shhhhhh … the being a bit more quiet … the non-disturbance of others. But more than that, wa is a deeply-ingrained way of living, being, and doing, well, everything you do. Preserving wa seems it would be a natural no-brainer goal for us happy couples, right? Right! It surely resonates most loudly in my overly-talkative, busy U.S. American brain, something we can attempt to apply here, borrowing from the experiences and approaches of couples and individuals there.
The Japanese widespread practice of, and high value placed on gaman, is an intriguing wa manifestation. Gaman? Some say it defies translation. I learned it as calm forbearance and grace, especially in the face of adverse situations or events. Essentially, gaman knows the answer: “Why bother others with your emotions or burden them with your needs?” Gaman is deeply instilled in the Japanese from the time you are born; you must always carry on with grace; with quiet perseverance; and with poise. Gambaru: to do your best. To be strong. (Oh, and to do so without having to talk about it, yell about it, let everyone know about it, or to scream, kick and grumble your way through it).
While gaman is a manifestation of wa, an intriguing manifestation of gaman is one’s “honne” and “tatemae.” The unscholarly Wikipedia offers a tidy explanation: Honne and tatemae represent the contrast between a person's true feelings and desires (honne 本音) and the behavior/opinions one displays in public (tatemae 建前). It’s the substance and the form. It’s being direct versus being diplomatic. It’s the reason and the pretext.
While some of us in the West might call tatemae deceptive, the impetus for tatemae is … duh … happiness. The goal is harmony. It’s the answer “nope” to the question “Do I need, right now, to burden you with my negative thoughts, comments and opinions?”
When I learned of honne and tatemae I immediately thought of the theoretical underpinnings grown out of research on U.S. relationship dynamics: good old Dialectical Theory. If you’ve been a long-time reader of the HC blog, you know what DT tells us about the beautiful messiness of healthy relationships. That we must forever manage the simultaneous but opposing needs for openness and closedness, revealing and concealing, and being close versus having a little “space.” Such are the needs that always pull. Such are unrelenting. And yet accepting them as normal and never completely “in balance” is a key to happy relationships in the long haul, according to DT.
So … gaman, honne and tatemae? Maybe they teach us that even here in a culture where we prize verbal expression and making sure we’re heard and felt, usually clearly and often loudly, maybe a slightly more Japanese approach is one of the keys to long-term happy coupledom? Could quieting our negative and critical thoughts open a space for seeing a moment, a movement, a partner’s actions more kindly and generously. Some say the Japanese have elevated tatemae to an art. I say that successfully navigating our relationships over decades is for sure a fine art, and always an un-finished practice. And learning when we should say what we’re thinking in any culture is, surely, a very high art. No, it’s not one I have mastered.
With that in mind, I’ll continue this post in a few days with more on what we happy couples can learn from Japanese couples. It’s a myth to think they have it all figured out and are all blissfully happy. Hold your sushi. For instance, later this week I’ll blog about an article that ran in The Japanese Times while we were in Tokyo: “The Truth About Japanese Love: We Just don’t get along.” Intriguing stuff.
Until then, arigatogozimasa for not giving up on the HC blog and for reading again! It’s great to be back at the keyboard! Yes, the exclamation points are my honne AND tatemae speaking! Woo! (Can one do both of those at once?) Who knows. If not, sumimasen, which means my apologies, sorry, excuse me, and/or forgive me. It also works when saying "thank you," so it's quite the handy word. While in Japan I used it every day, most of the day. One word and you’re good. Sweet! So that makes me think: what if we had a single, nimble, awesome word like that here in the U.S.? Probably, we’d have happier people and nicer relationships. There’s got to be a million-dollar happy couple idea in there somewhere, I know right? チャットしよう. Let’s chat.