A Tip for Understanding the Japanese Personal Brand

When I was first introduced to personal branding I learned two things. First, everyone has a personal brand whether we realize it or not. Second, our brands are based on how others perceive us, or as William Arruda says, they are “held in the hearts and minds of others.”  I also discovered that strong brands are based in authenticity and only by being true and genuine can we truly differentiate ourselves and deliver on our unique promise of value.

The Outer and Inner Self in Japan

Authentic, true, and genuine.

While these words are at the core of any personal branding process they present a very interesting challenge in accurately understanding personal brands in Japan.

For the Japanese, there are two mindsets called ‘tatemae‘ (建前) and ‘honne‘ (本音).

Tatemae, literally meaning ‘facade,’ is the public or outer self. It is essentially what is expected by society and is based on position and circumstance. Tatemae, therefore, generally does not match one’s honne, meaning one’s true and genuine private or inner self. Honne is typically shown only around family and very close friends, or in neutral and informal circumstances.

Having a public and private self is not unique to Japan. Social psychologists say that people are naturally either private-self dominant or public-self dominant. We don’t necessarily fit into one group and we all have public and private elements to our personalities.

The key difference in Japan is the role this duality plays in maintaining harmony at whatever the cost. There is a far more conscious effort to display an outward appearance or ‘image’ that can be contrary to one’s true and genuine nature simply for the sake of avoiding confrontation and not hurting anyone’s feelings within the group. Japanese are by nature self-effacing and therefore put the needs of the group ahead of their own interest. Tatemae is one of the mechanisms to reinforce this self-effacing characteristic.

Personal Brands and ‘Red’ Faces in Japan

Interestingly, once Japanese remove themselves from the context of work or formal settings and communicate ‘after hours’, the barriers to expressing honne comes down. Therefore, it is generally expected for colleagues to express their private self over food and drinks after work. This is called “nomunication” – a bilingual coinage combining the Japanese word ‘nomu’ – to drink – with ‘communication.’ Perhaps, a flushed red face in Japan is not only a sign of being tipsy, but also of the Japanese personal brand actually revealing itself!

Is the lesson here that we need to go out after work to truly tap into the Japanese personal brand?

ABSOLUTELY! (Disclaimer: But it does mean you have to get drunk!)

I often have non-Japanese who first relocate to Japan ask me how can they really get to know their Japanese colleagues and friends? I always reply by asking how many times have they gone out after work. Even if you do not drink alcohol the simple act of being in a neutral place after hours will allow you to see the genuine and authentic side of the Japanese personality.

An important caveat, however, is “what happens after-hours stays after-hours.” The Japanese honne expressed over drinks will go right back to tatemae the next day at work. There is basically an unwritten rule that you never reveal the honne that was expressed the evening before, again for the purpose of maintaining harmony, and saving face.

Otherwise, the red face you will experience now will be one of embarrassment!

About the author

Peter Sterlacci Peter Sterlacci is known as “Japan’s personal branding pioneer.” In a country where fitting-in is the norm, Peter’s mission is to pioneer a ‘cultural shift’ by helping Japanese to stand out in a global environment. An avid cyclist, he combines cycling imagery with personal branding strategy to empower his clients to shift gears and sprint to career success. Follow Peter on Google+