I sat down wanting to simply write about the elusive and ever charming Japanese smile from both an explanatory and a linguistic point of view. You understand, I believe, what I mean by the Japanese smile. For those of you who do not, there is a subtle, almost unreadable, subtle feeling about the nuanced Japanese smile that is understandable but yet not understandable about how the Japanese can smile without just saying ‘I am happy’, or ‘ I am smiling, but my smile is communicating something else’. I want to expound upon this and perhaps much more in this post. I knew that I could just overwhelm the reader with examples both visually and linguistically but I realized I need to talk about so much that happens behind the scenes to make it understandable.
First of all we have to look at the concept that is so embedded in the Japanese mind of Honne and Tatemae.
Honne, <本音>, or literally stated as ‘the real sound’, or in understandable terms, ‘one’s true thinking, feeling, or opinion’
Tatemae, <建て前 >, or literally stated as ‘a structure build in front’, or in understandable terms, ‘thinking, feeling, or opinions expressed to not cause friction with those you are dealing with’.
In other words, Honne means one’s held to the chest, authentic thoughts, feelings or words. In the West these would be held above all others as authentic and those thoughts and feelings that we should honor and express beyond all else. I mean, of course, to do otherwise would be to be inauthentic and bordering upon or actually entering into the realm of dishonesty and lying.
So, Honne, one’s true feelings. When would it NOT be a good thing to express these thoughts? Even in the West, one would not say, ‘Hey, you are fat!’ upon seeing a friend who has grown in stature over the years. OK, so how about Japan? That would be the same in Japan. You would not draw attention to something unflattering to one in Japan either. But, yet it is different.
One the most imprinted on my memory experiences, and one that I wish beyond all things had never happened. What did happen was when two newlyweds (and I will leave their names out of this blog) died in a car crash when they were on their way to my house in the countryside town of Ujiie. I do not actually want to talk about this as it is too personal and yet I will will use it as an example of the way the Japanese deal with that most defining emotional state of life and that is Death. My friend M-san was on her way to to my house with her newlywed husband, T-san, when they were hit by a truck as they attempted a U-turn. I heard, along with my friend, K-san, a crash on the main road outside of my house. Upon going to the crash site we saw that they had both died upon impact. I went to the hospital and I gave my final words to the two of them.
It was the next day or two days later, that I experienced Honne/Tatemae upon going to the wake preceding the funeral. 25 or so friends were gathered in my friend’s coffee shop. Everyone was dressed in black, formal wear and yet everyone ‘seemed’ to be having a great time- having fun and talking about everything other than M and T’s lives. I couldn’t take in the brevity and the fun, almost off hand nature of what was happening. I lost it. I blew up and threw a wall mounted clock on the floor and yelled at everyone, ‘What are you doing?! This is supposed to be a time to honor our friends. How can you be so cheerful and insensitive to act like nothing has happened?’. This, it goes without saying did not go over so well.
It was only years later when I realized that I had experienced a full bore example of Honne and Tatemae.
In the country I come from, the United States of America, I was taught from the earliest age to express directly what I actually felt. You know, ‘if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet’. To express your true thinking at all times was a sign of being an honest and strong individual. To not do so was to be two-faced. How does this go over in the unique society of Japan? Well, not so well.
Let’s take a look at the differences between Japan and the West, and even between Japan and its neighbors in Asia. To facilitate things I will give examples of differences between Japan and America knowing that these examples can be extrapolated out to the differences between Japan and other countries as well.
The degree of homogeneity
The percentage of Japanese living in Japan at the present time is around 98.7% The 1.3% who are Non-Japanese are comprised in order by Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians, Filipinos and, followed by Americans in 5th place making up a shocking total of 0.0003% of the total number of human beings living in Japan.
The percentage of Americans living in America if you consider the Native American Indians as being the true inhabitants of America the percentage would be from 1 to 2 percent.
You may be saying that that is an unfair calculation but considered from the scope of historical time I would say at least to express the degree of homogeneity that this is perfectly fair.
Japan as a Nation has the longest unbroken history in the world, by far.
Japan began with Emperor Jinmu in BCE 660 making Japan over 2,600 years old with an unbroken lineage of 126 Emperors.
Historical Emperors of Japan
America by contrast could be considered as having started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, or the inauguration of Washington as the first president in 1789. Either way, its history is still less than 1/10th that of Japan. For longer than the period of time that United States of America has been a country, Japan was an isolated country (and isolated by deliberate choice) where only the very, very few were allowed either in or out of the country. This period is what we know as the Edo period, the period of Sakoku (isolated country), or the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was a period in World history that historians agree was one of the most amazing periods of peace, a flourishing of the arts, manners and sophistication as well as a deepening of highly refined culture that ever took place on the world stage. Anyway, my point is, is that the Japanese over hundreds and hundreds of years developed a society and culture wherein every Japanese knew to a deep degree what another Japanese was thinking and feeling with just a brief glance. This ability developed to the degree where in Japan they can it, ‘Ishin Denshin’ ＜以心伝心＞, meaning the ability to convey one’s thoughts or feelings without relying on words – something that comes close to telepathy without relying on a supernatural explanation. The Japanese also talk now and in the past about the importance of ‘reading the air’ – ‘Kuuki wo yomu’, ＜空気を読む＞. This refers to reading the atmosphere of the situation and knowing how to act so as not to cause friction or to dispel the harmony of what is taking place amongst the people you find yourself with in a given situation. The comedian Dave Barry in his book ‘Dave Barry does Japan’ talks about this saying that to him it felt like the Japanese could communicate to one another in the way two comedians who had memorized a joke book. In the joke book all the jokes were numbered. And as each comedian had perfectly memorized all the jokes in the book, they could merely say to the other, ‘Hey, what about number 273?’ to send the other comedian into stitches. It is much in this manner that the Japanese are able to communicate a huge amount of subtle meaning with a short, pithy word or even a slight physical expression. And it is here that I feel I can finally dig into the idea I had for this blog, which is the subtle nuances both physical and linguistic of the Japanese smile.
OK, here we go.
In Japan, or rather in Japanese, almost going against what I have proposed in that there is a deeper level in sublimity, in Japanese there is only one base word for smile/laugh and that is Warau ＜笑う＞、(わらう). Warau can be used for smile and warau plus voice for laugh. I did at least one time ‘laugh out loud’ when someone would ask me to ‘waratte’ when taking a picture when they were asking me to just smile.
Japanese is funny. It is based on a long, long period of time of Yamato kotoba or purely vocalized language up until around 500 CE when the Chinese Kanji entered into the way the Japanese communicated.
Apparently the roots of the word ‘Warau’ came from a variation of the word, ‘Waru’ ＜割る＞, meaning to break or split. This referred to the mouth opening or splitting and it is not a far stretch to go from ‘waru’ to ‘warau’. And this refers to the kind of smile where you emit a voice as well, or what in the West we would call a laugh.
When one ‘splits’ the mouth without vocal emission the word ‘Emu’, ＜笑む＞, (えむ), was used for smile.
Imai Miki singing ‘Hitomi ga Hohoemu Kara’
There is also the word, ‘Hohoemu’, ＜微笑む/頬えむ＞、which means the cheeks、＜頬＞、’Hoho’ relax in a slight splitting mannerwhich refers to what we in the West would call a smile but is in a way in modern Japan a more refined or subtle word for smile than how we would use the word. In fact, for daily life and for things like taking pictures and so on, the Japanized version of smile, ＜スマイル＞, is used.
And now on to the Kanji that is used for ‘Warau’ – that is to say if you are still with me on this, and believe I would not blame you if you are not. Even the Japanese do not usually delve into things this deeply.
The Kanji used for ‘Warau’ is ＜笑う＞.
According to some, this represents two hands (the upper characters) held out in an expression of ecstasy with the bottom part being a variation on the Kanji for the human body. So what kind of ecstasy is this talking about? Well, it is said to be a representation of a Miko (Shintou maiden) raising her hands
and dancing wildly in the ecstasy of a magic spell.
The bottom part of the Kanji is a derivative Kanji representing the human body. This makes for quite a exorbitant and wild depiction of someone laughing.
The ‘ON’ or Chinese reading for ‘Warau’ is ‘Shou’ and this is how it is read and pronounced in word combinations.
So, at long last, lets dig into the some of the variations of words and expressions for the Japanese smile.
Words using ‘Warau/Shou’
The laughter of a group of people that erupts all at once in unison.
*Also, the name of a famous comedy duo, ‘Bakushou Mondai’
A faint, kind smile.
A sneer. A mocking smile.
Literally means a cold smile.
Literally means to make fun of someone by laughing at them.
A sardonic or disdainful smile.
A seductive, enticing, alluring smile.
A laugh or a smile used to dismiss or disregard something.
A forced, feigned or fake smile or laugh.
Literally means a ‘created smile/laugh’.
A laugh that bursts out when one is unable to hold back a laugh in a situation where it is most inappropriate to laugh or smile.
A wry smile.
Literally, a bitter smile.
This is when one laughs softly or smiles in an embarrassed way having made a mistake or having done something awkward.
にやりと笑う ＜Niyari to Warau＞
ニヤニヤと笑う ＜NiyaNiya to Warau＞
ゲラゲラと笑う ＜GeraGera to Warau＞
To laugh in a loud voice without concern for others.
げらげら笑いのどん腹立て ＜GeraGera Warai no Donbaratate＞
Someone who suddenly goes from laughing joyfully to being angry all in a split second, or someone who emotionally unstable and filled with a wide variety of uncontrolled emotions.
笑う顔に矢立たず ＜Warau Kao ni Ya Tatazu ＞
Meaning if someone meets you with a smiling face your feeling of
animosity and hatred will nature drop away.
Literally means an arrow can not stay standing up on a laughing face.
笑う門には福来る ＜Warau Kado ni ha Fuku Kitaru＞
Happiness comes to those who are happy and cheerful.
笑って損した者なし ＜Waratte Son Shita Mono Nashi＞
No one has ever lost by laughing.