The Japanese concept of "Truth"

Hidden truths about karate.
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The Japanese concept of "Truth"

Postby HanshiClayton » Mon Dec 22, 2008 3:03 pm

Japanese senseis often lie to their students, especially about karate history. This is an excerpt from pages 31-33 of Shotokan's Secret, the First Edition [/i]exploring this topic. An expanded treatment begins on page 64 of Shotokan's Secret, Expanded Edition.

    As if karate history were not confusing enough, one eventually realizes that Japanese writers and karate masters enjoy a very special relationship with the truth. It confounds the naïve Western reader to discover that respected Japanese senseis casually conceal, distort or fabricate stories about karate’s historical origins for their own purposes. In Japanese culture this is the normal thing to do, and it would not occur to them to do otherwise. In Japan, the official story is more important than the actual truth. In fact, they consider the official story to be another kind of truth, even if the story is completely
    inaccurate and deliberately misleading. For a person to question the official story is shockingly rude. People who insist on digging for verifiable facts are derided as rikutsuppoi, or “reason freaks.”

    We can lay this philosophy at the feet of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the master of mind control. The Tokugawa edicts forced the Japanese people to adopt a double standard of truth. Every person had their private opinion, their secret honne, which was not safe to share even within the family. Instead, they all staunchly supported the official government story, the tatemae. It was the only safe thing to do in an era when a careless word could doom an entire family, or even a village.

    This distinction between honne and tatemae appears again and again in karate history, right down to the present day. Honne refers to a person’s true feelings, underlying motives, or the true facts of the case, and is written using the kanji for “true or real” plus the kanji that means “sound.” Tatemae means the cover story, and is written with kanji that mean “to build” and “in front.” In other words, tatemae is the screen we erect to hide the truth.

    For example, in 19th century Okinawa, the tatemae (official story) was that the Sho kings were in charge of the kingdom, and they reported only to the Emperor of China. The hidden honne (the real situation) was that the Satsuma overlords were secretly in control. The Sho kings didn’t make a move without Satsuma approval. That’s the difference between honne and tatemae.

    This curious relationship to the truth has an important corrolary: Japanese citizens are quite comfortable with information that is inconsistent, contradictory, ambiguous and incomplete. They’re used to it. Ambiguity is a major feature of the language itself. It’s normal. Contradictions cannot be investigated, because that would question the tatemae. Incomplete explanations cannot be researched and explained. Japanese citizens simply assume that they are being kept in the dark for a good reason that will be revealed to them, or not, in due course.

    For instance, Japanese authors seem quite comfortable with the jumble of disjointed, self-contradictory information they have assembled on the history of karate. They often repeat tatemae directly
    to their readers as if it were real history. Japanese karate students see nothing contradictory about learning and endlessly repeating katas whose purpose and meaning are unknown. The fact that their masters can’t explain the katas either doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Their world is not supposed to make sense, so contradictions and inconsistencies are irrelevant.

    As a Western scientist, I have a very different attitude toward the truth. As we go forward with this analysis, I’ll point out the pretense (tatemae) and the truth (honne) in many situations, beginning with the myth of karate’s ancient origins.

Be sure to read about The Three Standard Lies of Karate.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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