Tatemae (pronounced ‘Ta-teh-MAE’): official, public, socially required reality
Honne (pronounced ‘HON-neh’): informal, personal reality in disregard of social parameters
For people with a more Western social upbringing this is a strange thing, since when asked which of the two ‘modes of honesty’ is more ‘real’, they are inclined to say the honne side of things should prevail for it is morally right. But morals are sometimes for forming social proceedings. Furthermore, since the dawn of Western science and the disenchantment brought on by rationalism, the Western mindset does not allow for two realities to exist on an equal level. In Oriental philosophy there is far more room for multiple explanations of reality, be it in science, religion, or, as in this case, in everyday social life. For the Japanese, honne is not more real, only perhaps more true to the thoughts of a person. Yet because tatemae is what appears at the discernible surface of everyday life, it should be considered just as relevant to reality as honne. What one thinks is not what one does, and sometimes what one does is more important.
Another take on it:
3. Honne and Tatemae
There is the way things are and the way we’d like them to be. The reality and the facade. The real reason and the pretext. The substance and the form. Being direct and being diplomatic. And the truth and the white lie. In short, that is honne and tatemae, respectively. Since avoiding conflict and trouble is extremely important in Japan, using diplomatic language is often used rather than the direct stating something. Instead of directing saying “no,” your Japanese friends may say they have another commitment, even if they truly do not, or they may say that it is a little difficult, which means no, but is less straightforward. For your Japanese friend to reveal the honne takes time and trust. If you display love and trust, your relationships can go very deep, but again this takes time. Be patient.
From the blog, Summer Impact Japan 2009