It’s all about the Mentsu メンツ baby

In America, it might be all about the Benjamins, but in Japan it’s all about the Mentsu メンツ. Mentsu, or Face for those of you not familiar with the concept, is very similar to what’s known as prestige or honor, or its downside, loss of face, which is akin to embarrassment or humiliation. In some Asian countries, it’s essential to protect and maintain face and avoid loss of face because it affects every facet of the quality of your life, including your status, power and influence among friends, family, co-workers, and the society at-large.

This giving, losing and taking of  Face is generally associated with Asian cultures, especially China, which is much less westernized than Japan and where face remains the number one motivation for doing most anything, or so I’m told by my friends of Chinese descent. In Japan, however, I think they have a watered down version of Face but still it has a very significant influence on the behavior of Japanese people, including, I theorize, their treatment of foreigners.

I for one refuse to build my whole life around the opinion of others, but I must say some of what I do and don’t do is definitely influenced by how it will affect my prestige. And though I’m apt to act a fool sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes without even realizing it, I do tend to avoid embarrassment. That is, if by avoiding it I’m not sacrificing the achievement of goals I’ve set for myself.

Now, how does this concept of face affect my life here? As you might imagine, it’s difficult to say definitively. But, I have hypothesized the following based on my experience over the course of the past 5 years (and I’d be curious to hear what some of the Ex-Pats here think about this):

Most japanese avoid drawing attention to themselves and the incumbent embarrassment of being in the spotlight. However, westerners in Japan, by virtue of their strangeness, intentionally or not, invariably attract attention in a way that most Japanese wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies. We embody embarrassment, we’re walking talking losses of face…something most japanese would jump in front of the next Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to avoid becoming.

Also, while being with foreigners can raise one’s prestige, for the presumption is that if you are with them then you can communicate in what the japanese deem to be the universal language, English (very prestigious in japan,) it can also have the undesirable effect of diminishing your prestige because you are seen as trying to stand out, not unlike a shameless, Mentsu-free foreigner. I’ve found that most Japanese feel foreigners have no concept of Mentsu, have no face to gain or lose, have no stake in Japanese society aside from their capacity to cause loss of face to the Japanese people they come in contact with…thus we are considered an anathema to most people here; and, in my opinion, will continue to be until the definition of Face changes.

The idea of Face dictates most Japanese interactions with foreigners, I believe. It has to. If you ever spend anytime with Japanese you will no doubt notice that they are in tuned with the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese people around them. Anytime a Japanese person speaks of his or her proclivities, the pronoun “We” is invariably used. I used to trip out on this “We” business. Who the hell was this “We”? This “We” is the strongest statement Japanese people make. It’ s a wall they’ve erected around their culture that cannot be scaled by foreigners (aside from other Asians engulfed in the culture). Sure, you can spray paint your name in graffiti on the wall (metaphorically speaking) and sometimes if you’re clever or lucky or come across a traitor in their midst (there are a few, male and female) you might steal a glimpse over the wall. But for the most part foreigners are perpetually barred.

And I suspect this wall was erected in part for the sake of Mentsu…In order to save face many Japanese will sacrifice much. And openness to and tolerance of foreigners, which serves little to no purpose to most Japanese, is an insignificant sacrifice most are willing to make.

Of course, this is only a theory.



16 Responses to “It’s all about the Mentsu メンツ baby”

  1. February 16, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    I think a lot of Japanese people feel that a non-Japanese person trying too hard to become assimilated is just plain weird. Of course, there are many levels of acceptance depending on things like how open-minded a person is, or what role the foreigner plays in Japanese society. Too many Japanese people are full of misconceptions about non-Japanese people, and westerners in general. Of course, this is true for most countries, but the way some Japanese verbalize their feelings that somehow non-Japanese just don’t possess certain human qualities, would be enough to make you want to slap the shyte out of them (some Japanese) if you didn’t pity them for their sheer ignorance. Too many become brainwashed by the xenophobia that is all too present in the education system here.

    Anyway, those who try too hard to fit in here are a bit (if not totally) weird in my book. And, those who get offended or hurt by the lack of willingness of some Japanese people to accept them, need to develop thicker skins or find another place to call home. I mean, let’s face it, from our western perspectives (and I’m admitting right here it’s a perspective thing), there’s a lot of silliness here that, at times, is un-fucking-believable. I’m sure the Japanese feel the same way about us and our home countries as well.

    • February 16, 2009 at 7:48 pm

      So friggin’ true!!!
      Thanks for the thoughtful response Billy!!!


  2. February 16, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    Your right on the money there Billy. A lot of silliness goes down here from time to time. Of course, the same thing can be said about the place I was born and raised.

  3. 4 yojinbo
    February 17, 2009 at 2:58 am

    Good post! My wife says it’s the wrong Kanji though.

    • February 17, 2009 at 6:10 am

      Does she happen to know the correct one? I’d be much obliged (-:
      Is she Japanese or Chinese? Sometimes they use different Kanji
      Thanks for the shout


  4. February 17, 2009 at 5:00 pm


    It is common to use メンツ in japan. It is my understanding that the kanji 『面子』 is not used. The term “otoko no mentsu 『男のメンツ」is a common term in japan.

    I think that you want to use “menmoku”『面目』. The kanji that you used is normally used when writing in Chinese.

    BTW, I will post this to Black Tokyo. It’s a very interesting post and I hope you get many comments.

    additional information: http://zokugo-dict.com/34me/ments.htm



    • February 17, 2009 at 10:41 pm

      Thanks Zurui san,

      I’ll update it immediately…don’t want to be passing along miss info (-;
      and thanks for the support as usual (-:


  5. 8
    February 17, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    I wrote a post on this post on my blog.
    Feel free to comment


  6. 9 LB
    February 18, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Without even trying to sound harsh, I can say that this is plain Orientalist/Nihonjinron claptrap. “Us” vs. “Them”, etc.

    Let me ask you, back home how often did you go out of your way to hang out with foreigners, or just people of a different color, who you had no common ground with or no connection with? I would be willing to bet your answer would be “about never”. Sure, if the person was a classmate, or co-worker, or on the same sports team as you… in other words, if there was a connection. Other than that, you’d ignore the guy, right? Is that “face”? No, it is the normal way people react. Japanese are no different in this regard. Talk to them in their language, get to know them, find that common ground, and you’re good to go. Same as anywhere else in the world. Sure, as a non-ethnic-Japanese your face makes you stand out – but you can spend all your time worrying and being self-conscious about that or you can just get on with your life.

    As for face/メンツ leading to “sacrifice” or 我慢, the whole concept is highly over-rated (and almost always over-rated by foreigners). Sure, to some extent or another at various times Japanese individuals go with the flow to preserve group harmony. Pretty much any group of people I have seen anywhere do this to some extent. If people didn’t, it would be a free-for-all and complete anarchy as everyone did whatever they wanted to whenever they wanted to. Putting the group ahead of yourself at times is completely normal human behavior. Japanese may be more prone to put a given group ahead of themselves, such as putting family ahead of self (what normal individual doesn’t?), or company ahead of self (again, this is inherently bad because…?), but it is their group. There is no “universal sense of face that constricts Japanese throughout all of Japanese society”. There are any number of groups, subgroups, classes, what-have-you, just as there are anywhere. You think when soon-to-be-ex Prime Minister Aso says “we” he’s including truck drivers and street cleaners in the same group as himself (or vice-versa)? Well, I can unequivocally state he is not. Just as I can unequivocally state that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” as an “all-embracing social phenomenon that permeates Japanese society” is an urban legend concocted by “old Japan hands” who were more interested in dissuading the rabble from coming over in an effort to keep “their Japan” pure, or else were intent on finding the Japan they imagined as opposed to the Japan that really is (the latter type of thinking is why I do not recommend reading Alex Kerr if you want to know what Japan is actually like).

    • February 18, 2009 at 11:41 am

      Well, maybe I was spoiled. Growing up in Brooklyn, every other person was a “foreigner” so to speak. I didn’t have to go out of my way. They weremy neighbors. I guess i was lucky. My circle of friends was a virtual UN delegation (Black (american) Jewish, Italian, every island in the carribean and country in latin America, etc) Yeah, NY is a special place that I totally took for granted until I came here. Maybe that’s why I’m a little more sensitive to what’s happening here than others. But my shell has toughened a bit as a result.

      I’m sure if people have not had exposure to and opportunity to “connect” with other races throughout their lives then their reaction would be one of “what’s the big deal? That’s how people are naturally” and what not. I just wasn’t brought up like that.

      Not to say that there weren’t racial issues including segregatin and discrimination in NY. Better believe there was, but there were also many examples of the melting pot America continues to strive to be. And I was fortunate enough to experience this NY as well.

      And if I gave the impression that I think japanese should go out of their way to make foreigners feel welcomed in their country, then it was just poor writing, because I truly think that if they could just manage to ignore me, or simply stare at me, or giggle, or talk about me behind my back in whispered tones, my life here would be improved 100 fold. All of the above I could handle. They’re just on some next level shit that really gets under the skin sometimes. So, no, I have not nor am I looking for, expecting, or hoping for a loving embrace. And btw, we’re all humans (I think) with feelings and what not…we all love our children and shiver when it’s cold and sweat when it’s sultry….how much common ground is needed?

      And, sorry if I made it seem as if I was fingering all Japanese. I tried my best to use words like “some” and “most”. Of course there are exceptions and I’ve been fortunate enough to have made acquaintances and friendships with some of these exceptional people, as I’m sure most gaikokujin here have. I was referring to the masses. The ones who make my, and I believe many others, experience here quite intolerable from time to time (to put it mildly) and I’m trying to get a fix on what motivates their behavior…Mentsu is connected, but by no means is it “the” reason.
      Thanks for taking the time to give a really thorough response


  7. 11 Andy
    February 18, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Many of the conversations I have had with a wide range of Japanese (coworkers..girlfriends, etc..) have touched on the subject of whether or not they view themselves as “typical” or not. I think this concept is rooted in whether they feel that they are conciously aware of how they modify their behavior in social interaction with others. Most of these people have lived outside of Japan, sometimes in more than one country, both eastern and western. Invariably, if I have the chance, I observe these people and it seems that the concept of “face” influences them far beyond their own awareness…. sometimes it creates a very distinct change in public behavior, sometimes in the office… all depends on the situation, with one huge exception. When going out drinking, all bets are off, you can be yourself, just don’t get physically aggressive, and all is normal the next day with no loss of “face”.

    • February 18, 2009 at 11:10 am

      Yeah, when drinking, it’s all good, I agree! (-:
      Alcohol and life in Japan are a good mix
      Thanks for the input Andy San


  8. 13 Yas
    February 18, 2009 at 11:34 am

    I just want to clarify that both katakana and kanji are used for the word 面子/メンツ mentsu in Japanese.
    It is just one of the words that are directly borrowed from Chinese recently, such as 麻雀/マージャン (mahjong) and 餃子/ギョーザ gyoza. For these words, both kanji and katakana transcriptions are correct and widely used in Japanese.

    • February 18, 2009 at 1:28 pm

      Thanks yas
      that clears things up a lot cuz I thought the kanji was used too.


  9. 15 LB
    February 18, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Loco, understood. I’ve been to Brooklyn, and yes, everyone there is a foreigner (except to other Brooklynites). 😉 NYC is a melting pot, but you still have to be part of their pot. As a “woodchuck” passing through, I was no more welcome there than I was in rural North Kakalaki for being a born and raised Yankee, or than I was upon moving back up north and speaking with an acquired drawl. Or than I was moving to China and Japan and not knowing people or speaking the language. Folks are like that everywhere, even today, even in NYC. How many Italian/Puerto Rican couples you know? Probably not many. Not saying they don’t exist, but people stick to their own kind by and large.

    Now, try turning around what you wrote and I think you will see how silly it sounds:

    The idea of ego dictates the Americans interactions with foreigners, I believe. It has to. If you ever spend anytime with Americans you will no doubt notice that they are tuned out to the thoughts and feelings of the people around them. Anytime a American person speaks the pronoun “I” is invariably used. I used to trip out on this “I” business. Who the hell was this “I”? This “I” is the strongest statement American people make. It’ s a wall they’ve erected around themselves that cannot be scaled by foreigners. Sure, you can spray paint your name in graffiti on the walls, and sometimes if you’re clever or lucky or come across a traitor in their midst (there are a few, male and female) you might steal a glimpse over the wall. But for the most part foreigners are perpetually barred.

    And this wall was erected in part for the sake of ego…

    In order to save their egos many Americans will sacrifice much. And openness to and tolerance of foreigners, which serves little to no purpose to most Americans, is an insignificant sacrifice most are willing to make.

    Silly, isn’t it? Yet it is just as based in reality as the idea of “face” making Japanese shut foreigners out to “protect the Group Wa“. The truth is more along the lines of “He ain’t from around here, is he?”

    • February 18, 2009 at 9:44 pm

      LB, understood. But, bust the move, if your unwelcoming experience in Brooklyn included, but wasn’t limited to, people literally running from you, hiding their wallets, not coming near you, etc…then I submit that you only thought you were in Brooklyn, but were actually in Yokohama LMAO. But, seriously, if you experienced that in Brooklyn I’m shocked to hear it. And how the hell did they distinguish you from any other New Yorker on sight? Were you wearing a T-shirt saying “I ain’t from around these parts, so fuck all y’all!” If not, I really can’t imagine where you’re coming from with the “I wasn’t welcomed” business.

      As far as people sticking with their own, I feel ya. And about the Italian / PR love story, wasn’t that a Broadway musical? West Side Story? Sharks versus the Jets… LMAO! But, I get your point and it’s entirely valid. The Mentsu thing was just a theory I was pitching. Thanks for informing me of its oversights (-;

      And about the ego of Americans…I don’t know about that. Yeah, changing that paragraph to “I” and “American” is silly, and inaccurate…I can’t speak for all Americans but I am definitely not tuned out to the thoughts and feelings of the people around me….never! Not here, not in NY…I wholeheartedly believe that you should treat people the way you expect or would like to be treated: respectfully. And I don’t use differences as an excuse not to do so…And I find it difficult to accept it as an excuse from others, whether Japanese or any other nationality. But I do, because I’m not home, I’m here, and here I’ve learned that I have to be a different me… As for the real me, any foreigner I come across in NY, regardless of where they hail from, and unless they treat me with disrespect, they can expect nothing but love-love from me.

      But maybe that’s why this theory came to me in the first place. I was just reflecting the disrespect spewed at me…Maybe it is little silly. But, don’t be mistaken. What I say is not motivated by ego so much as it’s motivated by my belief that All Men Are Created Equal and all that Jazz. Yes, being American, and growing up in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and having lived through the rain of human ashes from 9/11 and the resulting ignorance and xenophobia, racism and hatred, makes living here that much harder, but I’m living and learning and loving again and I thank God for that!

      Thanks again for the feedback dude! You are righteous and replete with truthiness (-;


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