Japanese saying – Uso mo Houben

April 27, 2014 Juju Kurihara Culture, Custom, Lifestyle, Vocabulary Tags: 14 Comments

This morning I was reading The Japan Times and an article caught my eyes. "Are Japanese just more honest about lying?Japanese people are known for hard workers, being serious and kind but apparently they lie a lot, ranked the fourth in the world. Very interesting.


When I was small, I had a classmate who lived relatively close to my house and my parents were friends of her parents. We often came home together. One day, she told me to come over to her house directly from school. I phoned home to ask permission. My father told me to tell her that I had a swimming class and couldn´t come to her house. I thought it was strange because I didn´t go to any swimming club back then. But my father insisted. So I did. In the same afternoon, her mother rang my father and told him that she didn´t know I started a swimming lesson and asked him which club I went. My father sort of blamed me for not having convinced my friend about the swimming class. At 6 years old, I faced to a dilemma. 

uso 3I grew up listening to adults telling me "Usotsuki wa dorobou no hajimari (ウソつきは泥棒の始まり)", means liars are the beginning of thief. It´s a common saying told to children in Japan that if they lie a lot in their early age, they can only become a thief (or a bad person) when they grow up. My father also told me that but on the other hand he encouraged me to lie, telling me, "Uso mo houben (ウソも方便)", means to carry out things smoothly, sometimes we need to lie. It´s a justification for a white lie. 


Smoothing the situation is somehow very important in the Japanese society. Japanese people constantly care about other people´s feeling and even the language is structured in that way. For example, Yes and No. In many European languages, yes and no are according to the fact. Your friend says, "it won´t rain today". You have seen a weather forecast or even you haven´t, if you think it won´t, you say to your friend, "No, it won´t rain today" and if you think it will, "Yes, it will rain today". 

But in Japanese, it´s not according to the fact but according to what the other person says. If you think it won´t rain, it means what your friend says is correct, therefore you say, "Yes, it won´t rain today" then if it will, "No (you are wrong)it will rain today". 

Perhaps this too much consideration for others makes Japanese people justify lying. People are more worried about making people upset or hurting them than thinking that lying is bad. And to avoid that tension, they lie.


uso 4

As soon as I moved to London, I worked in a primary school. There I learned the different concept toward "lying". Children would be really upset when other called them a liar. In Japan, it´s so common saying, "uso!" when you hear something that you can´t believe. Once at the beginning of learning English, I said, "that´s a lie" to an English friend. She got angry and told me that she wasn´t a liar. I didn´t know why she was so angry at first but then I had learned that the word "lie" in the western world is much heavier than in Japan. 


Another example. A German friend and her husband invited their Japanese friend for dinner. They made some German dish. German cuisine can be a little heavy comparing to the Japanese food. The Japanese guest seemed to be struggling. My frined asked the guest if she liked the food. She answered, "Possible eat". My friend and her husband got frozen. They looked at each other and tried to understand the meaning of this answer. Luckily they had been in Japan and had more understanding towards Japanese culture. They weren´t offended. But she said, "if she was a westerner, it´d be a quite rude response". 

Despite of her poor English, she was trying to be polite. Although it wasn´t her taste, she appreciated the effort of this German couple to prepare dinner for her. I assume that this Japanese girl didn´t like the food but it´s rude to say in Japan, so she only said, "possible eat" in a sense of "I can eat it". Now this story makes the German couple laugh and they even use this phrase as a joke. But my friend also said that she wondered why the Japanese girl couldn´t just be honest. 


Uso mo Houben, was this Japanese guest used in order to avoid hurting the German couple. But as a result, people think Japanese people are not honest. True, they are not honest to their own feelings either. This isn´t something they learn at school but this is how Japanese people tend to live. Maybe they don´t even feel they are lying and being ranked fourth to be liar is quite a surprise for them.  


You can read the article in The Japan Times from HERE 



More Japanese costum

Herbivorous boys

How do you say my wife in Japanese

The concept of kindness

Women agenda

Japanese mums and obento

Japanese girls´ bowlegs

Iyashi-kei girl

Service overtime work

Japanese women are too nice?

More about Japanese saying

Hitono furi mite waga furi naose

Saru mo ki kara ochiru

Karasu no gyouzui

Sumeba miyako

Atsusa samusa mo higan made

Japanese Karuta game

Neko no te mo karitai




  1. Don 7 years Reply

    I’ve dated many Japanese girls, and heres the main problem with Soto tatemae & uso mo hoben. They start believing in their own lies. Who are you going to trust when you can’t trust yourself.

  2. Jason 9 years Reply

    I get where you’re coming from in your post, and I don’t know how Japan comes up so high on the list from the lame Japanese show asking a whole 39 people, however it is extremely common in most western countries to use ‘white lies’ or in fact call it what it is ‘common courtesy’ in many exactly the same situations as you describe, from the ‘swimming excuse’ and especially when eating someones food you’re not enjoying that much – while the literal translation of ‘It’s possible to eat’ sounds silly, the common reply is the same; something like “Yes, it’s delicious” even when you don’t think so. “It’s lovely” and to hide your true feelings further a comment about something specific such as “the potatoes melt in your mouth” (even though that might be the worst part for you).

    Similarly “Uso” is embedded in English too, with some variations at least in common ways used in Japanese, such as “No way!” or “You’re joking?” or more likely where I come from “Bullshit!”.

    In that sense, the title from JT’s my Gattig “In a world of pretense, are Japanese just more honest about lying?” seems more like pandering to the Japanese reader & stimulating contention.

    Now Tatamae & Honne… and the shock of someone close behaving differently in front of others so extremely than the way they do in front of you – while this can and does happen in western countries, such people are at least unconcioulsy seen as untrustworthy, “two faced”.

    This Japanese vs. Western difference, more than these banal, normal and common across cultures scenarios, has the potential to break down relatinships between the two cultures.

  3. Syed Faraz Jamal Hussaini 9 years Reply

    very blunt remark – it takes a lot out of the one who try to answer it. any way let me try…

    theoretically speaking a Muslim can never be a liar? as according to my religion no … no way that i should ever lie and i will be out of islam and i will not know it, if i lie, yes i can be a great drunkard, a big womanizer, and a great thief, a big killer all our own, but if Muslim then i cannot be a liar… But we do lie – yes we do… talking about country, i live in Pakistan, and our people are the greatest liars that may exist in earth. its a famous saying in us pakistani you can be a good sufi but if you do not lie around soon you will be a absolute failure in life.

    Also we “swear” to prove i am not lying rather just explaining what had happened this is the first indication to know that i am actually lying on you.

    • juju.kurihara 9 years

      Thank you for the comment, Syed. I don´t think the religion matters, it´s a human nature to lie. Since the base of any religion is to be a good person, I don´t think there are religions that encourage us to lie. Yet we lie no matter what reason behind. I find it´s interesting the saying, “if you don´t lie around soon you will be a absolute failure in life”. It rings a bell. I´ve lived in a country where there was a sort of sense that if you are trully honest, you are stupid and people would take advantage of you. It was hard for me to live like that I personally but it´s a very interesting concept.

  4. Rayanne Stemmler 9 years Reply

    Very interesting article. Of course it’s common in the US (and Canada) to tell white lies to spare someone’s feelings but growing up we are encouraged to be honest and tell the truth. However, sometimes being completely honest will cause a person’s feelings to be hurt. It’s a tough dilemma. I also understand how difficult it is to teach children not to “lie” while at the same time teaching them to be sensitive to others’ feelings. I think the author may have a valid point regarding the fact that Japanese people may, in fact, just be more honest about lying.

    • juju.kurihara 9 years

      Telling a a lie is a human nature, so I heard. Even animals do in order to avoid a punishment. We are social animals and prefer certain harmony in the group. We wouldn´t dear tell a friend who is a bad cook that the food was terrible. We try to find some compliment but probably we won´t go next time or would invite to our place. This is a lie but why we have to insist to be so honest if we know we will hurt the person unnecessary. I agree with you, Stemmler san. Japanese may be more honest about lying and don´t get feel guilty about it. Is it not a little healthier?  

  5. Stephen Rowcliffe 9 years Reply

    The cultural context in Japan is such that it is more important to smooth the waters with socially acceptable white lies than to give the blunt truth.
    Having said that, in Australia (and elsewhere no doubt) these white lies are similarly used the smooth the waters between men and women. Eg., if your wife asked you “if you thought she looked fat in this dress”. Despite what you may actually truly believe, we all know there is only truly one acceptable answer…. Unless you like sleeping on the couch.

    • juju.kurihara 9 years

      Thank you for the comment, Stephen. Of course, people lie but any people to smooth the relationship between others, especially when you don´t want to hurt the person. But also it´s better to have your limit, isn´t it?

  6. Akiko 9 years Reply

    “Uso mo houben (嘘も方便)” means something like “the end justifies the means.” Houben is a Buddhist term and English (or perhaps Sanskrit?) translation of houben is upaya. I think you can understand the whole phrase better if you refer to the Wikipedia entry for this term: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upaya

    Uso mo houben isn’t usually used in a religious sense in our daily life but it’s used in situations where lying or stretching the truth can bring about a good result.

    • juju.kurihara 9 years

      Thank you Akiko san for explaining the meaning of Uso mo houben. So now, do you think Japanese lie a lot? 

  7. Simon 9 years Reply

    Japanese don’t tell lies, but is interpreted as such based on the common knowledge of the other party. This is done based on what is common in their own country and culture. Uso mo houben is something I’d call white lies.
    White lies, to my knowledge are told, anywhere you go. However the way how things are said is what makes the difference. E.g. Japanese people can react with ‘uso’ upon hearing something hard to believe, however in English people react with ‘no way’ or ‘unbelievable’ but won’t say ‘that’s a lie’ unless they want to accuse someone. Although in both cases unbelieve is the reaction, the words differ considerably.

    In the West telling a lie, and therefor calling someone a liar is a heavy accusation. The reason doesn’t lie in the Ten Commandments, but more in the notion a liar can’t be trusted.

    By the way as far as I know I don’t think Japanese like to be called usotsuki, just as much as Westerners don’t like to be called a liar.

  8. James Heron 9 years Reply

    I don’t think tatemae is technically a lie within a high context culture like Japan’s. But it is often and easily interpreted as dishonesty. Getting beyond the superficial, face-saving niceties to honne is one of the challenges of creating relationships with Japanese people and organizations. That is my understanding of things anyway.

    • juju.kurihara 9 years

      Hi James, thank you for the comment. I don´t think Japanese people consider tatemae as a lie. As long as two parties know this code, it works but of course when people come outside of Japan and don´t know it, that´s when this misunderstanding starts. My question is, do Japanese people need to adopt international code or people who come to Japan should learn Japanese code?

  9. Actually the story reminds me of a good friend of mine. He is a teacher of English conversation, who has taught many people and some of whom have found professional employments where English language skills are essential at work.

    But any way, not all students appreciate his teaching style because he is serious about what he does and when students study he applies equally quality education. Students who are serious about study will appreciate his teaching style and students who are not so serious about study do not appreciate his style.

    Because of his serious teaching style some students who are looking for mostly easy moments may decide to complain about his classes. However they are old enough to know not to say that they are “not serious enough for him,” but find some lame excuses to criticize him. His employers will find the criticisms disturbing and blame him for giving “mediocre” classes.

    When he heard the criticism for the first time he was shocked. Apparently similar experiences have continued to haunt him. He grew being depressed and began to distrust his Japanese students who actually “smiled at him in class.” He told me “they will smile at you when they see you, but stub you on the back when they do not see you.”

    My experience tells me that the Japanese people often feel awkward to give a 100% assessment when they are 100% happy with business services they receive. The psychology is that they assume there will be even better services that they are not witnessing yet. If so, they give the assessment of B, even if they are very happy with the service they receive.

    Back to the case of my friend, his employers should know the psychology of the Japanese people that they tend to avoid giving a full support to business services even if they are very happy with what they receive.

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