Face Situations in Contemporary Japan (A Qualitative Research)



Self-esteem seems to play a significant role in one’s quality of life. A key factor positively influencing self-esteem is the possibility to freely choose one’s relationships. Japanese tend to report comparatively low self-esteem levels, what may be due to modesty considerations though too. The prevalent East Asian concept of ‘face’ reflects one’s evaluation of how the self is seen by others, while the concept of self-esteem represents the own notion of the self. This article did qualitatively investigate what current and emerging situations in Japan are that require (new) responses from Japanese to maintain their face and to positively cultivate self-esteem. The interviews conducted revealed that losing face seems to involve a shame creating publication of a person’s inadequacy to meet social expectations that are formally or informally agreed respectively ingrained in the culture. Participants expressed some difficulties even for Japanese to interpret what in a particular relationship would be considered common sense and what adequate communication styles are. Social status and seniority are increasing one’s face value. Such value can be lent to others in the form of shared reputation and trust. The concept of face, rather than about self-esteem, seems to be about the maintenance or increase of social relational value. In conclusion, the learning and application of well adaptive communication and coping styles are required to successfully manage mixed low and high contexts in changing private and workplace situations in Japan.

Broader issue

Self-esteem in Western culture is considered to be a universal concept that is influencing a diverse range of societal problems such as sexual slavery, youth misconduct, and weak academic performance (Brown, 2010). Also, high self-esteem can be related to greater happiness (Sato & Yuki, 2014).  Mitsui et al. (2014) found in their study that young Japanese adults with an unmedicated major depressive disorder and suicide ideation hold lower levels of self-esteem than those without suicide risk. Support for the relationship between self-esteem and happiness is given also by Mitsui et al. (2014) who state that self-esteem seems to play a significant role in one’s quality of life (Mitsui et al., 2014) why the understanding of the factors influencing self-esteem is essential and leads to the problem addressed by the current research.

Specific problematic

According to Sato and Yuki (2014), Japanese society is experiencing heightened divorce and job change rates, which is expected to create the conditions for more possibilities to choose more freely one’s relationships, what in turn may positively influence self-esteem and happiness. However, Ogihara, Uchida, and Kusumi (2016) report that self-esteem in Japan deteriorated over the past years, although they also expected to see an increase in self-esteem related to tendencies of growing individualism in Japan. Developing individualism is positively correlated to enhanced self-esteem in the United States, but not in Japan (Ogihara et al., 2016). Regarding the comparison of self-esteem across cultures, Japanese tendentially explicitly report more modestly self-esteem to meet social expectations of not appearing arrogant, although it was found that their implicit self-esteem might be similar to that of Americans. When there are changed societal norms, maintaining traditional standards may not serve social integration anymore (Du & Jonas, 2015). Therefore, in the light of Japan’s transition towards a more globalized and individualistic society, people may have to develop new strategies to cope with new situations relevant to self-esteem.

Research and gap to be addressed

Lin and Yamaguchi (2011) state that the successful maintenance of one’s face is positively impacting one’s self-esteem, while the predominantly East Asian concept of ‘face’ reflects one’s evaluation of how the self is seen by others and the concept of self-esteem represents the own notion of the self. Boiger, Güngör, Karasawa, and Mesquita (2014) proposed that both anger and shame situations are related to honor, but that only shame is relevant for the concept of face. Further research in the culturally influenced emotional context is suggested to examine in more detail face-relevance of specific situations (Boiger et al., 2014).  When Lin and Yamaguchi (2011) found that the individuals with comparatively more self-esteem did not experience the same increase in happiness from successful maintenance of their face as study participants with rather average self-esteem, they did unfortunately not ask for details around the face events the participants referred to in their reporting. An additional research gap indication related to cross-cultural studies in rejection avoidance, comes from Hashimoto and Yamagishi (2013) who mentioned the possible enhancement of their related newly developed rejection avoidance scale.  The question that, to my knowledge, remains is whether more Western context in Japan would involve other threats and require different face-strategies to avoid the loss of face from Japanese citizens.

Although the aforementioned recent research regarding self-esteem and face in Japan illuminates important findings, I have found no research that has examined in greater depth daily face relevant and possibly new situations in a fast changing society in which people may struggle to adjust (Ogihara et al., 2016). Given such, further research is warranted that could examine why what situations are face-relevant to help to understand the documented problem of decreasing self-esteem in Japan (Ogihara et al., 2016).

Method, design, and purpose

The purpose of this qualitative study performed using semi-structured interviews is to seek to expand on the different types of situations of Japanese individuals in their contemporary daily changing social contexts and will try to understand in more depth how and why these are influencing their strategies and success of maintaining their face and self-esteem. The purpose of this study is to derive, as possible and appropriate, an actualized understanding of the concept of face that influences the daily private and professional life of Japanese women and men and last but not least their personal mental well-being too.

Research question

What are current and emerging situations in Japan that require (new) responses from Japanese to maintain their face and to positively cultivate self-esteem?



Figure 1 Normological conception of face situations

The interviews illustrated how contemporary face situations in Japan can be described as formal and informal Communications between Actors in diverse relationships who are exposed to Social Agreements. Face relevance exists when a situation is threatening an Actor’s Social Assets and the public perception of his established Social Face Value. Other Actors’ conflicting or misunderstood Personal Interests or own Face Maintenance Strategies that are not meeting Social Agreements can be reasons for face relevant (risky) situations. Through a  lending and borrowing mechanism of Social Assets and Social Face Value as well as the sharing of Personal Interests, Actors can increase their own Personal Face Value, Social Assets, and Social Face Value and by doing so reduce their vulnerability for Face Costs (losing face). Socio-economic Changes/Trends, especially internationalization / globalization of private and workplace relationships are continuing to impact Face Maintenance Strategies in Japan. The interviews indicated that there is potential to positively influence Personal Well-being Factors for the Actors who learn to situationally apply the appropriate Face Maintenance Strategies to respond to the contemporary situations in Japan, including progressing Changes / Trends.


The nomological conception of face and its interactions in daily situations in Japan is an attempt to further shed light on possible behavioral mechanisms involved in the maintenance of face and its effect on self-esteem. As Lin and Yamaguchi (2011) depicted, the collectivist society’s view of face includes the judgment of others what was confirmed by the interview participants’ examples. They described losing face with feelings of shame, feelings of loss of reputation (e.g., related to one’s professional capabilities), as well as with feelings of having missed meeting social expectations that result in damage to trust (e.g., related to communication with a befriended competitor). Losing face seems to involve the publication of a person’s inadequacy to meet social expectations that are formally or informally agreed respectively ingrained in the culture. Guilt on the other side can be understood as concerning not the whole person’s identity, but only a particular action that is negatively assessed (Furukawa, Tangney, & Higashibara, 2012). The relationship between face and honor was not deepened in the interviews due to the expected proximity of the concepts of honor and shame as related to face and therefore has to be followed-up in future research.

Although Japan represents a collectivist society, and the culture teaches how to communicate in a high-context environment where one needs to be able to ‘read between the lines,’ the interviews conveyed the following impression. Even for Japanese, it’s hard to interpret what in a particular relationship would be considered common sense, what questions would be allowed to be asked, and by what means (if not uttered in words) the communication should occur. There’s an obligation for the person with lower status, let’s say the subordinate employee, to investigate the superior’s wishes, in a way though that is not questioning the charge received. If a superior publicly doesn’t know the answer to a question, he might face the risk of losing face.  Also, Japanese may not have less personal ideas and motivation to bring up their opinion to create added value, which also is not explicitly discouraged by society. However, instead of risking to create a face threatening situation, rather than to enter into investigations, different solutions would be produced in addition to the original request to ‘silently’ suggest one’s own suggestions too. Such practices can result in massive inefficiencies, and with a background of shame, confidence in oneself and others does decrease (Velotti, Garofalo, Bottazzi, & Caretti, 2017). One interviewee reported the phenomenon of ‘double solutions’ as “just troublesome.” Another interviewer was able to see it, in his case at the example of having to take blame for saving another person’s face, differently:

“I understand there’s a bit of a game here … a game of roles. If I don’t take it personally, then I know it is part of a situation … as you say, in the longer run it will benefit me. Probably I don’t feel so well in the moment, but I can take that. I got the capacity to deal with that situation.”

Indeed, Brown (2013) found that self-ambivalence, in contrary to America, is a mental capacity in Japan that doesn’t necessarily lead to psychological distress, especially for people with high self-esteem. The participant cited before, in fact, reported a clearly above average self-esteem and subjective well-being. According to the interviews conducted, this study found that high self-esteem might be related to low vulnerability of one’s face. As the results have shown, one’s relative social status and seniority are protective of face threats. Although these are factors increasing the value of face, face value can be lent to others in the form of shared reputation and trust. That is why significant faces might be less likely attacked respectively are respected so much thanks to their powerful social position. Indeed, as the interviews suggest, being eligible to borrow good will and reputation from a high-valued face in exchange for its protection may strengthen one’s influence. This research could confirm and exemplify the general view that cultures relying on social interdependency care more about others’ faces (Lin & Yamaguchi, 2011), especially about important ones.  Rather than about self-esteem, it is about the increase of social relational value (Nakashima, Yanagisawa, & Ura, 2013) by giving credit to others who can reflect positively on one’s self-image (Du & Jonas, 2015).

For example, there are changes in the traditional role of women in Japan, trending towards more autonomy, include higher leadership positions with decision power. More egalitarian situations, as found, in this case, in an international flat-hierarchy and praising working environment, are supporting the gain of higher self-esteem and well-being that were welcomed by the Japanese person interviewed. However, the interviewee also admitted that to adapt from a traditional setting to a less face sensitive one requires a learning process and sensibility to deal with a potentially increasingly multi-cultural challenge. In particular, well adaptive communication styles are required to successfully manage mixed low and high context situations. Japanese with experience abroad and in international environments are best equipped to protect and assert oneself at the same time in both more and less face relevant situations in private life and at work.




Q1. What are everyday situations in which your face is threatened?

  1. When do you comply with social expectations although you don’t necessarily want to?

A1. How does it affect your self-esteem?

  1. When don’t you comply with social expectations risking what kind of consequences?

B1. How does it affect your self-esteem?

Q2. Can you recall situations where you struggle(d) to clearly recognize whether it was face relevant or not?

  1. What do you consider to be critical criterion for whether a situation is face relevant or not?

Q3. In what situations do you feel to be different than your social environment?

  1. Why? (what causes the self-ambiguity)
  2. How did you feel about? (attitude)
  3. How did you react? (behavior)

Q4. Does your daily life require rather working harder on your relationships or your competencies?

  1. What are your most stressful relationship-related challenges?
  2. What are your most stressful task-related challenges?

Q5. How easily can you choose your (job) relationships, respectively how dependent on your current (employment) engagement do you feel?

  1. What would be consequences from a (career) change to your maintenance of face? To your self-esteem? To your happiness?

A1. How far do you attribute this to your personality or generally to Japanese?

A2. Imagine your self-esteem would be higher/lower. How would you then perceive the situation differently? How important is self-esteem for you to cope with stress?

Q6. How would you evaluate your level of self-esteem compared to other Japanese in your environment? How compared to foreigners?

  1. Why is that so? What are situations that are enhancing/lowering your self-esteem?

Q7. What are situations that are shameful for you? (face-relevant)

  1. Why?
  2. Changes over time?

Q8. What situations (would) cause your feelings of guilt? (Japan is rather a shame than guilt culture)

  1. Why?
  2. Changes over time?

Q9. What situations make you proud of yourself? (self-esteem)

  1. Why?
  2. Changes over time?

Q10. Do you remember situations where other persons were (at risk of) losing their face?

  1. How did you feel about? (attitude)
  2. How did you react? (behavior)



According to the research question targeting Japanese living in Japan and scoping any everyday situations related to potential face maintenance, both interviewees are Japanese who live and work in Japan. By selecting participants who are, however, somewhat contrasting regarding their private and professional environment, qualitative data shall be gathered for identifying and understanding emerging and new face situations and situations relevant for self-esteem from different contexts. A female and a male person of similar age (around forty to forty-five) have been chosen in order to potentially further broaden the scope to situations that may be specific to one or the other gender.

Participant P1:            Male / 47 years / living outside of Tokyo / divorced with Japanese / children / never travelled abroad / domestic work environment / non-manager position, freelancer / mainly Japanese private environment

Participant P2:            Female / 39 years / living central Tokyo / married with foreigner / children / international work environment / manager position / mixed Japanese and foreign private environment


The selection of interview participants was a combination of creating a mix of participants and convenience. The interviews have been conducted in neutral places such as restaurants. The relationships with the interviewer are considered as unbiased. Semi-structured interview questions were used. The formulations could vary between the different interviews in order to adapt to the style and language skills of the participant.

The questions are semi-structured, allowing for open-ended answers. Primary (1 – 10) and related secondary questions (A, B, etc.) are used to respond to the plan for a participant and answer specific more detailed data collection. The secondary questions may be used, skipped or extended as appropriate in the flow of the interview. (See Appendix A)

English wasn’t the native language of the interview participants, but all participants were able to express their ideas accurately enough to be captured for data analysis. The transcription was performed based on audio records.

Transcriptions and analysis

Both interviewer’s and participants’ conversational English created a somewhat poor readability of the transcriptions, why selected interview segments have been paraphrased. By doing so, it was also a first harmonization of the coding wording, which facilitated the subsequent generation of codes.


Table 1 Themes and Codes

CommunicationCommunicate, apology, obedience, solution, explanation, without mentioning, unmentioned, question, without words, express, unexpressed, interpersonal, person-to-person, (taking it) personal, giving advise
ActorsYoung, inferior, operational level guy, elder, older person, superior, manager, supporter, others, other people, ally, third party, colleagues, wife, husband, marriage, important person, advisor, public
Social AssetsReputation, trust
Social AgreementsCommon sense, understanding, mis-/understood, un-/accepted, contract, harmony, dis-/ respect, upset, anger, same, difference, different, indifference, ignorance, rejection, blame, obedience, expectation, not clear, secret, point of view, rules
Personal InterestsJudgment, decision, decide, opinion, feeling/being forced, choose, choice, way of thinking, thinking without thinking, personality
Face CostsShame, ashamed, feel bad, lose, lost, loss, feeling threatened, miss(ed), (publicly) exposed, damaged
Personal Face ValuePride, proud, exam, study, career, mistake, failure, knowledge, experience
Social Face ValueSeniority, status, position, hierarchy, religion, army, slave, power
Face Maintenance StrategiesStrategic, virtue, humble, modest, polite, (not) free, (not) direct, (not) open, equality, appraisal, flat, dependency, dependent, own, help, lend, borrow
Changes / TrendsChange, learned, international, intl., women, wife, Western, culture, abroad, overseas, traditional, typical, anonymous, flat hierarchy
Personal Well-being FactorsSelf-esteem, well-being, happiness, happy, feel good, feeling appreciated, appreciating, praised, troublesome



Boiger, M., Güngör, D., Karasawa, M., & Mesquita, B. (2014). Defending honour, keeping face: Interpersonal affordances of anger and shame in Turkey and Japan. Cognition & Emotion, 28(7), 1255-1269. doi:10.1080/02699931.2014.881324

Brown, R. (2010). Perceptions of psychological adjustment, achievement outcomes, and self-esteem in Japan and America. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41(1), 51-61. doi:10.1177/0022022109349507

Du, H., & Jonas, E. (2015). Being modest makes you feel bad: Effects of the modesty norm and mortality salience on self-esteem in a collectivistic culture. Scandinavian Journal Of Psychology, 56(1), 86-98. doi:10.1111/sjop.12175

Furukawa, E., Tangney, J., & Higashibara, F. (2012). Cross-cultural Continuities and Discontinuities in Shame, Guilt, and Pride: A Study of Children Residing in Japan, Korea and the USA. Self & Identity, 11(1), 90-113. doi:10.1080/15298868.2010.512748

Hashimoto, H., & Yamagishi, T. (2013). Two faces of interdependence: Harmony seeking and rejection avoidance. Asian Journal Of Social Psychology, 16(2), 142-151. doi:10.1111/ajsp.12022

Lin, C., & Yamaguchi, S. (2011). Effects of face experience on emotions and self-esteem in Japanese culture. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 41(4), 446-455. doi:10.1002/ejsp.817

Mitsui, N., Asakura, S., Shimizu, Y., Fujii, Y., Toyomaki, A., Kako, Y., & … Kusumi, I. (2014). The association between suicide risk and self-esteem in Japanese university students with major depressive episodes of major depressive disorder. Neuropsychiatric Disease & Treatment, 10811-816. doi:10.2147/NDT.S59349

Moriizumi, S. (2009). Face Concerns and Requests in Japan: Exploring the Effects of Relational Closeness and Social Status. Journal Of Intercultural Communication Research, 38(3), 149-174. doi:10.1080/17475759.2009.505062

Nakashima, K., Yanagisawa, K., & Ura, M. (2013). Dissimilar effects of task-relevant and interpersonal threat on independentinterdependent self-construal in individuals with high self-esteem. Asian Journal Of Social Psychology, 16(1), 50-59.

Ogihara, Y. )., Uchida, Y. )., & Kusumi, T. ). (2016). Losing Confidence Over Time: Temporal Changes in Self-Esteem Among Older Children and Early Adolescents in Japan, 1999-2006. SAGE Open, 6(3), doi:10.1177/2158244016666606

Sato, K., & Yuki, M. (2014). The association between self-esteem and happiness differs in relationally mobile vs. stable interpersonal contexts. Frontiers In Psychology,

Velotti, P., Garofalo, C., Bottazzi, F., & Caretti, V. (2017). Faces of Shame: Implications for Self-Esteem, Emotion Regulation, Aggression, and Well-Being. Journal Of Psychology, 151(2), 171-184.

  • Do you know of any western nations who have done this type of research? Might explain the appearance of the face saving rather than admitting “it was the wrong thing to do”.

    • Hi Dennis. Thanks for your interaction and good question. I think you are basically right, but I try to depict very specifically the concept of “face” as predominant in Eastern cultures. However, “face” is indeed considered to be a somewhat universal concept and Westerners and Asian people are concerned about their “face”. The resources I’ve used in my article often compare the two cultures. There are specific studies of face in the US for example too (e.g., Zane and Yeh (2002)). The Western notion of face may be more concerned about the individual ego, what would fit your example of not wanting to admit a mistake. Overall it looks like face in collectivist (Eastern) cultures such as Japan is mainly worried about peoples’ social hierarchical status and therefore is of even more significance than the more independently egocentric view of face in Western countries. The phenomenon of admitting or not admitting a mistake in Western societies may involve some other mechanism than the maintenance of face too, such as e.g., critical thinking and narcissism. Thank you, Dennis, and all the best!

      • Very interesting again Mathias.
        Here in Germany it seems that people are worried about the social hierarchical status in combination with egocentric views. The first time someone said to me ‘it’s because they are workers (ach, das sind Arbeiter) I was really in shock.
        From my husband I learned that their are colleagues who responded to the amount of bonus they are going to receive this year (and it is ridiculously high this year) ‘hm, now I can’t buy my third car, or go on a second holiday’….Shocked all over again.
        Although, it shouldn’t surprise me, it still does, every single time.

      • Hi Patty. I like your reasonable down to earth view. Thank you for sharing it. It’s really a source of misery that it is never enough, that some seem to be never satisfied, and complaining on such a high level. And it is an affront towards people who just don’t have the same opportunities and wealth although they are working as hard as everybody does.

      • Yes, I do agree it should be more leveled out (is that the right term?), although I still also believe there should be some kind of hierarchy when it comes to salary too, because I feel nobody would want to work anymore 😉

      • I always hear that people are doing their jobs because they really like what they do:-)… Yeah, I agree, there need to be incentives, incl. monetary ones. I think your “leveling” term makes sense! Thank you, Patty

      • How I wish people did their jobs, because they like it. Really, if you don’t like your job, find another one and stop complaining. We are going a bit off topic, but it really borders me, that people choose salary over ‘doing where their heart is’. Having written that, I must also write; every job has its ups and downs, and you need a certain amount of money to survive these days, but money should never be your main priority in finding/doing a job…well, in my humble opinion 😉

      • hahaha…grrrrrrrrr….hahaha
        Thanks Mathias. But now, what can we do to alter people’s mindset? Keeping pointing out, educate, communicate…sometimes I feel it doesn’t seem to get ‘us’ anywhere…

      • Patty, you name it. We need to find ways to increase the relevance and reach of the education. Best is to have influence on policy level; that is really impacting society, and it to a big part about social learning …. Let’s continue blogging, that’s a good (first) step :-). Thank you Patty, it is really fruitful and joyful to discuss with you

      • I tell you, I was soooo relieved Wilders didn’t win the election in my home-country 🙂
        Yes, love connecting with you too. Have a wonderful weekend dear Mathias, XxX