This article contains spoilers for Persona 5
One of the key themes explored in Persona 5 is that of identity. Who are you behind all of society’s expectations of who you are? It starts with your character, Joker.
Joker is a new student at Shujin Academy, with a criminal record for assault. As to be expected rumours spin around your character about what kind of villain he is, after all, he is on probation and was expelled from his last school. He is outcast from those around him before he even has a chance to make an impression.
But the truth is that Joker tried to stop a man from sexually assaulting a woman who was calling for help. The man was particularly powerful and wealthy and scared the woman into making a statement against Joker. Thus Joker starts the game criminalised for doing the right thing when everyone else looked the other way.
The first friend Joker makes is Ryuji, a fellow outcast from the school after getting in a fight with the gym teacher who ran the running club. Again Ryuji is outcast for being a thug, but society does not understand the reality of the situation; that Kamoshida the gym teacher is an abusive letch, who physically beats his students for not performing. Ryuji fought back against this abuse and was firmly beaten by the adult Kamoshida, who broke Ryuji’s leg in the process, permanently ending Ryuji’s promising future as a star athlete. No one knows the truth, everyone believes the teacher, because he is the one to be trusted.
The disparity between truth and society’s perception and the divide between the inner self and outer expectations is a key part of Japanese culture, which is described in Japan as ‘honne’ and ‘tatemae’.
Honne and Tatemae
Honne are the true feelings that someone has. The word translates to “true sound” and what honne is, is the true sound of someone’s heart. In Japanese culture, one’s honne is kept well hidden, never shown in society, and only shared with one’s closest confidants.
This is contrasted with Tatemae, which is what is society expects of you. Tatemae translates to “built in front” or “façade” and this is what you allow everyone in society to see. Your honne is always hidden behind your tatemae.
Social scientists have studied the phenomenon of honne and tatemae as being linked to Japan’s high population density, and the perception of incredible politeness and decorum that is noted in Japanese culture.
Everyone lives in such close proximity, it is important that people get along and cooperate with each other, so the idea behind honne and tatemae is that you set aside your wants and desires for the betterment of the whole. A place for everyone and everyone in their place.
When this societal construct works it results in a polite society where arguments should not happen over trivial matters and respect is shown to everyone by everyone. People know how to treat others and how they will be treated in return and so the status quo should be respected for mutual benefit, regardless of personal feelings to the contrary.
But humans are rarely perfect.
But what happens when everyone is expected to be polite and respectful and someone with power uses these expectations to abuse others?
This is a question that is asked globally in our world, and this is the power dynamic that Persona 5 explores.
Unlocking your Persona
In Persona 5 your characters are supported in combat by personas, manifestations of who they are in their hearts. To unlock their persona a character is driven to desperation. A point where they must fight or die. And as they reach a point of desperation and choose to live, they tear off masks that they wear in the metaverse, which are connected to their face. It is painful and bloody, but in tearing off their mask they free their persona.
A symbolic embodiment of the conflict of tatemae and honne. Tatemae the mask that is worn, but when someone comes who can take advantage of tatemae, one’s honne presses against tatemae, a cry for rebellion. Rebellion against social expectations. Rebellion against social norms. Rebellion against how things are.
When others use societal expectation to crush you, survival comes when self is placed before societal expectation.
Persona 5 uses imagery to give voice to the very real struggle that people face in our world.
The #metoo movement is born from this conflict. A societal expectation existed that certain kinds of behaviour happened in professional environments between men and women, particularly because powerful men could ruin the careers and lives of those women whom they have targeted. But the hearts of women who have been wronged push against this societal expectation and power dynamic. #metoo was born from the rebellious honne, taking supremacy over tatemae.
From this rebellion, a new societal expectation can be built. One that could not have existed if not for those who chose to forsake their social standing and image for the drive of their hearts.
So is tatemae something wrong and to be avoided? No. Life in a community is all about balance. When everyone focuses on self-interest, it leads to people not helping others and leads to a breakdown of community. It is not a surprise that in the western world, which touts individuality, that depression and isolation, particularly in big cities, are the key mental health issues of our time. Neither should a blind eye be turned to injustice simply for the sake of societal appearances because that is what gives strength to those individuals who use their societal position to abuse those around them.
Unfortunately, I do not have the five-point-plan to achieve this balance, as it comes from the individual choices that people in the community have to make for themselves. No doubt if we managed to get this perfect we would resolve the largest sum of our societal issues.
In the meantime, I am going to continue enjoying Persona 5’s exploration of these issues.