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Why plain-speaking Nakasone upsets many Japanese

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Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is an old soldier with a liking for simplicity, straightforwardness, and military metaphors. A display of these traits in Washington recently won him many American friends, who are now eager to see how United States Secretary of State George Shultz fares on a visit to Tokyo this week.

But Mr. Nakasone's straight-talking worries many Japanese trained to be outspoken only in the safety of the home.

Conventional opinion in Washington and other Western capitals is that life would be a lot easier if only the Japanese would become more scrutable and reveal honestly what is on their mind.

Americans took to Mr. Nakasone as a refreshing change, but analysts here consider it dangerous to regard him as heralding a new era of Japanese plain-speaking.

According to one noted writer: ''Following others is a social obligation in the Japanese scheme of proper behavior, following oneself a psychological necessity, and following foreigners a national pastime.''

Most Japanese, of course, would not put it so bluntly. But they would admit to a reluctance to make hard-and-fast commitments (especially to more legalistically inclined Westerners) that might prove difficult to fulfill, leading to disappointment, embarrassment, and possibly friction in human relations.

It is permissible in Japan, therefore, to fudge the truth or even lie: to say different things to different people or at different times, to be deliberately vague and ambiguous - even if this only postpones the day of reckoning.

Japanese are accustomed to a difference between words and real intentions, summed up by two oft-used expressions: tatemaem (the way things are presented on the surface) and honne (the truth you know and feel).

Mr. Nakasone seems to have made a lot of people here uncomfortable by not following the old creed - by expressing his clear intent in unambiguous terms. His choice of words only added to domestic fears.


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