Omote (the public face) and ura (the private face) are twin concepts that are applied to almost any aspect of Japan or life in Japan.
Omote refers to the image which an individual, a company, or any institution wishes to present to outsiders or the public in general. As with any image, omote is composed of a mixture of reality, myth, and lie. A building dating back 50 or 60 years which has been given a new facade is a good example: the facade is typically ultra-modern and designed with attention to creating a positive image in the eye of the beholder, but the building inside is quite the opposite. Similarly, the Liberal-Democratic Party frequently makes statements about party unity regarding an issue, but behind that is a high level of disagreement among the party’s various factions.
Ura is the opposite of omote. It is the reality behind the omote image with the myth and lies of the image stripped away. Ura is the old, dark, falling-down building behind the facade, the factional wrangling behind closed doors, the tensions between parents and children, or the mawkish and emotional outpourings of a drunk on a late night commuter train. Ura is usually covered up by omote; when it is suddenly exposed, there is great damage or embarrassment or both because the unreality of the omote is revealed for all to see.
The terms and concept are widely applied. Omote Nihon and Ura Nihon are terms sometimes used to refer to the advanced Pacific Ocean side of Japan (the public side which outsiders see) and the Japan Sea side which is less populated and underdeveloped (the private side of Japan which supposedly no one wants exposed to outside scrutiny). In the feudal period, land granted to retainers was assessed as yielding a particular amount of wealth. This was sometimes called the omotedaka or public assessment, but increases in productivity and additional land brought under cultivation often pushed the real yield far higher, making the retainer wealthier and, potentially, more powerful than he nominally was. Villages in the feudal period were left to run their internal affairs themselves without interference by the government. The villagers would present a public face of unity and order to outsiders, perhaps masking severe internal tensions, even violence, but it was important to maintain the omote for the alternative was to have the government send a flock of officials and samurai to sort the situation out. That would only lead to more trouble.
While the concept of omote might be criticized on the grounds that it permits the living of lies, there are some benefits. For example, a great deal more care than in most North American cities is given to keeping an upbeat shopfront and the surrounding area clean. Individuals and entire neighborhoods rely on themselves to reach for the highest standards possible and this helps keep the urban environment pleasant. At the same time, it puts immense pressure to conform on any individual who might prefer to let things slide but dare not for fear of being different.
Etiquette is an area where the concepts of omote and ura can be applied to advantage. Etiquette, or manners, are omote: the public face which the individual puts forth. It is extremely important for Japanese to be able to behave in conformity with society’s expectations. Thus, a young man or woman must use deferential patterns of speech and behavior toward older people or people in superior positions. With the democratization of the post-1945 period has come a softening in the distinctions which were once required. Many complaints are heard, therefore, that the younger generation does not know how to behave properly. The omote side of etiquette is slipping.
For the ura side of etiquette, the home might be the best example. Because the home is ura, individuals at home can relax and become much more informal. Clothing and speech both relax and food is usually ordinary fare rather than formal. However, the division of omote and ura is not absolute even here. A family at home may be more relaxed in behavior than when it is in public, but a young brother is still careful to call his elder sister by that name and everyone is polite to the father although in an informal manner.
Etiquette is a complex topic because distinctions are finely drawn in Japanese society. I is a simple word in English, but in Japanese, at least sixteen different words can be used and each has a different implication regarding the relationship between the speaker and listeners. Choosing the wrong word will insult someone who holds the distinctions to be important.