I came across to this sentence:

The Japanese say you have three faces. The first face, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends, and your family. The third face, you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are.

I would like to know what is the actual word in Japanese? is it true?

  • 5
    I do not think there is a Japanese proverb corresponding to the paragraph you posted. Oct 7, 2014 at 8:22
  • 9
    For some reason, Internet is full of "Japanese proverbs" that I never have heard in Japan.
    – user4032
    Oct 7, 2014 at 9:59
  • I've heard something like this from a Japanese acquaintance who did a PhD in the US in reference to problems with clinical psychology for contemporary Japanese. But it was not a proverb, so much as a conclusion of a 21st century research study.
    – virmaior
    Oct 7, 2014 at 11:24
  • I read about this axiom years before there was ever even an Internet. I don't recall where, but it certainly wasn't on some Twitter feed or the like. It's perhaps related to the notions of 建前 vs. 本音, but not exactly.
    – Robusto
    Oct 7, 2014 at 11:34
  • 2
    We say sometimes 彼は二つの顔を持っている for a person with double personality like a saint and beast. But I’ve never heard of the expressions like three, four, five, or more faces. It’s not at least an established turn of phrase. – Robusto-san. Nice to meet you. I enlisted in this site since the end of the last year. I found It very much interesting to see Japanese language from westerners' point of view. Mar 1, 2016 at 0:25

5 Answers 5


「顔」 itself has a metaphorical meaning just as described in that paragraph. One can have more than one face in phrases/sentences like these:

表の顔と裏の顔 (lit. "front face and back face". The face you show to the world, and your inner side.)

彼は別の顔を持っている (lit. "He has another face". He has a secret hobby, or he is famous in two different fields, or he is a spy sent from an enemy, ...)

アマゾンはクラウド企業としての顔も有している。 (lit. "Amazon also has a face as a cloud company.")

I think I occasionally see expressions like "女は2つの顔を持つ (Women are two-faced)" in Japanese literature. However, having more than two faces is rare, and I can't think of the Japanese proverb that exactly matches "Every person has three faces".

  • Another one would be 本音と建前. I too never heard of phrases that talks about three faces. May 25, 2016 at 13:08

It's actually an observation of the Japanese people written by a Jesuit missionary:

"[The Japanese people] are so crafty in their hearts that nobody can understand them. Whence it is said that they have three hearts: a false one in their mouths for all the world to see, another within their breasts only for their friends, and the third in the depths of their hearts, reserved for themselves alone and never manifested to anybody."

From História da Igreja do Japão vol I pg 173, written by Father João Rodrigues, SJ.

  • 2
    Great find! So it was already hearsay in the 16th century... Still not clear if a corresponding Japanese proverb ever existed, though =)
    – Earthliŋ
    May 24, 2016 at 14:59

This line of thought probably comes from James Calvell's 1975 novel Shogun: “It's a saying they have, that a man has a false heart in his mouth for the world to see, another in his breast to show to his special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, the secret one, which is never known to anyone except to himself alone, hidden only God knows where.”

And in another place: The Japanese have six faces and three hearts, writes Clavell. A deceitful heart in their mouth to show in public; another heart in their chest that only friends and family get to know; and at last their real heart that nobody knows and that remains hidden in an undisclosed location.

I am sure he based this statement on his research as he wrote the novel, but this is really the only reference I have found on the subject.

  • "six faces and three hearts" -- maybe he got the idea from 六面八臂, 七面六臂, 八面六臂, . . . (faces and arms)
    – HizHa
    Sep 15, 2016 at 18:14

I don't think it is a Japanese proverb, but it is very reminiscent of T.S.Eliot's poem 'The Naming of Cats,' perhaps that's where this idea originally comes from?

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified...
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum—
Names that never belong to more than one cat...
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.


the word for what you're looking is Honne and tatemae

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