613 - 手前(てまえ)

Have you ever heard something like this:

"In Asian cultures, it is important not to do stupid things because you must save face."

...as though people don't have to worry about their reputations anywhere else in the world. Then again, I'm not an anthropologist, so there's a good chance I just don't know what I'm talking about.

In any case, our current lesson is about "saving face:"


JLPT N1: 手前(てまえ // because I did X, I have to do Y to save face

You can think of the word 手前 (てまえ) as meaning "one's standpoint."

We use it when describing the "place" that we've put ourselves in.

Specifically, 手前 is the place that we are stuck in (as a result of our own actions), which unfortunately means that we need to behave a certain way.

An example will help:


家族にきっぱりと禁酒を宣言してしまった手前、前言撤回なんてとてもできない。
かぞく に きっぱり と きんしゅ を せんげん して しまった てまえ、 ぜんげんてっかい なんて とても できない。
After so strongly declaring to my family that I’m no longer going to drink, there’s no way I can go back on my word.
Literally: “family + に + decisively / distinctly + と + abstain from drinking + を + declaration + (unfortunately) did + 手前, + taking back what one said + なんて + simply (cannot) + cannot do.”

So, we're saying:

I (unfortunately) strongly declared to my family that I'm no longer going to drink + 手前, + there's no way I can go back on my word.

But in our more natural-sounding translation, we don't explicitly translate 手前 at all:

After so strongly declaring to my family that I’m no longer going to drink, there’s no way I can go back on my word.

Uh... so what's the difference between the above sentence and the following one using から?


家族にきっぱりと禁酒を宣言してしまったから、前言撤回なんてとてもできない。
かぞく に きっぱり と きんしゅ を せんげん して しまった から、 ぜんげんてっかい なんて とても できない。
Since I so strongly declaring to my family that I’m no longer going to drink, there’s no way I can go back on my word.
Literally: “family + に + decisively / distinctly + と + abstain from drinking + を + declaration + (unfortunately) did + から (=because), + taking back what one said + なんて + simply (cannot) + cannot do.”

Well, other than the fact that I inserted "Since" into this second translation, the nuance of these two Japanese sentences is a bit different.

With the 手前 version, it is understood that the reason the speaker cannot go back on his word is that he would lose face, that he would look bad, that it's embarrassing, etc.


👷 工事 👷

手前 comes after verbs in the plain form. Specifically, these verbs:

V る・V ている・ V た手前

Or it can also come after "NOUN + の," like this:

NOUN + 手前

This sentence construction is used pretty regularly, so I recommend trying it out on your own.

Confession: I've yet to ever use this in my own Japanese speech. But since people do use it, I'm going to try to do so sometime in the future! Sounds a little intimidating, considering how long all of our example sentences are...



実はしいたけが大の苦手だが、「食べ物を粗末にするな」といつも子供に言っている手前、残すわけにはいかない。
じつは しいたけ が だいの にがて だ が、 「たべもの を そまつ に するな」 と いつも こども に いっている てまえ、 のこす わけにはいかない。
To tell the truth, I really dislike shiitake mushrooms, but since I’m always telling my children “Don't waste food,” I can’t exactly leave them uneaten.
Literally: “to tell you the truth, + shiitake mushrooms + が + hated (=great + の + dislike [of]) + だ + が (=but), 「food + を + don’t waste (=crude / rough + に + don’t do)」 + と + always + children + に + am saying + 手前, + leave (behind) + can’t exactly do.”




私のために日時を変更してもらった手前、「やっぱり行けません」とは言いづらいので、出席するしかない。
わたし の ため に にちじ を へんこう して もらった てまえ、 「やっぱり いけません」 と は いいづらい ので、 しゅっせき する しかない。
It would be hard to tell them “I can’t go” after I had them change the date just for me, so I have no choice but to attend.
Literally: “I + の + for the sake of + に + date and time + を + changing + had (them) do (=did [and] + received) + 手前, + 「after all + cannot go」 + と + は + difficult to say + ので (=because) + attendance + do + have no choice but to.”




ご近所手前、私がこんな仕事をしているとは口が裂けても言えない。
ごきんじょ の てまえ、 わたし が こんな しごと を している と は くち が さけても いえない。
Never under any circumstances would I let my neighbors know what kind of job I do.
Literally: “(honorable) neighborhood (people) + の + 手前, + I + が + this kind of + job / work + を + am doing + と + は + (I) won’t say anything no matter what (=mouth + が + even if [it] bursts / tears + cannot say).”



Those sentences might all seem long and scary, but being able to read long, scary sentences without hating life is one of the things they test you on in JLPT N1.

So, uh... 頑張ってください!