Japan from the inside out

Amae, amas, amat…

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 11, 2009

“JOURNALISM LARGELY CONSISTS of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive,” observed G.K. Chesterton, and that corresponds all too well to the reports earlier this week of the death of Dr. Doi Takeo. A psychoanalyst, Dr. Doi developed and presented first to Japan and then to the world his theories on the role of amae in the Japanese psyche and cultural behavior. As the obituaries noted, people consider him to have been the first Japanese trained in psychiatry to influence Western psychiatric thought.

Those with an interest in psychiatry and in Japan knew his work well. When I studied Japanese at university, it was considered de rigeur to have read Dr. Doi’s book, Amae no Kozo (The Anatomy of Dependence). For everyone else, however, Dr. Doi might as well have been Lord Jones, and that’s how the English-language press treated his passing.

That treatment is something of a tragedy, because his work and the concepts he presented offered an important new perspective for Japanese to understand themselves and for foreigners to understand them. Perhaps that’s shikata ga nai, as the Japanese say; it can’t be helped. The interest of the lumpen readership in either Japan or psychiatry is limited, and the concept of amae is difficult to understand for anyone not familiar with Japanese society. In fact, I suspect it would be next to impossible to understand unless one were Japanese or had lived in Japan for several years and paid close attention to what was going on.

Amae defined

Dr. Doi used the word amae because there’s no real English equivalent. Indeed, it is said to be a back formation he coined himself from the verb amaeru. The underlying emotions, said Dr. Doi, are instinctual and present in every society, but the Japanese have a greater awareness of those emotions because they have specific words to describe them. Thus, Western terminology is insufficient to describe the Japan psyche. That further complicates the understanding of subtle concepts difficult to describe and prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

One trustworthy source translates amae as “dependency wishes”, in which a person relies on the love, patience, and/or tolerance of other people or groups who form the other pole of an emotional relationship. Dr. Doi himself described it as presuming on another’s love, basking in another’s indulgence, or indulging in another’s kindness. Right away, that definition causes problems with misinterpretation. Westerners often view relationships and emotional dependence of that sort in a negative light. Dependency is to be outgrown because it is a manifestation of weakness and childishness.

That view does not predominate in Japan, however. The word amae has the same root as the word amai, or sweet, imparting a positive sense that makes it impossible to render into a single English word or phrase. In that spirit, the name of his book could also have been rendered literally as The Structure of Amae. Translators know better than anyone that converting from one language to another is not the same as handling an algebraic equation.

Amae in everyday life

A Freudian, Dr. Doi postulated that the origin of amae lies in the restoration of the lost mother-and-child union, a relationship that might be considered even more important in Japan than elsewhere. He then used it as a way to describe the dynamics of different relationships in adult life, including those between parent and child (in which amae is present even after children become adults), husband and wife, teacher and pupil, patron and acolyte, master and apprentice, and even feudal lord and samurai.

In many instances, the one-way direction of this relationship is only temporary, and in other cases, the dynamics move in both directions. People often use as an example of amae women indulging in emotional dependence on men, but that works in reverse from men to women as well. Also, pupils grow up to become teachers, and apprentices grow up to be masters. While Westerners may consider dependency a weakness, in Japan amae can strengthen the social fabric through a relationship between two people or among a larger group of people.

Dr. Doi used the concept to explain the importance in Japan of developing a rapport or relationship that transcends the feeling of simpatico, in which there is merging, or tokekomu. He held that amae helped explain the blurring of the distinction between subject or object—or self and other—in Japan, and why the notions of privacy and individual rights were different here than elsewhere.

He extended his theory by using it to explain the Japanese dislike of cut-and-dried logic, frequently referred to as “fart logic” (herikutsu), the nature of long-term business relationships, and the importance of nonverbal communication.


Another layer of complexity was added by his application of amae to examine the contrasting feelings of giri, or obligations in social relationships, and ninjo, or human emotions—in other words, the conflict between what one should do or has to do, with what one would naturally want to do. This issue is a much greater part of both the daily dialogue and general cultural discussion in Japan than elsewhere. In Japan, Dr. Doi claimed, ninjo is characterized by both using and responding to amae, while giri is infused by ninjo.

While giri may seem to be an unpleasant burden that Westerners might prefer to shuck as soon as it becomes convenient, the Japanese recognize it as an important social lubricant. Unlike ninjo, it is not universal, so it is restricted to specific relationships. It can involve helping those who help you and returning favors to those who do one favors. People neglect these obligations at the risk of their social standing.

Of course these same obligations are present in the West, but they seem to have an added dimension here. Try giving an unexpected present, no matter how insignificant, to a Japanese with whom you are on friendly terms and watch what happens.

This side up

There’s still more. One of the first things a foreign student of Japan learns is that it is a vertical society, rather than a horizontal one. Dr. Doi claimed that amae was the reason for the prevalence of vertical integration in Japan to begin with.

Incidentally, the Japanese themselves are aware that vertical structures can be inefficient and frequently discuss them as an obstacle rather than an advantage. For example, people often criticize the excessive verticalization of the governmental bureaucracy when discussing ways to reform the system. Some think it was one reason for the poor performance of the military command structure during the war. That might provide a hint why bureaucratic reform has been so difficult to achieve–how does one change the natural default position of everyone’s emotional structure?

Those who disagree

Naturally, these theories were, and are, wide open to criticism. All the Japanese with whom I’ve discussed the book said that while they thought it was essentially accurate, the doctor tried to stretch the concept too far by applying it to every aspect of life. Perhaps that’s to be expected of pioneers anxious to spread the awareness of new ideas they’ve developed.

Some of this might also be dated. Dr. Doi was born in 1920 and formulated his theories after a psychological culture shock while visiting the United States in 1950s. For example, he thought that the phrase “help yourself” was rude. He assumed it meant “no one will help you”, when it actually means “do as you like”. (Let’s also not forget that some Westerners raise their children by emphasizing “no one will help you” as a way to inculcate self-reliance.)

Lately, however, it seems that some of these tendencies might be disappearing. Perhaps this is most apparent in the way that single women now deal with men. In passing, it should be noted that people often fail to consider just how fast Japan is able to change or adapt to change, and yet retain its stability. This was still a feudal society fewer than 150 years ago, and it is astonishing how quickly it has incorporated concepts for which it took hundreds of years to evolve in the West. Thus, it’s not surprising that emotional structures in place for more than a millenium might melt in the space of a few decades.

One of Dr. Doi’s Western critics was Peter Dale, whose book The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness no longer seems to be in print. (None of the on-line descriptions I found of Mr. Dale’s objections cite his qualifications, though he must have had some.)

Dale dismissed the whole concept as belonging to the class of ideas known as nihonjinron, or theories on the Japanese people. That was once a thriving cottage industry for the presentation of claims that the Japanese were unique, which itself gave rise to another thriving cottage industry for the snorters offended by those claims.

More specifically, Dale criticized Dr. Doi for irrationally expanding the meanings of common Japanese words to convey the idea of uniqueness. He compared it to the prewar twisting of such words as kokutai (national polity) and kokusui (national essence) for propaganda purposes.

One can imagine the criticism that would have erupted had Dr. Doi analyzed the Japan-U.S. relationship through the prism of amae.

The problems of nihonjinron

Discussions of nihonjinron from either perspective have always seemed like a waste of time. First, it has little or no practical application for anyone’s life in Japan, regardless of nationality, giving the whole enterprise an airy-fairy quality. Second, some of the ideas are grounded in the social sciences, whose limits tend to be reached very quickly. Third, the debate attracts the type of people who think intellectual discussion consists of inflated claims informed by emotional predispositions, again from either perspective, and who enjoy it for that reason. We’ve all heard it said that academic arguments are so ferocious because there is so little at stake. Is it a coincidence that many of those involved seem to be either the overeducated or people who insufficiently digested what education they did receive? Given a choice, I’ll take in vito over in vitro every time.

Not to be overlooked is that those who most intensely argue against nihonjinron often use it as a vehicle for their real motive—Japan-bashing. And in turn, Japan bashing is often a vehicle for lashing out at some demon in one’s personal background entirely unrelated to Japan. Perhaps more Japanese should consider developing the field of gaijinron as it concerns foreigners’ views of them.

Nor should we overlook that those most scornful of nihonjinron somehow fail to notice the libraries full of arguments claiming a similar uniqueness for the Americans, the English, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, and scores of small tribes throughout the world known only to their neighbors and anthropologists.

So who was Lord Jones?

A website post cannot do justice to all the issues required to fully examine a concept as important and as difficult to grasp as amae, both pro and con. That’s why journalists might honestly struggle to describe for use as corner space filler the life and ideas of Dr. Doi–a Japanese Lord Jones whom the public did not know, and whose reputation was formed in a different era for a subject with which few people are conversant and even fewer would want to be.

So how did they handle it? Here’s one example from AP (emphasis mine):

Takeo Doi, a scholar who wrote that the Japanese psyche thrived on a love-hungry dependence on authority figures, has died, his family said Monday. Doi…wrote the 1971 book, “The Anatomy of Dependence,” which introduced the idea of “amae” – a childlike desire for indulgence – as key to understanding the Japanese mind.

One wonders just how many people in journalism—helplessly watching their credibility vanish, their market shares vaporize, and their stockholders hit the silk—realize that much of the public has grown to detest them for the habitual and intentional professional malpractice the above excerpt demonstrates. There is no question that the person who wrote that–and I don’t care what her name was–deliberately chose the most unflattering way to describe the man’s work.

One also wonders if the journalists realize that for the same disgusted public, watching them commit suicide is an opportunity to pop some corn and crack open a beer. It’s obvious to those of us familiar with Japan that the journalists assigned to cover this country are (pick one or more) superficial, ignorant, incompetent, eager to play off negative stereotypes, or ready to create new ones. They have an attitude of charity towards none and malice towards all.

If all your information about Japan is derived from the Western mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

Afterwords: I was curious about the statement that Dr. Doi coined the noun amae (it’s been a while since I read the book), so I did a quick check of Japanese-Japanese dictionaries. The word does not appear in the 1984 edition of Kojien, which was the standard reference in those days, but it is defined in Sanseido’s 1984 Reikai Shinkokugo Jiten. That dictionary was compiled for younger students, but it has excellent examples and concise definitions that are useful even for adults. There’s now a fourth edition, and I highly recommend it for foreign students of the Japanese language.

4 Responses to “Amae, amas, amat…

  1. Georgie Pye said

    Amae is in my more recent (circa 2000) edition of Kojien. It is defined as “Amaeru koto,” which is not very helpful.

    Somewhat oddly, Peter Dale’s book is one of two which are sitting on my desk. His credentials are not listed there either. But if what he has written makes sense to someone with fairly extensive and attentive experience in Japan, his credentials shouldn’t matter. I’ll have to read it to find out.

    Ah… the foreign media and its reporting of anything in Japan. Perhaps more people should just read Japan blogs.

  2. bender said

    It’s the tendency of media folks to bash other countries or whatever while completely forgetting about what’s going on in their own backyard. I noticed a magazine article in Japan about how Detroit is like a ghost town (and about how America is declining and all), but hey, there are tons of ghost towns in Japan, relics of old steel-mill or coal-mining towns.

  3. Very interesting post. I read “The Anatomy of Dependence” many years ago and wondered if I were the only gaijin on Twitter to post the news of Dr. Doi’s death. 🙂 Thanks for the memories.

  4. bender said

    Correction. The article I mentioned above (in Bungei-shunju) does end by saying “things like this can happen in Japan”. I don’t know if there are empty towns where you guys live, but you should definitely visit places up north like Kamaishi or Yubari.

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