Approaching “The Anatomy of Dependence,” by Takeo Doi, To Understand Japan

November 18, 2008

In the book, The anatomy of dependence, Dr. Takeo Doi explains Japanese culture through the uniquely Japanese lens of amae. Though the term “amae” is peculiarly Japanese, Doi insists that it has international relevance, even expanding beyond the human race. He begins his exploration of amae with linguistic examples showing how the very idea of amae has permeated Japanese society. He then moves on to discuss the logical developments of amae, which leads, in turn, to the social and pathological implications that amae brings. Finally, Doi discusses amae in relation to modern Japan.

First, why is Doi so intrigued by the concept of amae? Doi is a Japanese psychiatrist, one of the nation’s best. After his first encounters in America, circa 1950, he noticed that, though in many areas he was impressed and dazzled by Americans and their culture, he also experienced awkwardness from time to time, what is commonly called, “culture shock”. He was eventually introduced to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by Ruth Benedict, which he quickly read. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is a book written by and American lady as an analysis of Japanese culture. Doi relates how he was surprised to see himself revealed a little more with each turn of a page. This also began his quest for what makes an American behave so differently from a Japanese person. When he returned to Japan, Doi eagerly sought to discover firsthand what made the Japanese uniquely Japanese.

During his time in America, Doi noticed that American psychiatrists wrote down their patients’ words in English. Though this does not seem particularly amazing, it was typical for Japanese psychiatrists to listen to their patients and write down key points in a limited number of German terms. After returning from America, Doi determined that, so long as his patients were Japanese, he would record and think about things in Japanese. This opened the door to realization that the Japanese language must be closely related to Japanese psychology. When asked to present on psychology in Japan to a group of US military psychiatrists, Doi stated that the Western tests can only detect Western traits in Japanese. However, because Japanese are not Western, there is an entirely different dimension to the Japanese person that cannot be understood without a familiarity of the nation’s language. Everything that survives in a nation’s native language is exactly what is important to the soul of that nation, to that nation’s general mentality.

This statement is strikingly bold, and its implications stretch far beyond just psychiatry. I have been trying to learn the Japanese language for several years, but I found it extremely difficult to learn. After coming to Japan, I met a friend, fluent in Japanese, who had to learn it as a second language. I asked her how she was able to learn, and she said that she had fallen in love with Japan. Initially, I did not understand what she meant, but after thinking about it, I realized that what she was trying to communicate is much like what Doi is saying. A person cannot know a nation’s language without an appreciation for a nation’s culture. I reflected back to my past history in learning Spanish, and I realized that the reason I struggle to retain my knowledge in Spanish is because I do not hold a deep appreciation for any country that is primarily Spanish-speaking. This is also important to those who are considering long-term missions. If a missionary plans on being successful at reaching out to a nation other than his own, he must fall in love with the nation, identify with its hurts and needs. He needs, essentially, to become that which he would reach out to affect. I look around within our school here at TCU and see many people desiring change, especially within the ACTS-ES group. But I’ve also seen that, many of the students do not seek to “be Japanese”, but merely to change things to how they see fit. This mentality can be appreciated, yet, at the same time, it is going to remain ineffective until these students can identify with the Japanese to the point where “Japanese” is no longer something external.

Now that I have established a little of the drive behind Doi’s fascination with amae, what is meant when Doi refers to amae? The first problem that one runs into when trying to explain amae in English is that there is no English equivalent. And, as we have seen, this is exactly why the idea of amae is so important to Doi. I was curious about this thing that has no equivalent, and upon asking friends what their understanding of amae is, the majority struggled for a bit, and ended up stating that it was much easier to provide an example than to explain what it means. The utter dependence of an infant towards its mother is a part of amae. One student confidently depending on his partner to do more work in a group project is another part of amae. A hostess providing refreshments for her guests without asking if they would like anything is yet another part of amae. Even a puppy will amaeru, to give amae a verb form, towards its mother. When I look at these examples, I struggle to connect a common factor between the three, and this is where the difficulty lies in explaining amae in English. Amae is such a specific term that, throughout his book, Doi uses it instead of whatever equivalents would make sense in English. He commonly equates amae with presumption on one person’s part toward another person. This does not entirely cover the meaning, but it does a decent job, when you consider at least two of the stated examples: the first student is quite obviously presuming on the other student, and the hostess is presuming that, in providing refreshments, her guests will appreciate the gesture.

Beyond the basic understanding of what amae entails, Doi goes into many different aspects of the Japanese language, showing connections between amae and other words and ideas. One of the first connections he makes is between amae and amanzuru, which is essentially a perceived amae. As Doi put it, “The best thing… is to be able to indulge the desire for amae, but when that is not possible one makes due with amanzuru” (Doi 29). Two more terms, giri and ninjō, roughly meaning social obligation and human feeling, are also discussed. Doi discusses two main points with regards to giri and ninjō: first, that they are responses that are closely related to amae, secondly that, rather than being simply opposed to one another, giri and ninjō are organically related to one another. It is quite common for a Japanese person to comment that a foreigner has or lacks ninjō. This statement in itself hints that ninjō means more than human feeling as a whole. Doi believes that amae is at the heart of ninjō, though the average person probably will not recognize this as so. However, ninjō seems to refer to a specific set of emotions and feelings that, although they exist universally, Japanese people are especially familiar with: amae.

I, myself, have seen this exact thing firsthand. I had a different understanding of it, since I am viewing it from an American perspective, but I recognize it as the exact thing. Of the three exchange students, two can be described as understanding ninjō or at least trying to, and one does not. The two have seen what life is like in Japan, what the norm is, and have tried to adapt and behave, generally, like everyone else. The third, however, remains different. Though he claims to want to live in Japan, and though he claims to love the culture, he refuses to try to change. He is more than willing to try new foods, but will not change other simple things. I characterized him as “insisting to remain a gaijin.” But I realize that, as far as I can tell, what makes a person gaijin or not is not so much where they were from, but how willingly they adopted the culture they were now living in. If ninjō is human feeling that is based on amae, then the third student’s “insisting to remain a gaijin” can be simply described as not understanding, or unconsciously refusing to understand ninjō.

Doi explains giri as drawing ninjō into a relationship. Where ninjō can simply exist in certain relationships, such as a parent-child relationship, in other relationships it must be “invited” or “officially permitted”. This is where giri comes into play. Giri can also exist in relationships where ninjō would normally exist, but giri has entered because the relationship is strained. To help illustrate giri even more clearly, Doi introduced the concept of on. On implies receiving some sort of kindness, specifically one related to ninjō. This brings on a giri. The trick is, however, that this is not so much of a debt of ninjō as it is a relationship that has more interdependence. The final clarification that Doi gives between ninjō and giri is that emphasizing ninjō focuses on amae, while emphasizing giri focuses on the relationships that have come about because of amae.

Tanin is a term used by Japanese people to refer to “other people” or “outsiders”. It does not mean “foreigner” as it does “stranger”, with feeling of “someone who does not belong”. Tanin is like a measurement of the amount of amae is in a relationship. The fundamental parent-child relationship should be un-tanin, in that amae rises up naturally. The further from this natural amae-based relationship one gets, the more qualities of tanin develop. Doi explained tanin in light of ninjō and giri. There are relationships, like the parent-child relationship, in which amae develops naturally; this is the world of ninjō. Stepping out a bit, one finds relationships in which amae does not exist naturally, but is introduced. These relationships are that of giri, social interdependence that is contracted. Everything outside of these relationships can be considered tanin. Though the distinctions are not so perfectly clear-cut in reality, this gives the basic guidelines for these three relationship types. There can always be strains on the parent-child relationship, or some like relationship, that causes the natural ninjō to become strained and more akin to giri. Likewise, everyone who is considered to be linked by a giri, or even ninjō, relationship was once tanin. There is a Japanese proverb that illustrates this point by saying that “husband and wife were once basically tanin.”

An idea that is closely related to this is that of enryo, or restraint. The more enryo there is in a relationship, the more tanin it is. There is a funny circle of logic surrounding enryo. While the Japanese do not typically like it within themselves, they expect others to show a degree of enryo. Ideally, all relationships would be like the parent-child relationship, full of natural amae, absent of enryo. While this is the ideal, in practical operation, many people exercise enryo because they do not want to presume or amaeru too much on another’s goodwill.

After his discussion on amae from the linguistic point of view, Doi continues on with the logical and psychological implications of the existence in Japanese of a word like amae. First off, he points out that words merely point out things that humans either do or have experienced. The existence of the term amae does not mean that it exists only in a Japanese context; rather, it merely points out the increased sensitivity that Japanese people have over other people on this point.

Doi calls the infant-mother relationship the psychological prototype of amae. It is interesting that, although the relationship between infant and mother seems to be the basic root for amae, one would not say that a child is expressing amae until a while after its birth, when the child first becomes aware of its surroundings and seeks its mother as distinct from the rest of its surroundings. Doi states that this implies that “until it starts to amaeru the infant’s mental life is an extension… of its life in the womb, and the mother and child are still unseparated” (Doi 74). However, as the baby’s mind develops and it realizes that it is independent of its mother, it comes to feel that the mother is indispensable, and this craving for close contact with the mother is, in its basic form, amae. This principle is not confined to humans, nor geographical divisions, but because of the way the human mind develops, it is possible to observe the psychological developments, and because of the existence of the Japanese term amae, this specific aspect of psychological development is more obviously noted and more easily observed.

After noting the infant-mother relationship as the prototype of amae, Doi expands this view by suggesting that amae could be a psychological attempt to refuse the fact of separation from the mother. Or, expanding still further, amae as a mentality could be an attempt to deny separation and refuse the pain of separation. Conversely, states Doi, a predominant amae mentality may be masking conflicting emotions and anxieties that are associated with separation. This does not mean that amae is always unrealistic and used as a defensive mechanism. The amae necessary to develop the mother-child relationship is necessary for the healthy development of that child. Likewise, the amae that develops between adults – in ninjō, giri, and tanin relationships that are becoming giri – is necessary for developing healthy relationships. While it is unrealistic to ignore the fact of separation by hiding behind amae, it is equally ignorant to simply crumple under the weight of separation and to live in despair because of the inevitability of separation.

When looking at the Japanese culture as a whole, as compared to Western societies, the Japanese thinking tends to be more intuitive, where the West emphasizes reason and logic. Doi says that this makes particular sense when considering amae because amae is based on the illogical denial of separation. The world of amae can be viewed, generally, in two main ways. When viewed negatively, a world governed by amae can seem irrational, exclusivist, and private. Alternatively, this world can be viewed positively as nondiscriminatory, tolerant, and emphasizing equality. The origins of these two views can be traced primarily as differences in the bases of thought in Western and Oriental thoughts. In the West, thought is based on the Father figure; in the East, it’s based on the Mother. Where the father loves, there is residues of power left over. However, with the mother, love is all-embracing, undiscriminating. The Japanese are innovators. They are good at taking external influences and ideas and making them Japanese, with few disruptive side effects. This ability may be due to the open-mindedness of the underlying principles of amae. Amae tries to identify with others, to refuse separation. Doi suggests that when amae is unsatisfied, it leads to searching. This might be the very cause for quests for religion and obtaining beauty. It is said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Beauty creates a sense of oneness with ones’ surroundings. Where some see it in a separate tranquility, others are able to live amidst the humdrum of daily life, but purge it of its monotony and see the beauty within the daily things.

If amae is as important to understanding the way Japanese people naturally interact, it must also be involved when they are interacting unnaturally. Doi addresses this point as well, the “pathology of amae.” One point he specifically addresses is homosexual feelings, differentiated from homosexuality in the narrow sense as it is commonly used. First of all, Doi notes the differences between male-female relationships in Japan and in America. In America, when groups of boys and girls go out, there are almost always equal numbers of each sex, while in Japan this is not necessarily the case. Though both American and Japanese businessmen travel often, it is much more common for an American to bring his family along and for a Japanese man to merely travel with coworkers. Though same-sex relationships will exist throughout the lifetime of an American, tradition holds that a heterosexual relationship, marital or likewise, take precedence. In America, when members of the same sex often go out together or behave similarly or to be excessively familiar with one another, that is grounds enough to be held in suspicion of homosexuality in the narrow sense, and this label is consciously abhorred. In Japan, on the other hand, friendship with members of the same sex is openly and unashamedly expressed.

Doi wants to avoid narrowing his reader’s view of amae by pointing out that it is in no way limited to homosexual relationships. In fact, he points out that amae has generally been considered an emotion experienced between the sexes. But he is also careful to emphasize that amae is a commitment and type of love that can be given to either sex. Though amae is at the foundation of human relationships, and though all of the best examples of human relationships likely have amae at their origin, there is also a darker side to amae. This is no different than any other virtue, though. Love, when taken to an extreme can be a fault, especially when love gives way to obsession. In the same way, amae pushed beyond its natural boundaries can be bad. Homosexual feelings, in turn, can be a case of amae turned sour. Doi proposes that, perhaps a child identifies particularly with his mother. When he reaches the age where he would normally begin developing an interest in the opposite sex, he identifies with his mother to the point where he loves things that his mother loves: things like himself. So the child shows amae towards others like him. If he finds another boy who will express amae after the same fashion, their relationship and amae grows. The problem is that, while amae can exist between two members of the same sex, it will inevitably bring about a frustration. At this point, Doi becomes more difficult for me to follow, but if I follow his line of thought to completion, I am inclined to think that there may be two complementary types of amae. One type exists in a homosexual relationship, and another in heterosexual relationships. While amae will grow within a homosexual relationship, it cannot be completely satisfied, because it is the same branch of amae. I believe that homosexual amae does fill a need, satisfy to a certain extent. Otherwise there would be no desire for comrades and friends of the same sex. However, these relationships are not meant to be developed to the same extent that a heterosexual relationship is.

One of Doi’s examples was from a story where two men lived together. However, one man fell in love with the landlord’s daughter, leaving the first feeling like their homosexual amae had been neglected. This perception of being neglected, this “victim mentality” is related to the Japanese term higai. The Japanese language is very articulate in the area of receiving harm, higai. One such example of this articulation is jama. The original Chinese for jama meant “evil demon” referred to an evil demon that hindered Buddhist monks in their religious practices. Now jama is used to refer to basically any hindrance or disturbance. Doi relates jama directly to amae. In the amae prototype, the infant desires the object of its amae, its mother, and resents everything else that takes her attention away as jama, hindrances. Amae can be frustrated by jama that take away from the one amaeru-ing. Because of the nature of amae, when it reaches more intimate levels, more jama become apparent.

Lastly, Doi turns to what revelations amae has about modern society. A common topic amongst discussion of modern society is the rebellious youth and the apparent generational gap. In light of his studies on amae, Doi says that instead of a generational gap, there seems to be no division at all. Parents and their children are developing such strong amae that there is a lack of parental authority. Children are presuming on their parents, pushing boundaries as far as their parents will allow. On the other hand, parents are operating under the assumption that if they give their children some freedom, eventually they will come back in line. Youth are looking for something that they can test their power against, something that will show them their limitations, and authority figures are failing to realize this. Rebellion is rampant amongst the youth because their parents are giving them too much freedom, not teaching them limitations and guiding them in the right ways.

This is not helped at all by the fact that fathers, traditionally the one to stand by the established values of society, are not even attempting to educate their children about values. This goes back to the traditional views on fathers and mothers. The mother is there to be ever-forgiving, all-loving, ready to embrace. The father is the one who should be setting down the guidelines, the one who is firm in his teachings. But the modern father is lacking that firm hand. The older generation is supposed to be there to uphold an established value system, but it is not upholding any values at all. Doi suggests that the rebellion of the youth is an attempt to discover what the older generation values, what it truly feels. The youth are trying to obtain a set of values to live by, and it is irritated by the older generation’s failure to provide one.

I see this in my own life, all around me. I look at the other youth my age and wonder why some turn out as good kids, upstanding in character, while others are rebels, getting into trouble where I did not know trouble could be found. I see rampant divorce in America, weak or nonexistent father figures, and I understand. I understand the need for a father figure. A mother is, by nature, nurturing. Although it is possible for her to be stern, to reprimand, and to discipline, it is not her role. But when the father leaves, when the father is working so hard that he does not have the energy to invest in his family, when he thinks he can buy his kids’ affections, what choice does the mother have? If she wants to see her kids raised correctly, she has to do it herself.

I am planning on going into youth ministries for my career. As I got older, I realized more and more that I have always had a heart for being a pillar in someone else’s life. I like the feeling of being a big brother; many of my friends can attest to this as I have many “little siblings”. I often look to share my experience, to share my knowledge. My own youth pastor has invested a lot in our youth group. He is that older brother, mentor, father figure to all of our youth. We look to him and admire him, and I know that he has had a positive influence on all of our lives. When I saw what he has done and recognized it for its own sake, I knew that that is what I wanted to do with my life. I have always felt protective of my friends, always reached out to them as family instead of just friends. It was not until I read Doi’s book that I realized that what I had felt towards them was a form of amae. It is said that “one cannot know his own language until he knows at least one other”, and I see the truth in that. I have learned so much about myself and the society that I have grown up in through learning one simple word in another language: amae.


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