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The Anatomy of Dependence by Takeo Doi
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Feb 09, 08

bookshelves: japan, psychology
Read in September, 2006

Those of you who are paying attention might recall that I have reviewed another book by Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Self, which deals with the problem of how one can live in a society where the primary drive of everyone is to return to the state of perfect peace and dependence that we knew as an infant at our mother's breast. In Japanese, this emotion is called amae and it's one of those great words that can only be imperfectly translated. The image of the baby at the breast is Doi's way of describing it.

He believes that while the feeling is one common to all humans, the Japanese are the only people who have an everyday word to describe it, and a whole host of words to describe what happens when amae goes wrong. This being the case, he believes that the Japanese are somehow special in being the only culture in the world that holds amae as a core element in their national psychology.

In his opinion, to understand Japanese psychology and the way Japanese people behave with one another, you have to understand amae, and that's a very long struggle.

The verb form, amaeru is defined in my dictionary as, "to fawn; to take advantage of; to depend on," which, of course, is kind of misleading. To many Westerners, Americans especially, there's very little in that definition that is positive. We are brought up to deny amae, and so strike out to become independent, individual, and beholden to no one. To the Japanese, though, it is a way of gauging relationships with other people, and the level to which one can amaeru with another person defines everything about their relationship. How they will talk, how they'll act, how much of their true opinions they'll let out and how much they'll conceal.

Doi takes amae to be his central pillar of his own practice in psychology, and so his perspective on all other concepts of relationship is defined by his views on amae.

As you can imagine, it's not the easiest book in the world to get through.

While the book is written for popular consumption, there are a few places where it would have helped to have known some basics in psychological terminology. But if you're very familiar with life in Japan, you can see that he certainly has a point. For example, he views the Emperor as the embodiment of amae in Japan. He is, in theory, the most important person in the country, and yet he is the most helpless. Everything is done for him by assistants or staff. Every dinner is chosen by dietitians, every moment of a traveling schedule, every wardrobe decision, every word of his speeches is prepared for him.

In other words, he is like a baby, comfortable in the knowledge that no matter what, he will be taken care of, he will be "loved." His life is steeped in amae, and if he ever had to rely on his own resources, he would probably be totally lost. And yet this is the ideal to which all Japanese aspire. It is the knowledge that they cannot achieve it that brings about the elaborate social constructs that keep everyone from going nuts from their unfulfilled desire to be taken care of.

A thought occurs to me as I write this, too - about the Two Princesses.

Princess Kiko, who had a baby boy last week, is very popular with the Japanese people. Not only because she had a boy, but because she does everything that a princess is expected to do. She smiles, she waves, she is sweet and pleasant and kind, without a bad word to anybody or, near as I can tell, any ambition but to be a good Princess. In other words, she allows herself to be loved and indulged by the people of Japan. She amaerus.

Princess Masako, on the other hand, is a little less popular, and not only because she had a little girl. She is more independent, having spent time living and studying in the US and working on diplomatic missions for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. She has has a lot of trouble fitting into the Princess role, leaving behind a life of her own and entering one where she is no longer in control of her own existence. Currently she's keeping a very low profile due to anxiety and nervous exhaustion. In other words, she doesn't amaeru - she doesn't want to be taken care of or doted upon, but she really has no choice in the matter, and so the conflict is driving her slowly nuts.

Anyway, enough armchair psychology. It's a fascinating book for anyone interested in comparative psychology or Japanese society. Take a look....
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