Japanese Quality of Amae & Transience


The chief exposition of this paper attempts to explore (i) the Japanese concept of amae which indicates the dependency need of a child in the dyad that Takeo Doi explored extensively in his book The Anatomy of Dependence; and (ii) the quality of transience in human life-cycle interwoven with the evolutionary dynamic quality of amae working within it, which finds inquiry in the treatment of Osamu Kitayama’s works.

Doi reflected on the Japanese child-rearing process in order to draw upon the working of amae in the pre-oedipal mother-child dyad in Japanese society.  Whereas, Kitayama exemplified the element of transience, portraying it as inherently carrying both positive and negative emotions in attachment with the object/situation, taking recourse through Japanese culture, its myths, and drawing comparatives studies of the same in Japanese clinical situations. Keeping these various parameters in mind, this paper would undertake a journey enquiring on amae and transience as a mutually complementary ally in its progressive movement from the pre-oedipal to the oedipal stage. Consequently it would revert to (A) Japanese culture & psychoanalytic theoretical developments, (B) clinical illustration (from the Indian context), and (C) direct experiential learning, in order to establish this reciprocal exchange between amae and transience in one’s life-course under the larger umbrella of an Asian lexicon in psychoanalysis.  Effectively the present discourse also opens up other related avenues of concerns in this trajectory of Japanese psychoanalysis, for instance the role of the ‘absent father’ in the oedipal triangle, resultantly the mother’s desire to claim the absent husband through its dyadic tie (especially with the boy-child) and ambivalence towards motherhood.  The latter queries prompt the possibility of a further future examination.

A.   Japanese Culture & Psychoanalytic Theoretical Developments


1. The metaphoric element of abstraction in Japanese language:

Language is the symbolic route to the Unconscious, and since psychoanalytic work chiefly comprises the deciphering of language itself, its articulation, its symbolic references, its silences, the Japanese query into its language, as its first step towards this exploratory journey into the Unconscious of its culture, has been the most relevant path in its understanding of Japanese culture, its people and their psyche (Kitayama, 1997, Amae & Its Hierarchy of Love).  The site of silence in Japanese language is of much importance.  In the Japanese psyche the space which is potent with silence is located between what is uttered and what is suggested, thereby creating possibilities of metaphoric qualities, hence dynamic interpretations embedded within the language itself.  The quality of symbolic minimalism that is hidden in Japanese art forms maybe extended and found engraved in Japanese language itself.  As Osamu Kitayama said, “our art is appreciated for its suggestiveness” (1987, Metaphorization – Making Terms).


When one looks into the ancient times of Japan, into the creation of ‘Haiku’, as one of the oldest, richest and yet most sophisticated texts (with its suggestiveness, symbolic and minimalistic quality), we discover this similar metaphoric element of abstraction in its weaving of poetic language.  To cite one of Basho’s works (Matsuo Basho 1644-94), the most celebrated Haiku poet of Japan all across the world) –

At the ancient pond

a frog plunges into

the sound of water

In this, Basho suggested that through the simple act of a frog jumping into the ancient pond, which is a single momentary action of the frog jumping into the pond, it echoed an eternity in the rippling sound waves of the water.  Perhaps Basho suggested here the human impermanence of a moment against an eternal motion of sound waves.

In 2004, Naoki Fujiyama (‘An Object No Longer Being Just an Object – The Art of Not Knowing, Being Alive, and Becoming Open’ in Japanese Contributions to Psychoanalysis) mentioned while referring to the role of suggestiveness in Japanese culture and its relation to the therapeutic context that unless one could open up oneself to having a conscious experience of ‘not knowing’ or ‘not understanding’, one could not fully take part in the psychoanalytic process.  He further related this to Freud’s treatment of the “evenly suspended attention” (Freud, ‘Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psychoanalysis’, 1912) of the analyst while conducting session. As if implying a deliberate surrendering to the abstraction of ‘not knowing’ and thereby allowing the free flow of the unconscious to determine a coherence in its journey through the maze of the repressed reservoir, the Unconscious.

Reflecting over this ambiguity and suggestiveness inherent in Japanese language, it almost compels one to consider that the ‘logos’ may not be necessarily an active-principle or agent that determines the order of the world.  In other words, eloquence may not always indicate intelligence (as maybe determined by the reading of a hegemonic ‘western’ reference to language, given the western emphasis of the ‘articulation’, also inherent in the analytic process).  In the Japanese context, and to a major extent to the Asian situation as well, the effort is towards a possible integration of a conceptual understanding of a certain ‘articulation’ that weaves in silence, ambiguity and suggestiveness in its decoding of language.  And because of this very ambiguity and suggestiveness interwoven quite overtly in Japanese language, it becomes imperative to understand the cultural nuances of Japan in order to decipher its language (the articulated and the symbolic, woven together in the non-articulated), which is perhaps the fundamental step towards psychoanalytic coherence in particular to the Asian context.


2. Amae – Takeo Doi:

Takeo Doi introduced the Concept of Amae (noun form) deriving from amaeru, meaning “to depend and presume upon another’s love” as he said in his paper, ‘The Concept of Amae and its Psychoanalytic Implications’, 1989.  It is usually used to express a child’s loving attitude, a form of dependant love towards an adult, especially his parents, his mother in particular.  A genuine feeling of amae should preferably be non-verbal and is meant to be an experiential feeling/learning rather than to be a behaviour pattern.  Doi believed that there was a close connection between amae and the awareness of the self as expressed in the Japanese word jibun, meaning an insightful, spiritual self.  He further elaborated that the rich implication of the word jibun was distinct in nature from words like jiga and jiko which were translated into English and essentially elaborated ‘western’ concepts of the ‘self’ and the ‘ego’ (The Anatomy of Dependence, 1971).  As a matter of fact, to draw an equivalent correlation from Bengal (a region in the east of India where I happen to come from), & Bengali, the language spoken in Bengal, one may find a similar reflection between the Japanese word jibun and the Bengali word shotta (implying an abstract internal self which is more connected with one’s spiritual and conscientious self, distinct from the external tangible self, implying an ego integration).

Doi very clearly elaborated that amae presupposed a passive position towards one’s love-object as it invariably involved a quality of dependence for its fulfilment by the receptive object.  This passive quality of love is what Michael Balint expressed as ‘love to catch its essence in nascency’.  Doi equated Balint’s ‘passive object love’ to amae. In Primary Love and Psycho-analytic Technique, Balint talked about the need of the infant for a deeper satisfaction of its desire from the mother that led to its “tranquil, quiet sense of well-being” (1959, p. 85), whose “object-relation is a passive one. Its aim is briefly this: I shall be loved and satisfied, without being under any obligation to give anything in return” (p.82).  Balint met Doi  in 1964 and expressed his fascination in hearing that there was not only a corresponding word in Japanese language to the ‘passive object love’ but also a word expressing hostility due to its frustration of amae, which is uramu.  This conjecture may echo the reference of the Ajase Complex (Okonogi, 1978 & ‘79) which is based on maternal ambivalence towards the child itself, and the subsequent frustration of the child towards his mother, followed by reparation.  It is remarkable to observe that the Japanese language almost acts as a symbolic lap to reflect upon this nascent love, ‘amae’.   Thereby it enables to develop a concept regarding the infantile origin of love to be accessible at the conscious level in everyday life through its own Japanese child-rearing process.  This way it weaves in a psychological formulation and a cultural reading into its regular everyday life (Nishizono, 1998).

Thus, the satisfaction of experiencing amae in its dyadic trajectory, a total fulfilment of the passive need to be loved and cared for, prepares the child for the next phase of the triadic journey which is, maybe, rich with complexities as we notice in the Oedipal triangle.  The contentment of amae also helps the child to develop a sense of firm ‘primary narcissism’ that may subsequently equip the child to learn to be generous, preparing for the internal and social aspect of its capacity to give.  The satisfying internalization of the dyadic process subsequently builds the child to be able to share the mother with the father which becomes one of the most critical challenges in the triadic phase for the child of the Oedipal triangle.  And in this process may suggest a possibility of less intensity of oedipal rivalry between the father and the child in the Japanese context.  This correspondingly reflects on the child’s latent quality of generosity.  In this sense amae as a quality has the inherent potential of becoming transient in nature that is meant to travel from one entity to another in the individual’s life-cycle, as it travels from the dyadic construct to the triadic design.  The dynamic dyadic quality of amae itself creates the foundation for it to become transgenerational in nature, for its capacity to travel from one individual to another, from one generation to another.


3. Transience – Osamu Kitayama:

In ‘Transience: Its Beauty & Danger’, 1998, Kitayama commenced upon his theoretical conjecture on transience by actually taking an opposite position to Freud’s ‘On Transience’, 1915, by stating, “I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.  On the contrary, an increase” (1998).  As a matter of fact, Kitayama talked about the dichotomous nature of transience as a quality that simultaneously has an ambiguous overlapping essence of both positive and negative emotions in reaction to its attachment to the object/situation (Kitayama, 1998).

Kitayama distinguishes transience from transition.  He elaborates, while transition is a phenomenological description of movement, transience is purely an emotional counter-part of transition, complementing transition, though both may often be connected. Transition implies an absolute completion or an external trajectory of an object whereas transience implies a quiet longing for what one has left behind while moving forward at the same time.  As if the end of a symphony still lingers in the air, in the inner ear, still keeps resonating within, while the next movement in the musical score is initiated.  In this sense, it simultaneously reflects on the past while a forward movement into the future happens all in a singular state.  Through mourning it helps the transitional object to become emotionally transient, thereby internalizing the essential jouissance of the object and keeping it within to continue in its future trajectory of life.

Transience is much like the lingering, longing sensual feeling after making love, which remains distinct from having sex that may resonate as an external completion of an act. The satisfying feeling of being loved/and loving all at the same time (which calls for both active participation and passive submission) subsequently builds our reservoir for intimacy that keeps humming within our life-cycle waiting for its replay time and again.  This delicate juncture of the rewarding finale of love-making and the simultaneous desirous longing for its repetition is perhaps the magical conjugation of both amae and transience in one’s love-cycle.

Technically speaking, Japanese psychoanalysis resonates more with the object-relationship school-of-thought rather than with the initial classical Freudian leaning of instinctual dependence.  Thus, the object becomes more important than its own instinctual gratification.  It tacitly invokes the higher defences of sublimation to keep us affirmative towards life & love.  In this process transience attempts to help one to transit from one phase of life to another phase.  This further assists one to remain in the continuum of the life-cycle.  Amae inherently implies a maturational process over time when the child would be in a ripened position to allow amae to travel from itself towards another being, thereby necessitating the characteristic transient quality of amae to take its full course.  This dynamic  process-in-continuum of amae gives way to other emotional developmental nuances like generosity, compassion, empathy to be generated from one being to another.


4. Amae & Transience in the Pre-oedipal Dyad:

According to Kitayama’s inference, the state of amae is both transitory and transitional, locating it midway between ‘one-ness’ and ‘separate-ness’ – interpolated between the enmeshed ego of the mother-child dyad and the latter progression towards the separation-individuation process invoking the future triadic trajectory.  Kitayama further related the sense of transience to be like the dual experience of illusion and disillusion, often perceiving the transitional object to possess a sense of beauty that one would refer as the ‘ephemeral beauty’.  As he interprets – in Japanese culture this ephemeral beauty may inherit the quality of ambiguity in its being, while in western perspectives it  may perhaps treat this in clear dichotomous terms between regression and progression, or reality and fantasy.  On one hand Kitayama reflected over the richness of the endowment of ambiguity in transience that is cultivated across Japanese culture, including in its myths; on the other hand he synchronously distinguished it from the possible pathology of such ambiguity and its consequential morbidity, which is essential to hold specially for clinical clarity (Metaphorization – Making Terms, 1987).

The following two exponents under this section, namely the (a) Ukiyo-e paintings, (b) the classic Japanese film of all times, Tokyo Monogatari by Yasujiro Ozu, – would both be attempting to unfold this delicate mix of amae and transience, almost embroiled together in Japanese arts and culture, and its daily life.


(a)  Ukiyo-e paintings:

In Kitayama’s study of the Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings (‘pictures of the floating world’, often found in woodblock prints) one maybe able to locate a certain treatment of movement of to-and-fro between the two worlds of reality and fantasy of the mother-child dyad.  Kitayama calls this aspect of the mother and child as ‘viewing together’, i.e. when two people are placed side-by-side with their shoulders breast, sometimes hand-in-hand, viewing a third object together.  In Japanese developmental psychology this kind of human, mother-child viewing together may also be referred as an ‘abreast relationship’ as the Japanese developmental psychologist, Yoko Yamada, pointed out in 1987.  Some from this very field of developmental psychology have also referred this to be ‘joint attention’ (Bruner, 1975), indicating the mother-child linkage in contemplation together.

These ‘floating objects’ (i.e. the third object in the frame of the Ukiyo-e paintings, distinct from the dyadic subjects in the frame) often appear to quickly surface and then again soon fade away.  For example, the Ukiyo-e paintings of, the ‘hazy moon’ (Fi.1), the ‘fire-flies’ (Fig.2), both indicating a consensual validation of the quality of transience that both the mother and the child experience together between them (Kitayama, 2014 & ’15).  This perhaps also surreptitiously informs both the mother and the child that this experience of the dyad itself may equally be transient in nature.

                     Fig.1                                                                                  Fig.2   














In the above two frames taken from Ukiyo-e paintings we find the fading, floating moon (Fig.1) and the fleeing fire-flies (Fig.2) as the shared transient object between the mother and the child.  Thus, the pre-oedipal mother-child dyad in Japanese culture forms a proto-symbolic triangle, a pre-oedipal triangle which is composed of the mother, the child and the shared abstract object in daily existence that has the inherent quality of being transient in nature.  As a matter of fact in reference to everyday life in Japanese culture, Kitayama mentions ‘cherry blossoms’ as a symbolic cultural object suggesting a two-way transition between life in this world and the land of the dead.  Cherry blossoms symbolically personify the inherent quality of beauty and transience merged together, it appears to bring life and happiness around it, and then gradually fades away over time, only to return again in another time-cycle.  The essential effort of these transient objects is in transmitting amae that is shared between the mother and the child, thereby creating a containing environment for both.  The other foremost objective of these transient objects is to further help both the mother and the child to eventually accept the transience of the dyadic situation.  This process of ‘viewing together’ continues to be a crucial part of the child-rearing process that is still in practice in modern Japan.


(b)   Tokyo Monogatari:Yasujiru Ozu: 


Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story) was directed by Yasujiru Ozu, 1953, that portrayed the changing clock of two generations crossing through an emerging modern mechanistic Japan that had no time for traditional values or its older generation.  The story revolves around an old retired couple living in the interior of southwest Japan, who set out to visit their grown-up working children living in Tokyo.  A travelogue of a feeble couple that chronicles the pace of a churning time in juxtaposition between urban and rural settings, between the marching fast-paced youth and the fading, slow-paced, old-couple, that got visibly  illustrated in the pace of the camera, its editorial cuts, the motion of the characters in the film and so on.

The old-couple was left with astonishing lament to discover their children’s unwelcoming, undesirable reaction to their visit in their home in Tokyo – except from their widowed daughter-in-law who was herself entangled in the whirl of life, time, love and loss.  This painful realization drove the old-couple to spend unending hours sitting by the sea-side, watching the setting of the evening sun across the horizon of the endless sea – needless to say, quietly witnessing a sailing away of time that once they belonged to and now sadly  has no way to participate in.  Just a silent witness of a fading time.

The above picture speaks volumes of the joint sharing of the old-couple bonded in their shattering loneliness, borne in their silence that was blowing in the breeze, floating across the sea, soaring across the horizon.  As if they were quietly beholding the gradual setting of their own life-span, unwanted by their own children that they once brought up with so much of love, tenderness and undivided time.  The culmination of this leads to the sudden death of the mother after the debilitated couple returned to their own home in the village.   Thus, the husband was left alone to dwell in his loneliness, containing their ‘viewing together’ of a shared amae crafted in the gradual summation of their transient life (symbolically echoed in their ‘viewing together’ of the setting sun).  The only partial companion to the lonely old man’s residual journey was his widowed daughter-in-law, who joined him to stay back in the village while his other children went back to their own lives in Tokyo.  Thus, there arose another symbolic, abstract journey of ‘viewing together’ of two lost souls joined together through their deep sense of loss of time and love, personified in the passing away of their respective life-partners.  As a matter of fact the last shot (in the film) of the father and daughter-in-law standing next to each other watching the other members of the family go back to their life in Tokyo continues to linger in the mind of the spectator who would be holding onto this last image of ‘viewing together’ of the father and the daughter-in-law caught in the web of time.


5. The Japanese Oedipal Triangle:

As contended earlier, it thus, appears that the work of the pre-oedipal dyad is to perhaps prepare the child before he enters the oedipal triangle.  As reiterated earlier it is increasingly suggestive that the mother-child dyad in Japanese culture acts as a proto-symbolic triangle, a pre-oedipal triangle, composed of the mother, the child and the shared abstract objects, which is transient in nature.

Once the child enters the triadic world, the child experiences a similar quality of transience that the child experienced in its pre-oedipal dyadic state that gets re-enacted with the father in reference of his appearance and disappearance in context to Takeo Doi’s ‘fatherless society’.  According to the modern historical framework of Japan, the father in his loyal-filial-piety primarily belongs to the nation before one’s own individual family claims.  The father’s call for his imperial service to the Emperor, subsequently to the nation, takes over while the mother nurtures the child to grow up and serve the same in similar fashion to the nation in the latter years of the child’s adult life.  The quintessential application of this maybe observed in a deliberate demeanor of the country from the Meiji Restoration, 1860s, till post-the-2nd World War.  As if the entire nation and its people were in a silent communion of commitment, a national pledge to stay loyal towards their one common singular objective, and that was to help the nation to grow back its national pride and power, restore the country’s lost dignity and its international stature.  And in this process giving birth to the idea of the nation as the oedipal father in its modern psycho-political lexicology.

Thus, it maybe derived that for the Japanese child the oedipal triangle does not necessarily comprise the mother, child, & the father, but rather the mother, child, & the nation (the father merged with the nation’s paternal imago).  The child’s effort towards the resolution of the oedipal conflict deeply frustrates the child since it experiences its acute helplessness in combating with an absent, abstract notion of the father in the guise of an all encompassing nation.  Subsequently this absent father also becomes the shared absence between the mother and the child, both bound to the quality of transience of the same object.  Consequently it may seem that there is a possibility of the child to fall back on the pre-oedipal dyad to satisfy its emotional quench.  As Kitayama pointed out, the child thus identifies with the ‘depressive position’ of the mother, the ‘wounded mother’.

A clear two-way model maybe visible in this context – of deriving emotional regalement, entanglement from the dyad of the mother-child that it had clutched onto during the pre-oedipal symbiotic dyad, while for its outward triadic objective daily functionality it remained in servitude and entrustment to the all encompassing father, the nation.  In this sense there appears to be an individual, personal and private object-relationship with the mother, while an impersonal, national, communal object-relationship with the nation.  This analogy may assist us in our comprehension of the so-called very ‘impersonal’ social decorum of behaviour/etiquette that maybe visible in Japanese daily existence.  However, let us not to dismiss the fact that under this ‘impersonal’ code of social conduct lies the multi-layered symbolic suggestiveness (as seen in the above example of the film, Tokyo Monogatari), minimalism embedded in Japanese culture, making it so complex and layered.

However, what perhaps becomes quite obvious is that, in the foundation of child rearing and its society at large, Japan seems to be strictly based on a pre-oedipal matriarchal dyadic leaning rather than the ‘western’ structure of the patriarchal triad based on the oedipal triangle.

The reaffirmation of the dyadic symbiotic bonding between the mother and the child perhaps further propounds for its subjugation to the ‘father-land’, the nation.  Maybe here lies the complexity of the construction of the all-embracing, powerful ‘father-land’, distinct from the showering generous ‘mother-land’.  It may simultaneously open up the opportunity for debate regarding the probability of the shift in position of modern-Japan as a nation towards its aspiring ‘father-land’ from its previous matriarchal leaning.  Does this further intrigue us to wonder if there is an implication of a subverted masculine imago of the child incorporated within this dual model of child rearing theory/practice in Japan?  Thereby implying a secondary position, or perhaps even a possible disavowal of the girl-child vis-à-vis her symbiotic attachment with her mother, and thus the subsequent complexity of the mother-daughter dyad, which is almost absent from all analytic articulation from the Japanese theoretical developments.  Could this be one of the ‘hidden’ reasons for today’s Japan to experience a rejection of motherhood by the women of Japan?  It surely opens up the possibility of another complex dyadic discourse which is between the mother and the daughter in Japan, that calls for further research followed by subsequent theoretical conjecture on the same.


6. Further Concerns & Future Possibilities of Enquiry:

In this quest of amae and transience in Japanese culture and psychoanalysis, one is posited with a few growing concerns wondering on the consecutive journey of these qualities in the juncture of today’s contemporary Japan.  Perhaps another phase of this quest would entail an exhaustive exploration on areas like –

(i)             What happens when the mother, or the woman of Japan, refuses to stay within this ‘wounded’ identified position? 

(ii)           What perhaps maybe the concerns when the woman/wife voices her claim of the presence of the absent man/husband, and does not feel contended with the void filled in by the notion of the nation/patriarchy, or for that matter by the substitute-child and ‘glorified motherhood’?

(iii)          And if there is an ambivalent locale being created by the rebellious mother in society with the already absent-father, who does the male-child identify with?  Is the paranoiac position the only option for the male-child? 

(iv)          What cultural and psychological narratives are being registered, re-created by the mother-daughter dyad in the child-rearing process in Japan?  Does the quality of ambiguity, suggestiveness have any unfavourable role to play in suppressing this mother-daughter complex dyadic attachment.


B.    Clinical Illustration (Indian Context)


1.Clinical Vignette from the Indian Context, Exemplifying ‘Transience’:

Mr. C has been in analysis for about 2yrs, with 3-times a week, on the couch.  He teaches in an international school, well-read and fairly informed about psychoanalysis, and had initially approached psychoanalysis on his own accord due to his repeated sexual exploration with women (colleagues, and professional sex workers – often simultaneously).  He is married for almost 10yrs with two girl-children, the elder one 5yrs old and the younger one of 2yrs.  His wife is a working woman who also teaches, in a local high school.  Mr. C has been largely captured in his sense of guilt revolving around his sexual compulsion.

However, in the present context of the session cited below, Mr. C has been in a long conflict regarding his leaving his village to come to the city to make his successful, modern life.  As a matter of fact, he often held this to be the chief reason for his latter development of ‘city vices’ leading to his sexual compulsion.  On one hand he was acutely embarrassed of his village roots along with his “uneducated”, “unsophisticated” parents, while on the other hand he was driven by guilt by this very thought of his wanting to disown his roots/history/parents simultaneously craving for all his city-life leisure and wealth.  This duality deeply pained him as he could not match this conflict between his ‘new’ city-self from his youth who was so concerned about the underprivileged of his country.

On one such occasion when he was visiting his home-town, he experienced something very deeply moving which he later shared in one of his sessions –


Mr. C: Do you remember I told you sometime back about an uncle of mine who was actually our neighbour, but who was very close to the family?

A: Yes, sure I do.

Mr. C:  I looked up to him more than I did to my own father.  He was more loving and also very strong.  I found my father to be always such a weakling next to him… (a few seconds of pause, and then speaking heavily), well, he passed away.

A: Oh, I am really sorry to hear that…

Mr. C: (Quiet for a while, then gradually)… Strange really!  He was nobody to me as such or to my family, I mean not related by blood, but I always felt like he was my father’s elder brother.  I used to feel so protected with him, much more than I ever did with my father.  (Long silence… he continued).  It feels strange to me that in all these months and years with you, I hardly ever spoke about him.  And yet today I feel so sad thinking about him (with almost chocked voice).  (Again a long silence as if we both were carrying that heaviness together).  Never realized that I felt such attachment with him… and yet he was nobody of blood-relation or family-connection to me.

A: As you can see one’s sense of attachment does not always go by blood or family relation.

Mr. C: And do you even know what he has done for me?!  (Announcing in a loud voice) He has left a small piece of land in my name in my home-town!  (Sounding unbelievable, happy and yet about to cry all at the same time)  I can’t believe this!  I knew he was very fond of me, especially during my childhood when I often spent time with him in the field.  But when I moved out of my home-town and came to live in the city, I hardly ever connected with him.  As a matter of fact, very strangely, I even used to avoid talking to him if he ever called me in my mobile.  Even when I went home during vacation I would always find some reason or the other to avoid meeting him.  My mother would often tell me about him but for some reason I just didn’t feel like it, I always seemed to have so much of work to finish.  But who ever thought of this?!  He did not marry, lived alone, was always so generous and kind. (He spoke in great pace and then suddenly paused)…  And now look at me, I feel so awfully guilty.  Last time when I went home, he had called me.  I did speak to him then but still could not manage to go over to meet him.  And now he is just gone! (Exasperated) How will I ever see him again? (Sounding sad… lost like a child. Quietly he continued speaking) I didn’t realize that he was about to leave forever!  And on top of that he left behind his only piece of wealth for me!  Why?!  Why?!  I cannot carry the weight of this land… my guilt! (Starts sobbing quietly, pausing… continues faintly)  Why didn’t I spend some more time with him?  How will I let him know that I did love him? (crying quietly)…

You know when I went back for his funeral, I went to his house and stood in the middle of that piece of land, all alone.  I just stood there all alone… (almost whispering he said). It felt I was so alone in that vast field… And I kept wondering what will I do with this land?

A: What do you wish to do with it?

Mr. C: (With child-like spontaneity he broke in) –  I feel like holding it with my two arms and crying… (quietly crying…)

A: It’s like holding your uncle with your two hands.

Mr. C: I wish I could hold my uncle just one more time.  It was such a long time back, I was such a child then.

A: You can continue to hold him whenever you wish, with your thoughts, like now.

Mr. C: But he will never know how much he meant to me.

A: Maybe he did, that’s why he could continue to love you as his very own.  Perhaps that’s why he left that field for you, perhaps all of any value that he owned, and where you spent most of your fond memories of childhood with him.

Mr. C: Maybe… (quiet) but I could never express enough.

A: At least you have started that now.


A few weeks later


Mr. C: (Looking happy and at peace he said) I feel at peace today.

A: (Smiling) Ah! Glad to hear… So, what brought this peace in you?

Mr. C: (Sounding enthusiastic) Just came back from my village last night. (A little pause) Can you believe it?  These days I actually start missing my village when am back in this city!

A: (Smiling) So there seems to be a bridge growing.

Mr. C: Maybe.  Now I don’t feel so torn apart between my village and my city-life anymore.  I think I am beginning to like my village, again, its life-pace especially, which is very different from this city.

Yes, very slow. But I like having my lazy tea in the balcony, looking out at nothing and at times smoking. (Suddenly sounding very excited, leans across and says) I think I am happy for some other reason actually!

A: (Smilingly I said) So what is that?

Mr. C: Yes, that’s what I want to tell you!  When I went home this time, I went back to that field that my uncle had left for me, and guess what I did?!  I planted little plants there!  I watered the land! (Very loud and very excited, almost like a child!)  Small plants like tomato, coriander.  And on the edge I planted some flower-pots too.  And now I can’t wait to go back to my village – can’t wait to see how the plants are, how much they have grown.  This time when I was there I went to the land every day, watered the land everyday!

A: (smiling I said) So it’s like you have finally planted all your love for your uncle.  You have finally found a way to express all your love to him and watered the seeds to grow.

Mr. C: I hope he can see it – and I did all that with my own two hands!  You know how it is – am not used to working in the field anymore.  But I enjoyed it so much after so many years!  Reminded me of that time when as a child I would often spend time with my uncle in the fields. (Looking at his hands he said) – feels good to see that they (meaning the hands) remember what was once taught to them by him.

A: Maybe this is how you will continue to hold your uncle with your two hands…


2. Discussion of the case cited above:

The above cited case is an exemplary of the quality of transience as experienced by Mr. C.  The pain of loss got symbolized into tangible forms of trees and plants expressing life & love which was borne out of the seeds sown with tears and grief from a deep loss by a child in Mr. C.  The trees on the piece of land started acting as a two-way transitional space between mortality and life.  Through the act of planting trees Mr. C was sowing the seeds of amae that he had once experienced so deep in his childhood with his uncle, and now he was symbolically transferring them into the abstraction of life.  This continuum of amae eventually helped Mr. C to experience transience, whereby he could mourn the profound loss of his uncle while at the same time experience the longing of that togetherness with him in their dual act of being in the field.  Yet it had the tranquility to let the loved one go while one moved quietly ahead with life.  This eventually made sense as to why Mr. C’s uncle left that piece of land for him as his inheritance, and why Mr. C ultimately found his internal happiness and peace in planting trees in that field and watering them.  His ego could find integration with his lost uncle, his lost childhood in that field, his unexpressed love for his uncle, all in this single act of planting trees and watering them in the field.  Thus, was paved the path of transience for Mr. C.

This above clinical citation is from the Indian context, and it is revealing to find that the play of the Japanese concept of amae and transience is very much in practice even in the Indian clinical situation.  As a matter of fact, this seems to resonate the Asian axiom relating life and death as a philosophical part of the larger cosmic journey of mankind where the locus of one’s bearings are grounded in the experience of amae, the passive dependant love of the recipient within a dyadic journey.


C.    Direct Experiential Learning


1 . Epilogue:

Sensei ‘viewing together’ with student – a personal interview:

This interview was a personal exchange with a research scholar, who was from another part of India, that I happened to encounter with during my stay in Japan, 2009.  This sharing is with mutual consent of both the scholar and her sensei.  To maintain confidentiality let us call the scholar Ms. A.

Ms. A, a research scholar in the area of social sciences was in Japan to do her research for her Ph.D work under the guidance of her Japanese sensei.  Her work comprised an interdisciplinary study of cultural, psychological, and anthropological theories and nuances in the formation of Modern Japan.  During her period of research, quite at the end of it, when she was about to submit her thesis, a very unfortunate incident crossed her life.  She lost her father back in India.  He was unwell for a long time, and when she did leave the country he had already been in-and-out of the hospital a few times.   So, it did not quite occur to her that the eventuality of the situation would finally hit when she would still be out of the country.  She thought her father would sail through till she returned to India.  Unfortunately time had its own chronicle.  She lost her father while she was still about to complete her Ph. D work.  And no one can ever be prepared enough to face death when it ultimately comes – and so it was with Ms. A.

However, Ms. A somehow managed to go back to India briefly for her father’s last rites, and then again came back to Japan to complete and submit her Ph.D thesis.  Needless to say that she was left deeply distressed with this significant loss in her life, and painfully worried about her mother who was all on her own, back in India.  Ms. A knew how intensely her mother was attached to her father.  Besides, she all the more wanted to be next to her mother because she knew that her mother may have to go through silent coercion from her family/society to comply with certain customs of Hindu widows, like wearing white sari (and no other colour on her), becoming vegetarian – which Ms. A did not necessarily wish her mother to go through.  She wanted her mother to continue having a full-life.  As a matter of fact, her father was very much aware of such societal pressures that may come upon her mother, so he particularly had told his daughter to ensure that her mother did not have to go through such inhuman social rituals and norms after his demise.  She shuddered to think how helpless her mother may feel at that point with none to protect her against all such rituals and customs of a widow.  Ms. A was torn in deep remorse.  Ms. A’s own motherly instinct to protect her mother from this desolation and loneliness was severely shaken up.  She had always been very close to her mother, and it tore her heart apart to leave her mother and return to Japan to complete her task.  But Ms. A’s mother, much like her late father, had a very strong sense of commitment, and thus encouraged her daughter to complete her work and then return to India (as her mother repeatedly mentioned that it was only a matter of a month’s time at the most), after which they will stay together.  Then she could take care of her mother.  As a matter of fact her mother wanted her to attain her PhD degree as that would bring her much honour and glory – something that no other woman in that family had so far been able to attain.  And in this interim period her mother promised her that she will take good care of herself, wait for her daughter’s successful return; while Ms. A promised that she will talk to her mother every day and stay connected in every possible way.  Finally Ms. A was convinced and decided to get back to Japan to complete all formalities to submit her Ph.D thesis.  All she had to do was face her Ph.D  defence.  However, what she was not ready to face, even in her gravest of moments in life, came and hit her, compelling her to surrender to such unfair tests of life.  Before she could return to India after her Ph.D submission she received the shocking news of her mother’s sudden death in a massive heart attack.

Ms. A was left numb. She froze with shock.

Far away from her home-land, the only person she sought for at that time was her sensei.  Her sensei was someone with bounteous experience of life, was an age of seniority and maturity.  He was in the healing profession himself.  Thus, not too consciously she went to seek her sensei, perhaps seeking to be healed off her fresh wound.  She called her sensei from her office-room requesting for some time to come and see him in person.  She was given an appointed time after a day or two by the sensei.

This part of the ‘appointed time’ may seem a little strange to an ‘outsider’ (not from the Japanese culture), as it seemed somewhat baffling to Ms. A too.  But she tried to contain herself with whatever was coming her way.  Whoever is acquainted with the ways of Japanese life would know that unlike the Indian ways of very elaborate, expressive emotions, and bodily connections, the Japanese ways are more symbolic, delicate, and apparently detached and ‘impersonal’.  (This quality of detached, impersonal connection was something that was so eloquently portrayed in the above mentioned film, Tokyo Monogatari, quite similarly after the death of the mother in the family.) Though Ms. A was internally searching for a pair of loving arms that would hold her tight to allow her to cry her heart out, she tried to succumb most intently to the new learning of the Japanese way of showing care and tenderness through symbolic attachment.

All these months and years when the two of them, Ms. A and her Japanese sensei, have had their meetings (which was usually once a week), the sensei would always be seated on his usual chair opposite to Ms. A, while she sat on the sofa.  This was how it was always.  That particular day too it was the same.  However, the change came about after Ms. A took her usual position on the sofa.  Her sensei quietly got up from his chair and came and sat next to her on the sofa.  They sat that way for a few minutes in silence till the sensei asked Ms. A about her mother, her family, what were her thoughts then.  Ms. A spoke a few inaudible words and let her tears roll down in silence.  Her sensei forwarded the box of tissues that was usually there on the table, and waited for her to be able to get herself together  – the extended tissue box was perhaps the yielding touch of the sensei, except that there was nothing else in physical contact (something so very different from the Indian bodily, comforting contact at times of such human distress – while listening to the narrative of the scholar it felt how acutely painful this moment may have been for her; two distinct languages of connectedness of two different cultures, containing both in order to contain an even deeper loss).

Ms. A talked a little to her sensei about her state of feeling shocked hearing her mother’s sudden death.  She gradually felt being held with her sensei’s eloquence of silence more than any elocution, expressed through his symbolic position of sitting next to her on the sofa.  The sharing led to the sensei briefly talking about his mother – for the first time was there something very personal shared by the sensei.  He briefly mentioned his somewhat anxiety about his aging, ailing mother.  By the time Ms. A left the sensei’s room, she was more poised with her deep sorrow, more contained with the symbolic tenderness that she experienced in those 20-minutes with her sensei.  In her next meeting with the sensei she shared her parents’ old photographs with him, feeling more and more subsumed with tenderness.

Ms. A recalled this entire incident as something that would stay deep and special with her forever.

Perhaps this was a unique exemplary to uphold and elaborate the concept of ‘viewing together’ encrypted within the cultural nuances of Japanese everyday living.  While the duo was reflecting over old photographs of Ms. A’s parents, her sensei was helping her to take infant steps towards life ahead.  Indeed it takes one to live life in a certain culture, which is so unique and distinct in its expressions, in order to feel/experience its nuances of intimacy embedded in human transaction.  And simultaneously to internally experience the bondings, pinings of one’s own culture whose language of tenderness maybe so diametrically opposite to the immediate environment that one was in.  This entire narration does leave one with deep thoughts about Ms. A’s containing capacity, her ego’s flexibility, and how difficult the process must have been for her.  Yes, she did feel the generous gesture in another culture expressed in their own unique ways, but there was so much within her that was still un-touched, unhealed.  Ms. A was torn apart with guilt – something that she could not forgive herself for.  She kept thinking how she left her mother alone, unprotected and came to Japan for her own selfish reasons to finish her Ph.D, complete her academic venture.  But she could not voice any of this with anyone in that far off country from her homeland.


One hopes that perhaps one day Ms. A would somehow  come to realize transience as a quality in her, that she may come across in her research quest in Japan itself, as her own cultural beliefs of the Hindu religion that speaks of life after death, which would hopefully enable her to let go off her pain, guilt, agony of not being there for her parents. Perhaps life’s journey becomes richer with every test of life and with our every effort to overcome that temporal internal battle to continue one’s walk of life.


2. Conclusion:

It is a common saying that according to the Japanese philosophy one believes in the transience of life on earth – as if life on this earth sails through it, in transit from one point of its journey to another world.   This is one such wisdom that not only echoes the Indian spiritual tutelage but equally resonates an Asian tenet of livelihood.  In other words, life is dynamic which simply passes through this world, its task is to initiate the feeling of transience in mankind.  In this life’s promenade, one’s maturational process with its reparative guilt, that Kitayama mentioned in his Prohibition of Don’t LookLiving Through Psychoanalysis & Culture in Japan (2010) may further help the ego to attain its status of a mature state of amae in later life.  That in turn may assist in the creation of an internal ‘container’ within the individual.  This ‘container’ may further support the process of integration of the many losses in life, deriving ‘jouissance’ (enjoyment) of life from the container, which subsequently formulates the essential quality of transience in life (Kitayama, 1998).

An island like Japan which has had to constantly confront the calamitous challenges of nature in the form of typhoons and earthquakes, whose people have had to time and again evacuate and re-build their homes and hopes, perhaps need to create this kind of a philosophy of transience as one of its most significant sublimated cultural defence mechanisms to deal with man’s repeated helpless submission to the omnipotent play of nature on mankind.  Since life is in its passing, and thus cannot be captured, not even with words, which can only be suggested, hence the role of metaphor so strong in Japanese language and culture.   To extend further this metaphorical dialect, perhaps life itself takes the re-presentation of an allegory.  Whether it is in Haiku, or other forms of Japanese art, like the visual art of Ukiyo-e, or others like Kabuki, Noah, or the post-war artistic form of Butoh, the role of metaphor is embedded in Japanese culture.


To finally conclude – a return to the one with whom the journey of this paper began in the first place, to Basho,

Sick on my journey

only my dreams will wander

these desolate moors

This poem was said to have been written when Basho was encountering his death.  Here he tried to capture something as vast as life and death within a few simple suggestive words.  On one hand his illness brought an end to his life’s curve, while on the other his dreams and hopes which are timeless, eternal, would continue to wander in this world even after he had to say goodbye to this material world.  He suggested man’s love for life and how we all want to live for eternity, quite like our dreams, some unfulfilled while some satisfied, but even if those dreams had to wander “desolate moors” they continue to exist.  Dreams continue to float from one plane to another, travel from one world to another, continue to live in one form or another – and thus, continues our engrafted amae creating our dreams in continuum transience.


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Jhuma Basak, is a PhD in Psychology, a Training Analyst and Joint Secretary of the Indian Psychoanalytical Society. She is the representative of the 4thregion, the Asia-Pacific sector, and member of the committee on women & psychoanalysis (COWAP) of the IPA.  She was acting as the chief convenor of the 1stCOWAP international conference in Kolkata, India, in 2018.  She is interested in culture, women & gender in psychoanalysis. She is the editor of Samiksa, the annual psychoanalytic journal of the Indian Psychoanalytical Society. She is a member of the International Advisory Board of the journal of Institutionalized Children: Exploration & Beyond (ICEB). Her articles have been broadly translated into different languages including Japanese, Spanish, and French. She is associated with different colleges/universities in India (Amdedkar University, Christ University, NSHM Knowledge Campus, Karnavati University), teaching psychoanalysis, psychology, social sciences. She holds her private practice attached to private hospitals & clinic (Medica Hospital, Woodlands Hospital, & Crystal Minds Clinic in Kolkata, India).

Publication Date:

September 2, 2018

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