#008 The Ups and Downs of Japanese Amae (Travel - 2)
There’s yelling outside of my Tokyo apartment. I look through my balcony door and two elderly people stand in the street arguing. They’re engaged in that age-old conflict that everyone has with a neighbor at some point. The one about noise pollution.
I don’t see conflict very often in Japan. When I walk around Tokyo, the surging crowd moves like a school of fish. Everyone appears oblivious to everyone else, but there’s some sort of electrical communication that allows them to synchronize.
The only time there’s a mishap is when I’m involved. I have the obliviousness part down, but not the extrasensory awareness that keeps me from cutting across traffic in the wrong direction and tumbling through the throng like an octopus.
In her essay, “The Way I’ve Come,1” Judy Copeland weaves her childhood in Japan with a hike in Papua New Guinea, where she navigated lethal terrain guided by a handful of little girls.
The childhood in Japan part intrigued me. I’m half-Japanese, I’ve been living here for 6 years, and I still can’t say that I understand much about the Japanese psyche.
I always find it funny when foreigners claim to understand Japan. I’m not going to say that no foreigner understands it, but, in my experience, asking a foreigner about Japan tells you more about them than it does about Japan. It’s a litmus test that asks, “What do you assume about people? What do you want from them? What scares you most about them?”
When I first moved here, I taught at a junior high for kids who didn’t fit into regular schools. Most of them merely struggled with learning, but some of them had significant behavioral issues. There was only one serious fistfight, and I was shocked that we had so few. It was junior high, after all, let alone the behavioral issues.
It was a tough job, but one of the things that uplifted me was watching the kids swerve around insects as they traipsed the rural campus. I assumed it meant that they had no use for unnecessary violence (because that’s what I wish most about people).
Copeland also seems wary of her foreigner bias. She spends a good part of her essay mulling over whether her childhood impressions of Japan have any relationship to reality. Was it the idyllic child’s paradise that she remembers?
I think of Takeo Doi, the Japanese psychiatrist who said in his Anatomy of Dependence that his society values amae, the passive, trusting love a child has for adults, rather than the self-reliance prized by Americans. I recall his theory of how a stunted amae can block a person’s spiritual growth, and now I wonder if there may be something to it.
I wonder if there’s something to it, too. Maybe everything I’ve noticed about Japan stems from amae.
There’s the obliviousness and the lack of aggression, but the people here seem generally far more content with life than Americans.
The aggressive people I see in Japan are always old. Maybe it’s because they’ve reached the end of the amae line—too old to be anything but the recipients of it. It sounds like a good position to be in until you remember that it makes them responsible for upholding the system. They shoulder the burden, so young people can feel secure.
I definitely arrived in Japan in an amae deficit. For a long time, I luxuriated in the safety and predictability of it, but, lately, I find myself missing what an amae-filled culture seems to lack.
I can only explain by giving examples.
My first hairdresser in Japan had lived in New York City for a few years. When I imagined that sweet, amae-filled young man in New York, I was relieved to see him safely back in Tokyo. He said he missed New York terribly.
“Don’t you find it dirty?” I asked.
“Yes, but that’s what I miss about it,” he said, “I like the dirt. It’s different.”
“What about the clunky old subway system?” I asked.
“Oh, I miss that so much!”
I made eye-contact with him in the mirror and furrowed my eyebrows.
“But, I really miss the people,” he said.
I had to agree that New Yorkers are quite miss-able, but maybe because I’m married to one?
In one episode of Comedians in Cars with Jerry Seinfeld, he and Colin Quinn reminisce about the New York of the 70’s and 80’s, when everything was eclectic and exciting. It was ripe with that heady, euphoric sense of possibility that New York has long been famous for, but you also knew you could be knifed at any moment.
The risk of getting knifed in New York is extremely low today, but it’s owned by corporations that have homogenized everything. There’s something very amae inducing about the pre-designed corporate experience, but it’s wrong kind. Like orphan baby ducks, we’ve become imprinted onto brands, rather than something better, like any entity that has our best interests in mind.
Regardless, even though I haven’t been to New York in six years, I’m sure if I visited today it’d still be dirty and uncivilized (compared to Tokyo). New Yorkers would still be passionately expressing themselves in a thousand different ways. It’d still sizzle with possibility. That feeling might be dulled and less electric, but it’d be there.
I hate feeling like I might be knifed (or shot) at any moment (doesn’t everyone?), but I miss feeling surrounded by potential.
I think that’s what my hairdresser meant when he said, “I like the dirt.” Of course, he probably didn’t know about the knifings.
If I hadn’t spent the last six years in Japan, I’d have never learned to appreciate the opposite of amae. I’d still be wandering around the US wondering why everything had to be so hostile and dangerous. It doesn’t, of course. I’m sure all Americans could benefit from a greater sense of amae, but our potential means that we can build a culture that’s both safe and full of possibility.
Do you have the right amount of amae in your life? How do you manage? Let me know in the comments.
This is part 2 of my series on travel and location. Does it add meaning to our lives or are we better off staying home? Subscribe to find out.
The Best American Travel Writing 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert