Study of hidden motives

Doi's contributions to "the Japanese are unique" school

By William Wetherall

A review of
Takeo Doi
The Anatomy of Self: The Individual Versus Society
Translated by Mark A. Harbison
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986
163 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 132(23), 5 June 1986, pages 53-54

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

Takeo Doi, one of Japan's foremost psychiatrists, concluded early in his clinical career that certain Japanese words which lack equivalents in other languages are keys to understanding Japanese culture and behavior. In 1971, after twenty-five years of writing in academic journals on such words, Doi went public with a bestseller called Amae no kozo [The structure of amae]. This came out two years later in an English translation by John Bester called The Anatomy of Dependence (Kodansha International).

The word amae refers to acts like indulging in someone's kindness, and to attitudes like sentimentality. Doi's extended interpretations inspired the use of amae to describe Japan's military, economic, and technological "dependence" on the United States.

Japan now feels uncomfortable with the idea of "interdependency", especially in high technology. Claiming that some attempts to launch communication satellites had failed because of U.S. parts, Japan began building its rockets to 100% "pure Japanese" standards.

Since his amae book, Doi has written or contributed to a number of other non-academic works which have stressed the need to explore Japanese culture in its own terms. In one of these he criticized American researchers who had used projective techniques like the Rorschach "inkblot" test in cross-cultural studies of American and Japanese personality. Doi doubts the validity of such studies because he feels that psychological tests designed without Japanese culture and personality in mind are inadequate as comparative yardsticks.

Doi, though, has been attacked by Japanese who believe that his apparently "emic" (insider's) perspective still smells of the "etic" (outsider's) understanding of Japan. Such so-called "New Japanologists" who claim that what Doi tends to see as "dependency" in the "unilateral" hence "childish" or "immature" sense of the word is really "interdependency" of the kind that well-adjusted Japanese adults need in order to function in Japanese society.

Words that are commonly used in comparative discussions of Japan, like guilt and shame, horizontal and vertical society, and even individual and group, are also being targeted by New Japanologists who feel that their underlying concepts are too "Euro-American" to apply to Japan. Believing that jargon makes a difference, they are trying to develop a more universal "general systems theory that lays a foundation for methodological contextualism [so that] new horizons for Japan studies will be opened" (The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 11 No. 2, Summer 1985).

But in March last year, still clinging to the old terminology, Doi came out with a new best seller which tries to make cultural differences out of the words of its title, Omote to ura [Front and back]. The English version, though published early this year, has few of the flaws that usually mar hasty translations of "must read" books. The notes have been reorganized and expanded for the "Western reader" (some publishers of have yet to realize how much non-western journalists, scholars, and even tourists "depend" on books in English about Japan), and two essays have been appended for the benefit of readers who miss the points of the main text.

Doi is pleased with the title that Kodansha editors chose for the English edition because he believes that it "truly matches what the original Japanese title evokes for Japanese readers." But the anatomical English title really seems to have been a marketing decision that had little to do with the connotations of the Japanese.

The alleged "title match" will also go down for the count if Doi's New Japanologist critics are right. For the English title suggests the kinds of self-centered interpersonal confrontations which are not supposed to occur in social relations between Japanese "contextuals" -- the neologism that New Japanologists have used in place of "individuals" and its "un-Japanese" nuances of Euro-American ego.

Doi avoids such issues. Though Doi's book offers "yet another theory to explain the Japanese", his "real aim" in writing it was "to examine these Japanese concepts [of omote and ura] in light of ideas that originate in the West and, by doing so, to deepen them and to discover in them a universal significance."

The words omote and ura are closely related to tatemae and honne, which is what the book is mainly about. In fact, tatemae and honne are competing with Mt. Fuji and Geisha as the symbols of Japan.

A newspaper may use freedom of speech as a tatemae [basis, pretext] to expose a politician while secretly wanting to manipulate popular opinion for other reasons. Japanese call such hidden motives the honne [true feelings, real nature] of a situation.

Doi declines to define honne as "the truth" and tatemae as "mere pretense" because he does not want to imply that one is morally good and the other morally evil. It is just "the nature of things" that some things are revealed to the outside world while others are concealed within.

While there is "nothing inherently wrong" in hiding one's honne, "honne can run rampant in ways that are extremely grotesque ... when a person does not recognize his or her own honne for what it is and actually goes so far as to deny its existence." When a person "loses control" of honne, then the tatemae no longer "legitimizes" the honne.

"While tatemae appears in omote [front], honne is concealed in ura [back]," he explains. "That is, honne exists only because there is tatemae, and honne manipulates tatemae from behind. In this way, tatemae and honne are in a mutually defining and mutually constituting relationship. Without one, the other cannot exist."

This may confuse -- but should not surprise -- the "Western" reader who has already learned from life that even normal people have many faces and tongues. There are also two sides to every coin (and some edges, too, if one wants to get really philosophical about it), and the several aspects of every truth and lie. Not to mention the ulterior motives for telling (and wanting to know) all the stories behind the stories -- ad infinitum ad nauseam.

Doi compares tatemae to Max Weber's concept of "legitimate order" and honne to the "wide range of motives" that Weber admits will "naturally" be involved in practical attempts to orient action toward a desired order (i.e., get people to do what you want them to). Aspects of tatemae/honne (omote/ura) are also found in "Western" concepts like rationalization in psychoanalytic theory, the ethics of means and ends, and contrastive pairs like public and private. Despite such counterparts in other cultures, Doi concludes that "it is undeniable that the pairing of tatemae and honne is a uniquely Japanese way of thinking and, indeed, of feeling."

Although Japanese may seem to have split personalities, "it is precisely this distinction between omote and ura [tatemae and honne] that has enabled the Japanese to handle ambivalence. The urge to eliminate ambivalence for a higher integrity is generally weak among the Japanese. The average Japanese attempts to get through life by keeping the contradictions between omote and ura to a minimum and to avoid showing his or her ura to others."

But even Japanese do not like too much "game playing" or "duplicity" (to take the romantic lid off Doi's garbage can). "As we [Japanese] often say," Doi writes, "if you beat them with a stick, a certain amount of dust will rise from anyone." And a person who has hidden too much dirt will be hated as surely as those who are only as filthy as everyone else will be understood and loved.

Doi does not pursue this idea politically. But it seems that the publicly exposed politician must be ritually purged for the sake of those who have kept closer watch on their closet doors. This would explain the "holier than thou" mentality that has motivated some Japanese politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists to take former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to the cleaners for keeping too many ura behind his Lockheed omote. Next in line to be sacrificed for losing control of their honne are a flock of Marcosgate suspects.

Doi's most original contribution to the Japanese-are-unique school (which should please the New Japanologists) is an effort to explain the love that Japanese are rumored to have for nature. According to him, Japanese can trust nature completely because it has no omote/ura.

Japanese minds may not be torn by "the Christian conflict between spirit and flesh" (Doi is a Catholic), or burdened by "the severe dichotomy of subject and object that is inherent in the Western philosophical tradition" (and also a Freudian). But, Doi argues, "the Japanese are afflicted, nevertheless, with the splitting of consciousness into omote and ura, [and they] seek to be one with nature precisely because of this affliction."

Doi believes that "the Japanese turn to nature for healing when their hearts are split, when they weary of this splitting of consciousness [between omote and ura]." By this he seems to mean that Japanese who suffer stress, because their culture obliges them to deal with human conflict by concealing their inner feelings, can redeem a measure of self-esteem in nature -- as though nature wears its heart on its sleeve just to remind its Japanese dependents that it has not been sullied by the "something [that they find] unsatisfying about the way [they] deal with human conflict." Or do not deal with it.

Doi does not explain what he means by nature. But surely it is not the nature that Japanese have been as willing as Euro-Americans to destroy in the interest of modernization. With regard to nature as it is before humans manipulate it with culture (rather than what it becomes when it is manicured and miniaturized in gardens and pots that are controlled much like their weekend gardeners are snipped and bound by the pruners and wires of their corporate lives), Japan has relied on Euro-America for most of its ecological and conservationist insights. And still Japan finds reason to fight the world consensus on whaling.

Alhough a psychological and cultural work, Doi's book on omote and ura has already been pressed into the service of explaining the "communication gap" which some people like to think is the real cause of trade friction among other international conflicts involving Japan. But do tatemae and honne really account for why Japan may be playing its hands as close to its chest as some of its trading partners seem to think?

Perhaps Doi's nature lovers simply feel too insecure to risk opening Japan's doors as fully as is expected of one of the world's major economic, demographic, and cultural powers. In other ways, though, Japan seems sufficiently sure of itself to demand more respect from the countries that it once wanted to emulate. The New Japanologists, for their part, are showing Japan's true colors by serving notice on explanations of Japanese culture and behavior which they feel, like some of Doi's theories, depend too heavily on Euro-American concepts of self and society. But the New Japanologists are not really new. For unlike most foreign cars, imported ideas have usually been modified to drive on Japan's side of the road.