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What is “amae” ?

September 12, 2014

The Western world doesn’t make a point of talking about our feelings. In other cultures, there are entire vocabularies devoted to expressing feelings and experiences that seem to elude Western language. Think of all those lists that circulate the internet, “Words that don’t exist in English”—one of them came to me in recently because, perhaps for my entire life, I had been searching for some explanation of a deeply rooted feeling I’ve had my entire life: the strong and sometimes shameful desire to have someone love me the way parents are supposed to love their children. 

I, like many people, had a childhood that did not include happy relations with my parents. I was on my own at a young age and was something of a self-made foster kid: I roamed around town, sleeping where I could, learning not to rely on anyone or anything to comfort me. I thought I was living but in truth, I was merely surviving. As I’ve gotten older, that deep ache of longing has only gotten worse: holidays pass me by without celebration, I wish I had someone to call when I’m sick or afraid—and not just a friend, because I’m blessed to have several of those—I’m talking about someone that I can be childishly dependent upon—in many ways, my development was arrested because I never formed a bond with my mum or dad—nor was there any other consistent caregiver in my life with whom I could experience that relationship.

For years I’ve attempted to understand this. Romantic relationships have not filled this void, nor have my wonderful friendships, no therapist or professor or friends’s parent could ever make me feel as though I belonged. Living in the United States, where independence is so highly valued, I soon became ashamed by this longing to belong. I became ashamed of wanting so much to be loved.

In Japanese culture, they talk openly about this longing. The concept of amae is so integral to Japanese culture that they have developed an entire vocabulary discussing it—something I can’t imagine ever happening in the west. Amae is that thing we are seeking—that sense of dependence and belonging that children typically experience with their parents. In the western world this is acceptable when children are very little and helpless, but as they grow up, we strip them of their pursuit of amae because we don’t want them to appear “spoiled” or “bratty”—we want to foster independence—not dependence—and if an older child—or even an adult—has these yearnings we call them “clingy” or “needy”—this is not the case in Japanese culture. 

To pursue amae, a person may use amaeru which are the actions a person undertakes to request that love from another. In western culture, this might be a child acting out so their mother will pay attention. We will scold the child and feel that we do not want them to express their neediness that way. In fact, we may punish them for it. In Japan, to have someone use amaeru to seek from you amae, that sweet dependence, is seen as a positive thing. To have someone depend on you, or desire to, is an honor. To be needed is a gift. 

What a complete departure from western culture! 

Having explained amae, I feel that I should also touch upon the social implications of fostering a culture of “sweet dependence”—when you think of cute, big-eyed, Lolita girls (kawaii) you are seeing a facet of amae in Japanese culture that is, perhaps, not positive. Women are turned into these girlish characters because amae has made it appealing for women and girls to appear needy—not just to men, but each other. In some ways, the propensity of Japanese females to dress and behave in kawaii styles probably is motivated by the culture of amae—and kawaii is their amaeru to their families, potential boyfriends and future husbands. It also creates a league of women who are aware of each other’s amae

The over-sexualization of girls in this culture, perhaps as a result of amae’s evolution in Japanese society, is not something I’m comfortable with. However, the root philosophy of amae has impacted me deeply—because the truth is, the coining of a term for something that is inherent to all human beings, to all societies, is an important study of cultural values—we don’t have a word for this because it doesn’t matter to us; perhaps it matters a little too much to Japan. 

I would like it to matter to me a little more, to be honest. 

I drew the Japanese symbols for amae (甘え) on my wrist the other day, to remind myself that what I feel—the longing to be part of a family, to have people to count on, that love me no matter what—is human. 

This post originally appeared on The Urban Times. 

Author: amae-amaeru

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