The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Most of us on occasion feel the urge to crumple into the arms of a loved one to be coddled and comforted. It’s important and reviving, this sensation of temporary surrender in perfect safety. The feeling it gives us is not easily captured in English, but Japanese people know it as amae (pronounced ah-ma-eh).

In Japan, amae is commonly acknowledged as part of all kinds of relationships, felt not only between family members, but with friends and in the workplace too. It does have shades of gray. Children may be accused of behaving in an amaeru way—wheedling and wide eyed, and hoping someone else will do something for them. Or a teenager might be warned against being amai (the adjective) for not bothering to study for a test—assuming somehow he’ll pass anyway. “Behaving like a spoiled child,” is one translation; “leaning on another person’s good will,” is another.

But these phrases do not do justice to the esteem in which amae is also held. According to the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, amae is “an emotion that takes the other person’s love for granted,” there when we depend on another’s help with no obligation to be grateful in return. You can even be encouraged to show some amae to yourself, when working too hard. For Doi, surrendering to amae is important because it represents a return to the indulgences and unconditional nurturing of infancy. It’s the glue that allows stable relationships to flourish, an emblem of the deepest trust.

It’s the fact that this combination of vulnerability and belonging has a name at all in Japan that has made many emotionologists curious. In the 1970s Western anthropologists became very excited about amae, arguing that it was evidence that even our most intimate emotions are shaped by the political and economic organization of the societies in which we live. They argued that amae had flourished in Japan’s traditionally collectivist culture, and was a clue to the way its society continued to celebrate group dependency over individualism. Some went even further, arguing that amae “defined the Japanese national character,” a claim that looks oversimplistic today.

Still, the fluency with which Japanese people speak about the pleasures of amae makes one wonder. Why do those of us who grew up speaking English fumble when we try to articulate a similar experience? Perhaps this lacuna in English speaks volumes about how hard it can be to accept other people’s support. There is the worry of being thought “needy” or childish. The fear of becoming a link in an unbearable chain of obligations (see: GRATITUDE). And perhaps most of all, the embarrassment—of having to admit that we’re not always the entirely self-sufficient adults we like to pretend to be.