Japanese “Amae”: Indirect Signals For Love

What a Japanese practice says about how we communicate and reciprocate affection. 

Japanese amae
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

There’s something about being Japanese – and if I may hazard a generalization, some other Asian populations – that seems to persistently puzzle foreigners. Our indirectness. Our words beneath our words. Our reading in between the lines, finishing each other’s sentences…in our heads.

This seems to be reflected on the media we enjoy. American reality shows are all about pizzazz, everybody being honest to an extent so brutal that it makes you laugh – think The Bachelor, Keeping up with the Kardashians – you’ve never met anybody in real life who talk like that. Japanese dramas are, at least on the surface, a little more toned down. The internationally renowned and long-airing Terrace House – a Japanese and “soft-core” version of Love Island which brings a few young men and women into the same house and lets things “naturally” happen – is a testament to this. (Terrace House is just as scripted as “unscripted” drama goes, but still, their product is the façade of everyday life.)

Terrace House Series
FACEBOOK Terrace House Series

The cast members of Terrace House don’t lash out when they are hurt by another’s actions, they weep silently in bed. They don’t verbally convey their annoyance or sadness, but they let it sit behind their smiles. Faking our feelings isn’t uncommon for anyone, Japanese or not – but Japanese drama has this talent of bringing implication to the forefront. It leaves each silent gap of every unspoken word to breathe in its own space, shines a blinding light on every odd quirk and tick, and they’re unmissable like somebody bringing up an object so close to your face that your eyes cross. It hurts.

Amae: A Signal for Unconditional Acceptance

The Japanese concept of amae (pronounced “ama-é”) describes a situation where one person asks for an “inappropriate” favor from another and expects to have it granted. For example, even if I am lounging on the couch and am physically healthy, I might act on my amae and ask for my roommate to do my dishes. This is not because I am incapable of doing the dishes – rather, amae functions as a signifier of intimacy. When I make the request, I am signaling to my roommate that I consider us to be close enough to be making such requests. On the other end, if my roommate accepts, I take it as a signal that she also wants to establish us as close friends. (She might say, “Oh, if you insist,” in a mildly exasperated, fond way to further convey her true feelings.)

Conventionally, in Japan, the concept is associated with a child that pleads with their caregivers. If we imagine an infant with its loving mother, the infant can barely speak up for themselves or specify what they want – they merely wail incoherently until their wish is granted. Perhaps they are hungry, perhaps they need some rest. It is up to the parent to leave what they are doing immediately and tend to their child exactly as is required.

Family at Table
Family at table. Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

Amae isn’t uniquely Japanese; after all, none of us will have trouble picturing such an instance of parent-child relationship, and some of us will have been fortunate enough to grow up with it. Keiko Kaito points out, however, that in Japan, amae doesn’t end once a child grows up. This maternalistic dynamic manifests itself in work relations, romantic relations, and all types of social dynamics in the world of adults. (While anybody can practice amae, the intention behind requesting a favor could also be different cross-culturally. A 2006 study found that while Japanese people ask favors out of the desire to secure their relationship with the other person, in the same situations, the American sample were more likely to derive a sense of personal control over the relationship.)

Amae in Adult Relationships

The cultural practice of amae often gets a negative reputation in academia for being synonymous to what we are used to calling insecure attachment. But Yamaguchi and Ariizumi draw a crucial distinction between the two. Insecure attachment is when one is fearful of losing an intimate connection with another. Amae, on the other hand, is not demanded out of insecurity. Rather, one needs to be secure in the knowledge that they are being unconditionally loved by the other in order to demand for costly things. Yamaguchi and Ariizumi therefore insist that amae cannot happen without a basis of secure attachment.

One study in 2010 investigated amae’s function in young, Japanese heterosexual couples. Each individual’s perception of their relationship quality was correlated with how much amae (inappropriate demands) they requested and received from their partner. Furthermore, little difference was reported across gender—men were just as likely to both request and receive amae as were women. This may imply that amae has little to do with power dynamics. Even between a heterosexual couple, it didn’t mean that women necessarily took on their traditional role of caregiver when it came to amae. A couple in which both genders requested and received care freely perceived the highest relationship quality.

All of amae is in the implication, and never explicitly said. When you ask a loved one for a favor, you’re not really saying, “I’m asking you a favor so that if you fulfill it, I’ll feel even more intimately connected to you” – but that’s what you’re really hoping to communicate. You don’t want to have the other person thinking you’re trying to impose your power on them; you want them to think that what you really want is intimacy but you shy away from saying that you want intimacy, so you ask for something else instead.

Downtown Tokyo
Downtown Tokyo. Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

This seems entirely too convoluted on paper, especially as in the modern day, we’re used to obsessively laying down our expectations to each other, along with personality test results, love languages, attachment styles, with a therapist egging us on. But the Japanese are hardly the only people that rely heavily on implication. It’s often our closest ones that seem to be hardest to say things as we feel them.

Direct communication is important, and amae doesn’t try to replace that. Rather, amae is a larger narrative about why we want to be indirect sometimes, in the first place. The fear of not being reciprocated. The quiet exhilaration when your feelings are reciprocated. The embarrassment, the joy. Letting the action speak for itself. The connection we all crave is never handed down to us on a black and white plate, like it is sometimes in the movies. It’s absent when we feel we most need it, it presents itself when we least expect it, it twists and manifests itself in the loving subtleties of everyday life.

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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