December 24th, 2009


Hayao Kawai, the self, and the great mother

The other day, chatting with Alin Huma, I asked "Who was it who said the Japanese have no pyschoanalysis, and no need for psychoanalysts, because they have no unconscious? Because all the neuroses are on the surface here?"

"It was Lacan, wasn't it?" said Alin.

Actually, there have been Japanese psychoanalysts. Hayao Kawai (1928-2007), for instance. If Freud delved into the Bible and Greek mythology for motifs like Moses and Oedipus, Kawai delved into Buddhism, Japanese folk tales, and even the novels of Haruki Murakami for his motifs and examples. Kawai thought of himself as a Jungian. Much of his work examines the difference between the Eastern and Western mindsets.

In books like Psyche in Japan and Buddhism and the Art of Psychotherapy, Kawai laid out three key points which he saw as distinguishing the Eastern mind:

1. A tendency to introversion
2. The location of consciousness outside the self
3. The strength of "the great mother inside"

According to Kawai, there's a lack of distinction in the Eastern world between consciousness and unconsciousness (an idea which mirrors Lacan's thought about everything we think of as "deeply buried" being out in the open and up on the surface in Japan). Eastern philosophy seeks the self, historically, in its own unconsciousness. Jung said that when Westerners say the word "mind" it refers to consciousness, but when Easterners say the same word it refers to the unconscious.

Here's a simple diagram Kawai made to show the differences between the Eastern and Western minds, as he saw it. The Eastern self lives in the unconsciousness, which means there's a lack of knowledge of the self. The self in Westerners is put in the centre of consciousness, which means that the self is seen as strong, central and independent -- and yet frail, because this Robinson Crusoe is surrounded by the unknown, able to be overwhelmed and undermined at any moment by powerful "instincts" and "impulses" from somewhere else.

As a result of this basic organisation of the self, Westerners tend to find the meaning of their life in a fight with fate and with their own nature, whereas Easterners tend to find the meaning of life in "tasting their fate"; accepting it, and living in harmony with their own nature. The typical Western dramatic hero struggles against the inevitable, whereas the typical Eastern hero "tastes" and accepts it.

This leads to differences in attitudes to "the great mother" (which relates to my thoughts about the robotic female authority figure in overwhelmed by milk). In the West, thinks Kawai, people have to kill their mother in order to win their independence. In the East, people try to achieve independence without killing the mother.

In Japan, says Kawai, people tend to model any kind of social group on family relationships, in both good and bad ways. When your school and company is a family group, things can sometimes get intolerable, stifling. On the other hand, society as a great universal mother can bind people together and make them less lonely.

Kawai didn't entirely see Japan as an Eastern culture, though; for him it was an important bridge, a place where Western and Eastern conceptions of the self and society could mingle.