The Universal Problem of Death and Its Cultural Manipulation

Having spent more than twenty years in Japan it became obvious to me that there is a basic difference as to what is thought to constitute a person in Japan and the United States. The obvious difference, pointed out by Ruth Benedict, between a guilt culture and a shame culture frames an entirely different dynamic of human interaction. The primary obligations of ko (obligation to the father), chu (obligation to the emperor or cultural authority), and kanzan (respect for authority), mediated through amae (dependence) which is primarily focused on the mother begins to get at the way in which the individual is defined through a web of relations. As I began to dig into these differences and how they had been developed and set forth, it took me through the work of Takeo Doi to his teacher and mentor, Heisaku Kosawa to Freudian theory. Kosawa visited Freud in Vienna and proposed an alternative to the Oedipus Complex and was the pioneer in importing Freudian theory to Japan. Doi would become the prime interpreter of all things Japanese and would become the leading thinker in a movement to define what it means to be Japanese known as nihonjinron.

I relate a bit of this story and the differences that unfold between Japan and the west, not to present the Japanese as the strange “Other” to the west, but the opposite. Freudian psychoanalysis is taken up in Japan, I believe, precisely to narrate the sort of stark difference common in Orientalism. What the story illustrates is the manner in which death is negotiated, denied, and manipulated in both Japan and the west. My understanding is that the human predicament of sin is primarily a systemic death denial but the manner of this denial is culturally specific. Whatever one might make of Freudian theory and its peculiar fortunes in Japan and the west, the fact that death is being negotiated and manipulated is the final lesson to be learned.

The common language of psychoanalysis is a means of describing two ways of defining what it means to be human. The story of the development of psychoanalytic theory in Japan, while providing a common language, is founded in notions of near absolute difference. Sigmund Freud, in addition to training Japan’s foremost psychoanalysts, carried on an active correspondence with Japanese psychoanalysts and contributed many articles to the Japanese psychoanalytic journal, “Seishin Bunseki.” He was eager to establish an international influence and to have his “science” established outside of his early, largely Jewish, following and in this sense Japanese were superb gentiles. In addition to two psychoanalytic societies, Japanese established a Freud Institute for psychoanalytic study, and proved themselves among his earliest and most devout followers.

Japanese took up Freudian theory, both to rightly understand what it means to be Japanese but also to set out the unique qualities of Japaneseness. There was the dual need in the drive toward ultra-nationalism to make of Japan and Japaneseness a distinct entity which would also be able to ward off the west. This need coincided with the beginnings of the psychoanalytic movement in Japan so that psychoanalysis became not only a description but a key means of prescribing a detailed personal identity ‑ at once uniquely Japanese, homogenous and submissive. Japanese psychoanalysis, like Japanese oriental studies of the same period, would take western methods and conclusions and reverse their meaning when applied to Japan. For psychoanalysis to gain a foothold in Japan it would have to abandon the basic notion of an Oedipal drive to murder the father, as the Father of the Nation was the Japanese Emperor.

What Freud imagined was happening in the deification of man, as in the Japanese Emperor System, was some kind of payment for the murder of the true father of the original clan. “The elevation of the father who had once been murdered into a god from whom the clan claimed descent was a far more serious attempt at atonement than had been the ancient covenant with the totem.” The deified emperor was then only a symbol of the murdered father from whom the clan claimed descent. Totemism had failed to satisfy the guilt, and the creation of a divine emperor is a renewal of effort to find atonement and a reflection of the murder that must have taken place.

It would have been life threatening for Freud’s Japanese followers to repeat, in a Japanese context, Freud’s conclusions on the hidden meaning of the emperor system and it would have been self‑defeating socially and personally to let Freud’s values stand (as he considered emperor worship and specifically Japan as primitive). Heisaku Kosawa, who would play the decisive role in the formation of Japanese psychoanalysis, arrived, even during his stay in Vienna, at a different point of departure and a different founding myth for Japanese psychoanalysis. In July of 1932 he delivered to Freud a treatise outlining “Two Types of Guilt Consciousness ‑ Oedipus and Azase.” Japanese psychoanalysis, from its inception, would take this myth and its emphasis on the feminine as its point of departure from Western psychoanalysis.

As psychoanalyst Kenji Ohtski succinctly states it, “The racial characters of the Orientals are ‘id‑ic’ and feminine as compared with those of the Occidentals, which are ‘ego‑ic’ and masculine.” Or as another Japanese analyst puts it, “Both cultures can be compared with the male and female, the Orient being the female and the West the male.” In line with western Oriental studies, Japanese psychoanalysis framed the Japanese psyche in a completely matriarchal setting.

Where in Freudian psychology the conflict between the ego and id was resolved through the active role of the ego, in Japanese psychoanalysis (especially in the prewar period) the ego must give way to a boundless, timeless id. An ego that is too strong would break the bonds that reside in the Japanese id which tie the individual to emperor and nation. Freud thought that in its blind drive to satisfy its instincts the id would destroy itself, whereas Japanese psychoanalysis puts a positive emphasis on following the instinctive desires of the id. Basic instinct, natural desire, and nature herself have opposite values in the two systems. For Japanese, these constitute purity and are positive goals. To be unchanging, instinctive, or even infantile, is to ground the self on a reality that surpasses the “fluctuating” conditions of the conscious mind. It is here that one contacts eternity. 

The key difference is that for Japanese this unconscious realm constituted ultimate reality but for Freud the unconscious, which has no reference to time, pays “just as little regard to reality.” Rather, the unconscious was subject to the pleasure principle. Where Freud saw a conflict between the pleasure principle and the ability to postpone it by means of the reality principle, Japanese psychoanalysis will conflate the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The goal of analysis becomes one, not of freeing the ego from the suffering placed upon it by the id and the superego but a masochistic weakening of the ego. As Freud describes it and as Japanese analysts would concur, masochism arises from the unmet demands of the super‑ego (emperor) which produces the desire to be punished by the father.

The notion that Japanese life is governed by an id‑ic desire directed toward a return to the mother or even a return to the womb fit neatly within an overall Freudian scheme. The stages of animism and narcissism overlap with what Freud calls feminine masochism in which “the masochist wants to be treated like a little, helpless, dependent child, but especially like a naughty child.” This dependency, which in western terms was negative, in Japanese psychoanalysis (through Takeo Doi and his explanation of amae) will be a positive factor in maintaining the impulsive, id‑ic, narcissistic stage ‑ which is that stage closest to nature (mother) ‑ which again, in Japanese terms, is best.

The goals of Japanese Psychoanalysis became the reversed (mirror) image of those of the west. Where Freud’s masculine psychoanalysis was defined in enlightenment terms of reason, clarity, progress, emergence and individualism, or in psychosexual terms of penetrating the mind, uncovering darkness, overcoming, and controlling, its feminine counterpart in Japanese psychoanalysis would embrace id‑ic obscurity as most real and aim at harmony, melding, uniting, and extinguishing difference by quieting the ego. The goal of analysis was a return to mother (nature) and the extinction of individualism. The Nirvana Principle describing this goal (which both Doi and Freud converge upon), is a Freudian term derived directly from Zen Buddhism. It aims at the extinction of individualism and sees ultimate reality, Nirvana, as a reunification with the One. Freud had pictured the Nirvana Principle as a fusion of Eros (the life force) with the Thanatos (the death drive) and it was originally thought to describe a disease that needed the cure of psychoanalysis.

Several things happen to obscure the straightforward difference outlined here. Freud came to question his original focus on the reality of the ego. With his proposal of the death instinct he began to question the primacy of Eros and came to believe that Eros is subject to Thanatos (Life is an interlude in the controlling factor of death). In positing the death drive as the ultimate end of man produced by a cosmic Thanatos and as something which is irresistible, in that it will in one way or another achieve its aim, Freud raised the question as to the efficacy of psychoanalysis. In one of his late papers (1937) Freud wonders if analysis is terminable or interminable. “Is it possible,” he asks, “permanently and definitively to resolve an instinctual conflict – that is to say, to ‘tame’ the instinctual demand?” (SE,23:225). The “general principles, rules and laws” which are thought to bring order into chaos are themselves subject to delusion (SE, 23:228). “Sometimes one feels inclined to doubt whether the dragons of primeval ages are really extinct” (SE, 23:229).

It is not clear whether the ego is that “I” that is to be saved or the “I” that is itself somehow part of the obstruction. Freud posits a “primal sadism” or masochism in which the death instinct attacks that bit of life or libido attached to the ego. But he admits, “We are without any physiological understanding of the ways and means by which this taming of the death instinct by the libido may be effected” (SE, 19:164). The death drive can be turned inwards or outwards – but ultimately the superego in its sadism and the ego in its masochism conspire to work towards the same result (SE, 19:170). In turn, the reality that the ego maintained with its orientation to the outside world is thrown into question.

Freud does not yet explicitly question whether the ego, subject as it is to such plasticity and manipulation, is itself part of the fantasy formation he is describing. The splitting of the ego, the positing of a false memory in the ego as a resolution to the Oedipus complex, and the medium of the energetics in language, are all brought together in terms of a game. Jacques Lacan is going to reinterpret this structure as part of a linguistic construct, but even his questioning of the status of the ego was a possibility that Freud points to in the content of its original discovery.

In 1957 some fifty analysts gathered in Mexico to be instructed by the Japanese Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki. The occasion indicates that Western analysts had discovered what Japanese analysts had perceived from the beginning. Freud’s system, like Buddhism, was centered just as much on death and natural forces as life and cognitive apprehension. The Japanese program of dis-individualization was not reading into Freud what was not there, rather it was western individualism as a goal that had veered from a true Freudian reading.

The forces bringing about change in the individual (instincts) are the localized version of cosmic forces witnessed in astronomical and geological events. The initial emergence of life out of water onto land, the glacial period, the relation between sun and earth or the relationships of the heavenly bodies in the remote past, are events recorded in the instinctive processes driving human development. The ultimate force taken up into the individual and that which ultimately controls and subjugates all else is the force of death.

Though the Japanese reversed many of his notions there was, at a deeper level, a large measure of correspondence between Freudian theory and Japanese religion. Japanese psychoanalysts in both the pre-and postwar period saw a direct correspondence between psychoanalysis and Buddhism. According to Freud, “Psychoanalysis corresponds on certain points to Buddhism, especially in the Nirvana Principle, and shares also some of the world viewpoints of Taoism ‑ especially the high esteem for a deep unconscious psychological life. It is therefore expected to have a very promising future in Japan and in the Orient at large.”

Ironically, Freud’s late theory is in no way refusing the conclusions of a Buddhist understanding of reality and the controlling factor of death but comes to accept many of its conclusions about ultimate reality. The difference perhaps is that Freud would not submit to a Buddhist quietism but, with Dylan Thomas, would not go gentle into that good night, but would “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Every culture is a culture of death, though each manipulates and deludes itself in its own way.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.