Beyond Barriers of Language

Professor Osamu Kitayama, Professor Emeritus at Kyushu University Japan and President of the Japan Psychoanalytical Society discusses language and Psychoanalysis ahead of the IPA's Asia-Pacific Conference in May

As pointed out by Psychoanalysts who take a special interest in language, our unconscious may be compared to a foreign language; an interpreter is therefore needed to read and comprehend it. The "wall or a barrier" that stands between the inside and outside of the Japanese mind is projected easily onto the "barrier" of Japanese versus a foreign language. As for the problem of not being able to say thinks in words, the unconscious cannot be described easily in words, no matter how many more sessions we attend. Instead, it depends on the process of acquiring translation and interpretation skills while encountering the difficulties known as "barriers of language".

Once-weekly psychotherapy commonly performed in Japan has traditionally dealt with shame-ridden people who are unable to discuss their unclear problems easily in words to begin with, or those who suffer problems that they find difficult to put into words. It appears, therefore, that the "barrier of language" itself has been a major issue from the start. With patients who are reticent or experience the strong resistance of shame, or, in serious cases, who have manifested abnormal thoughts as words - thus creating a problem - "focal psychotherapy" has proven useful. With these patients, I think that once-a-week psychotherapy continues to be effective. 

The Japanese language itself is characterised by its ambiguity, with words often having mixed meanings which cannot be easily translated into other languages. The ambiguity of the Japanese language is evident in the fact that, because there are many homonyms, it is easy to create metaphors, jokes and to compound words. For example, it was Takeo Doi's theory that used the Japanese word 'amae' to indicate two important meanings: taste (as in food, signifying sweetness) and dependence. The Japanese concept of amae is dichotomous as a whole, and ambiguous in the overlapping meaning; that is, it is both pessimistic and optimistic. 

Furthermore, a Japanese word arigatou, which is almost equivalent to 'thank you' in English, literally means 'difficult to exist', so it is extremely important to appreciate the ambiguous transience of things which are appearing and disappearing here and there. In Japan there is a concept of Monono-Aware which is a literal and aesthetic ideal in Japan and which, at its core, refers to "a deep, empathetic appreciation of the ephemeral beauty manifested in nature and human life."

Here I have to quote Sigmund Freud in his well-known essay Vergänglichkeit (on transience): "I did dispute the pessimistic poet's view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth. On the contrary, an increase in worth!" (p.305).

We, West and East, are meeting in terms of paradoxical beauty of nature and life. I look forward to seeing you in Tokyo beyond the barriers of language.

Professor Kitayama is one of six keynote speakers at the forthcoming IPA Asia-Pacific Conference in Tokyo, which takes place on the 3rd - 5th May 2018. He will present on the topic of Dependence and Transience. Early bird registration for the conference is available until 30th March 2018; click here to book your discounted place today.