Japanese Ego-Negation and the Achievement of Self

Mark Tankosich © 1990
Author’s note: This paper was originally produced nearly a decade and a half ago, based on research materials that were written even earlier. Thus, the information contained herein is somewhat dated vis-à-vis today’s Japan. Hopefully, however, the paper does still provide valuable information regarding more traditional Japanese ideas — ideas which continue to have an influence on Japanese culture and society.  M.T. 4/28/05


An examination of various investigators’ descriptions of Japanese ideas concerning the “right” or desirable state of the person leads to the identification of a common theme. This theme — the negation of ego — can seem to Westerners to be, in many ways, little more than a prescription for the “killing” or repression of the self. Such a view, however, rests squarely on an Occidental notion of selfhood. When looked at in the context of the Eastern — or at least the Japanese — conceptualization of self, ego negation can be seen to be an important step towards the achievement of self. That self, often referred to as an “interactionist self,” is designed primarily to be adept at social interaction and human relationships. It is very responsive and adaptable to — indeed, contingent on — the “others” that make up its world. A variety of interrelated factors can be identified as likely sources of this emphasis on positive human interaction; most “real” for the individual Japanese is the sense that others, to a large extent, hold one’s fate in their hands.

The “Right” Person

Literature Review

Lebra’s description of Japanese ideas concerning the proper or correct nature of the person center around the construct of kokoro, which she translates as “heart” and describes as being the center of the individual’s inner world. According to her, Japanese expect their kokoro to be “intact and autonomous from external pressures” and kokoro contains that which is faithful to the self. This “heart,” she writes, may be “pure” (described as “clear,” “clean,” “fresh,” “unclouded,” “weightless,” etc.) or “impure,” and “…with what might be called mental exorcism…one is supposed to eradicate all the inner pollutions that are clouding the true self.” The obvious question here, of course, is what exactly is it that defiles kokoro? The answer, in a word, is ego or, to use the Japanese term, ga, so that purity is in essence egolessness or muga. An important way of achieving this “‘I-less’ state of mind” is “fusion between the self and the objective world” where that self lives. Such fusion, in turn, is seen as resting on “acceptance of nature as it is.” Interestingly (see below), Lebra notes that one who has successfully united with his environment in this way is sometimes said to “have his hara (literally, ‘belly’) ready” or to have “accomplished his hara” (Lebra, 1976:159, 161-63; 1982:278).

It is precisely around this hara construct that K.G. Durckheim’s description of the preferred state or nature of the person centers. He provides various definitions for this term, but perhaps most useful here is the one found in his chapter entitled “Hara in the Japanese Language”:

Hara implies for the Japanese all that he considers essential to man’s character and destiny. Hara is the centre of the human body — but the body, because it is a human body, is more than a merely biological – physiological entity. It is at the same time the centre in a spiritual sense or, to be more accurate, a nature-given spiritual sense. All expressions and idioms containing the word Hara refer to the character in its totality, to the basic quality of a man’s nature, his whole disposition, and hence to those special mental traits on which it depends and through which it is expressed (Durckheim, 1962:49. Capitalization and emphasis are the original author’s.)

As this explanation implies, “hara-ism,” at least as put forth by Durckheim, rests on the assumption that body and soul are one: “…the structure of the whole individual is necessarily made apparent and legible in the form and order of his body. There is no psychic structure and no inner tension which is not reflected in the body.” Thus, the center of the body is also the psychological/spiritual center, and vice versa. This center is, of course, hara.

In terms of the preferred or “right” state of the person, Durckheim identifies a number of Japanese idioms which are based on the word hara. Thus, we find the hara no aru hito (“person with belly”), the hara no hiroi hito (“person with a broad belly”), the hara no dekita hito (“person who has finished his belly”), the hara no ookii hito (“person with a big belly”), and those about whom it is said “hara ga suwatte iru” (“the belly sits”). Such people are described in such ways as “a man with ‘Centre'” who is “always balanced” and “has something that is tranquil and all embracing.” They are “large-minded,” “generous, magnanimous and warm-hearted,” and they “(meet) reality serenely and with detachment.” They have “an indestructible composure” based on “an inner elasticity” so that “nothing upsets (them).” They display the ability to “‘swallow the pure together with the impure,’ in the sense of ‘accepting’ even ‘welcoming everything’ and giving everything its due place.” In a word, these are people who are “mature.”

Standing in contrast to such individuals are the hara no nai hito (“person without belly”), the hara no semai hito (“person with a narrow belly”), the hara no dekite inai hito (“person who has not finished his belly”), the hara no chiisai hito (“person with a small belly”), and those persons described by the phrase hara ga tatsu (“the belly rises”). Lacking center, such people easily loose their balance. They are “narrow-minded and petty,” they react “haphazardly and subjectively, arbitrarily and capriciously,” and they “cannot distinguish between important and unimportant.” Their judgment “rests on subjective foundations, such as moods, whims, ‘nerves.'” “Narrow in (their) relations with others,” they are “easily irritated” and “(show themselves) unfavourably impressed first by this and then by that.” Thus, they alienate those with whom they come into contact. Lacking an “inner axis,” such people are “easily startled” and “nervous.” They “flare up” and get angry, and in sum, are “in every respect the picture of immaturity.”

According to Durckheim, one achieves “maturity” via the carrying out of a specific process: “Only the dissolution of the I and all its patterns will allow the coming into force and the potential fruitfulness of that consciousness-pattern which accords with the Great Life.” In other words, one needs to let go of, abandon, be liberated from one’s ego. In terms of actual behaviors, this is to be accomplished through two (complementary) methods: l) Reflecting the belief in the mind/body unity of man, and as an effort to make hara rather than ego one’s “center,” one should attend to proper posture, breath, and body tension; and 2) While working at these, one needs to also try to “let go” of one’s “I” or ego internally (Durckheim, 1962:20-21, 49-52, 57, 133-164).

Rohlen, while not directly addressing the issue being examined here, does seem in his article on seishin or “spiritual” education to provide enough information for us to extrapolate another view on the “right” state of the person (Rohlen, 1973:1557, 1558, 1559-60). That view centers around kokoro, which Rohlen renders “heart” or “spirit.” According to his research, this construct overrides mind/body duality and “represents the broad area of individual psychosomatic unity.” After noting that one’s kokoro may be either “composed” or “disturbed,” Rohlen goes on to explain:

Composure implies that both the mind and the body operate properly, efficiently, and in harmony; in the state of disturbance, the mind and body are accordingly upset, undependable, and involved in an adverse way with one another. Both of these states may be distinguished as to degree (Rohlen, 1973:1557).

It seems reasonable to conclude that, within the context of this paradigm, the ideal person would be one with a composed kokoro.

Unfortunately, aside from mentioning Zen meditation and an emphasis on proper posture, Rohlen does not directly confront the “how” aspect of the achievement of kokoro composure. Later in his article, however, there is a discussion dealing with what is, in essence, the avoidance of kokoro disturbance:

According to seishin thought, “incorrect” attitudes are often the source of personal difficulty…the issue is the person’s general attitude toward things around him to which he must respond…The basis of a proper attitude…begins with acceptance of necessity and responsibility. Instead of fighting life’s requirements…the most satisfactory attitude is to acknowledge and accept necessary difficulties. To regret or attempt to avoid them only leads to frustration, disappointment, and upset (Rohlen, 1973:1558. The emphasis is not in the original.)

And still later, there is this relevant passage:

Seishin education aims to help the individual to achieve contentment through the development of an ordered and stable psyche free from confusion and frustration. This is to be attained through the gradual conquest of waga or ga (one’s primitive self, or id in Freudian terms). The phrase expressing this process, waga o korosu (literally “kill the self”), is a common expression related to the seishin approach (Rohlen, 1973:1559-60).

Based on these two passages, it can be concluded that two of the “prescriptions” for the attainment of a composed kokoro are the development of a “proper” attitude (founded on “acceptance”) and the “killing” of one’s ga or ego.

Kondo relates her description of the “right” kind of person within the context of her attendance at a Japanese ethics center. She notes that at this center she was exposed to a rather extreme expression of certain themes, but that the themes themselves could be found throughout daily life in Japan. According to her, the teachings that she underwent centered around kokoro, which she defines as “the heart, the seat of feeling and thought.” Ki, a kind of energy, was also important. Kondo writes:

To improve and polish the kokoro was our goal. The kokoro partakes of the energies of ki. These emotions and energies cannot be left on their own, to focus on themselves, lest the kokoro become intent on the expression of its own selfish desires, with no thought for others. Indulgence and laxity would allow us to slip into the state of wagamama, selfishness, the root of all negativity in human life. One must find means to polish the kokoro, to heighten its sensitivity, to shape it into…sunao na kokoro, a naive, receptive, sensitive heart (Kondo, 1990:105).

Clearly, Kondo’s research points to the person with a sunao na kokoro as the ideal. In addition to being “sensitive not to its own desires, but to the needs of others,” such a “heart” is said to accept things as they are, “without resistance or questioning.” In contrast to this, there exist persons described as hinekureta (“twisted, eccentric, crotchety, perverse, and prejudiced”) who are “self-indulgently anti-social” and “(allow) egocentric quirks to disturb smooth social relations.”

Kondo identifies a number of factors involved in the development of a sunao na kokoro. Firstly, a person must cultivate an appreciation for his or her obligations (on) to others (especially one’s parents) and attempt to repay those by exerting oneself on others’ behalves. Secondly, it is felt that one must experience and survive hardship. And finally, evincing a belief in the connection — at times, even the isomorphism — of body and soul, Kondo writes of having to undergo a variety of strict (physical) disciplines. (Such disciplines were often aimed specifically at engendering an inner sense of compliance and eliminating resistance and selfishness.) (Kondo, 1990:76-109)

Murase, like Kondo, also sees sunao-ness as extremely important to Japanese ideas about the correct state of the person. In fact, he goes so far as to label Japanese culture a “sunao culture,” as opposed to Western “ego cultures.” In the former of these, Murase asserts, ego tends to be viewed as something bad which, through the socialization process, should be negated. However:

…Japanese distinguish between two kinds of ego as in the expression “throw away your lesser ego (shohga) so that you may achieve a greater ego (taiga).” The latter is on an entirely different plane than the ordinary ego, and is considered to be harmonious with one’s outer world (Murase, 1982:325).

Murase goes on to note that striving to negate shohga and realize taiga “may be a tendency common to most Japanese,” and it seems logical that the person’s ideal state (albeit unattainable perhaps) according to this paradigm is one of “greater ego.” Identifying three types or levels of sunao-ness — original or pristine; socialized, developed, or ordinary; and (the ideal) universal — he appears to indicate that the achievement of taiga is seen as resulting in the third of these (Murase, 1982:323-24, 325).

According to Plath, the element common to the various Japanese “vocabularies of growth” is the pursuit of “sincerity” (makoto), the ability to act “from primal motives unsullied by attachments to self or to social position, by calculations of pain or gain.” When operating in this mode, he writes, one becomes totally absorbed and is no longer burdened by awareness. Rather than “communing” with nature, one becomes nature. “No longer are ‘you’ acting; ‘it’ or the ‘universe’ is doing so.” While it is logical to assume that the person capable of such pure, sincere actions is the ideal according to this model, it is also worth noting that Plath reports that successes, i.e., instances of “pure action,” are likely to be brief. Furthermore, their occurrence cannot be scheduled or controlled in any way: one is limited to trying to develop a kind of “readiness” to experience them. Such readiness:

…can be gained only through persistent effort and self-discipline. And to give self-discipline a direction you must willingly suspend disobedience and channel your energies along a pathway…(Plath, 1980:48).

Failing this, Plath writes, one’s actions are destined to end in “selfishness” (wagamama), “arbitrariness” (muri), and “blockages” (ikizumari) (Plath, 1980:47-48).

Finally, Frager and Rohlen (1976), writing about seishin or “spiritual” training and what they term the “seishin perspective” on life, provide the following comments concerning the proper nature of the person:

An important aim of seishin training is the containment of tendencies toward selfishness and egotism…(the individual) must learn to overcome the demands of ego (ga).
…The individual learns to overcome personal desires that impede group accomplishment. A classic phrase, meishi hookoo — “destroy ego and serve others” — is a startling expression of the relationship between seishin training and social involvement…the individual…is often required to give up personal opinions, pleasures, or privileges if they interfere with the achievement of greater goals or duties (Frager and Rohlen, 1976:261).

Related to the above, the authors note that the development of “spirit” takes place “in situations that require unconditional resignation and absolute submission to authority.” (It should, perhaps, be pointed out once more that all of this is, for Frager and Rohlen, part of the more traditionally Japanese seishin-oriented viewpoint. In their opinion, other perspectives, apparently primarily more “modern” and Western views, also can be found in Japan.)

Common Ground

A variety of paradigms concerning the “right” nature of the person have thus far been identified. These include Lebra’s “pure kokoro,” Durckheim’s developed hara, Rohlen’s “composed kokoro,” Kondo’s sunao na kokoro, Murase’s taiga, Plath’s “pure action” self, and Frager and Rohlen’s messhi or “destroyed ego.” There are two points to be made here in terms of elements that are common to these models. First, while not the case for all of the descriptions examined, at least three of the investigators note the Japanese paying attention to what might be termed “external” or “physical” efforts at developing the inner person. Durckheim’s emphasis on proper posture, breathing and body tension, Rohlen’s mention of the use of meditation and proper posture, and Kondo’s being made to undergo a variety of disciplines have all been noted. Clearly, such practices rest on the assumption of a very close connection — frequently the lack of any distinction — between body and soul. This absence of the kind of emphasis on mind-body duality typically seen in Western ideas about the person is worth noting, and is consistent with Lock’s informants’ assertion that “mental (seishinteki) and physical (nikutaiteki) health (are) in actuality inseparable” (Lock, 1982:221).

More central to the theme of this paper, however, is another element, something which all of our models identify as critical to the development of a “correct” person: the negation of ego. As has been described, Lebra writes of Japanese efforts at “exorcising” ego impurities and striving for muga. Such efforts include the “acceptance of nature as it is.” Durckheim’s whole book is essentially about the need to give up the “I,” and he also notes the value of “accepting, even welcoming everything.” Similarly, Rohlen indicates the importance of learning “acceptance” and “killing the ego” in attempts at achieving “composure.”

The danger in Kondo’s paradigm is that without adequate “polishing” of the kokoro, one will become selfish and willful (wagamama); with sufficient effort, however, “acceptance” and sensitivity to others’ needs can be developed. Taiga, Murase’s ideal, is achieved by discarding one’s “ordinary” ego, while Plath’s “sincere” person is the one who can act with a total lack of concern for himself. And finally, Frager and Rohlen, pointing out the importance attached in seishin training to overcoming “the demands of ego,” note a directive to destroy one’s ga.

This imperative for ego negation is not limited to the kinds of more “normal” self-development models discussed above: it can also clearly be seen as playing a central role in Japanese interpretations of and treatments for “abnormal” behaviors. Two well-known Japanese psychotherapies, for example, are Morita therapy and Naikan therapy (Lebra, 1976:201-231). The first of these, Morita therapy, concerns itself with a type of neurosis called shinkeishitsu (“nervosis” or “nervosity”). This refers to “a wide variety of psychic manifestations that do not substantially handicap an individual in his daily activities, but which stamp him as temperamentally unstable, nervous, eccentric, etc.” (Hinsie and Campbell, as quoted in Lebra:216).

The cause of shinkeishitsu is seen by Morita therapists as being, in large part, the patient’s personality disposition. More specifically, those afflicted are said to be, more than anything, self-reflective or introverted. This self-focus causes sufferers to be overly self-consciousness and inordinately aware of and concerned with (fairly minor) actual or anticipated disturbances in their mental or physical states. In addition, shinkeishitsu patients are described as having a temperament that involves three problematic attitudes:

(l) the subjective, idealistic attitude, which produces, and makes one preoccupied with, a mental image of what one wishes to be, (2) the egocentric attitude, which makes one so selfish that he will not compromise, cannot understand others’ feelings, resents others, and indulges in self-pity, and (3) the perfectionist or “all-or-nothing” attitude, a futile wish to make the impossible possible (Kondo, as explained by Lebra:217).

Ultimately, these attitudes interact with the patient’s preoccupation with disturbances in his mental and physical states; the result is an inescapable and dwelt-upon conflict between the sufferer’s ideals concerning himself and the way things really are.

Essentially, all treatment of shinkeishitsu is based on the tenet that one must accept things “as they are” (arugamama). To quote Lebra (based in part on Kondo):

The therapy aims at persuading the patient to abandon his unnatural, “artificial” attitude toward his mental and bodily condition, to renounce his will to keep them under the control of his ego…All things should be accepted as they are, including one’s mental or physical disorder (Lebra :223-24).

Other aspects of treatment either derive from or are part of this arugamama principle.

Naikan therapy, originally utilized to facilitate the rehabilitation of social deviants, has since come to be used also with the physically and mentally ill, and even as a form of moral and spiritual training for “normal” people. Essentially, treatment consists of 1) isolating the patient, 2) taking him through an extended period of guided self-reflection aimed at producing overwhelming feelings of gratitude and guilt, and 3) providing him with “a way out” of that emotional purgatory. More concretely, after being segregated from everything and everyone, the Naikan patient is visited hourly by a counselor who instructs him to recall specific periods and people in his life vis-à-vis three questions: l) What care (sewa) have I received? 2) What have I done to repay (okaeshi)? 3) What troubles (meiwaku) or worries (shimpai) have I caused the caretaker? Indicating its primary importance, three times as much time is spent on the last of these questions as is on the other two. Perhaps not surprisingly, the typical (and encouraged) outcome of this process is that the patient comes to realize how dependent he has been on others, how kind they have been to him, how little he has done to repay that kindness, and, in fact, how he has ungratefully caused them difficulties and distress. Also no great surprise, in the wake of this realization comes an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and guilt; it is this psychic energy which Naikan seeks to harness in its push for the individual’s change. Lebra quotes Kitsuse:

To commit suicide or to abandon hope would be the supreme act of ingratitude which would completely deprive his life of meaning. He is offered in its stead the opportunity to redeem himself by “living as though he were dead” (shinda tsumoride), i.e., without regard to one’s own egotistic desires. In so living he might devote himself to the task of repaying others with a lifetime of selfless good works (Lebra:212).

Provided this option, the patient’s “…depression is replaced by hope and joy…” and the Naikan conversion is completed. Ideally, the social deviant has been “fixed,” and the (both physically and emotionally) ill have been cured.

Clearly, while differing in target populations and methods, Morita and Naikan therapies deliver the same basic message to their respective patients: the resolution of one’s difficulties lies in the negation of ego. According to Morita theory, an important cause of shinkeishitsu is what might be described as an “I” which is overly concerned with itself and is focused on only what it wants; the central pillar of Morita treatment philosophy, the arugamama principle, is but an imperative to drop those concerns and desires and simply accept all things as they are. Similarly, the thrust of Naikan is that the root of one’s having gone astray (or become ill) is an ungrateful and egocentric approach to one’s life; the key to effective “cure” is to live, instead, without regard for oneself. Thus, the same emphasis on the need for ego nullification found in the descriptions of the “right” person is also present in at least two well-known forms of Japanese psychotherapy.

Seemingly ubiquitous, ego negation is also a key element of the teachings of Japan’s so-called “new religions.” Lebra, for instance, notes that the Gedatsukai, a religious healing cult which she studied, is “like all other cults” in that it “stresses the need of abandoning ga, saying that obsessions with ‘I’ are the cause of all troubles.” She then goes on to describe the efforts of members at attaining an “empty self” via different expurgatory rituals (Lebra, 1982:278). Similarly, Frager and Rohlen write that the new religions (which they see as a form of seishin training) “are all characterized by the promise of greater well-being for the individual and society based on a positive attitude and a forgetting of the self…” (Frager and Rohlen, 1976:269).


To the Western way of thinking, the Japanese imperative for ego negation is, to at least some extent, the equivalent of a directive to negate (or at least repress) the self. One need only re-examine the various authors’ descriptions and accounts to confirm this. For instance, phrases such as “‘I-less’ state of mind,” “dissolution of the ‘I,'” “forgetting of the self” and “empty self” have been noted. Similarly, the investigators’ reports of prescriptions such as “accept things as they are without questioning or resisting,” “give up personal opinions that interfere with greater goals or duties,” “destroy ego and serve others,” and “live shinda tsumoride — as though you have died” have also been mentioned; clearly these involve surrendering a part of who one “is.” Further, at least one of the authors referenced above has clearly spelled out the point being made here, using the phrase “the negation of oneself” as an equivalent for the discarding of ego (Murase, 1982:326).

It can be tempting, perhaps, upon first reading the various investigators’ descriptions, to slip into believing that the Japanese are simply condemning self-centeredness. To be sure, much is made of censuring “selfishness” and “egocentricity.” But one must realize that such terms take on a new, more restrictive meaning when used as part of the Japanese vocabulary. What Westerners might see as “healthy” questioning of a decision or “standing up for oneself,” for instance, would likely be labeled “selfish resistance” in many Japanese contexts. Similarly, the “egocentric quirks” that “disturb smooth social relations” which Kondo writes about would probably include a number of (Western) behaviors that stem from “being true to oneself.” The point is that concepts such as “self-centered” are defined differently in different cultures and, while the Japanese advocacy of ego negation includes condemnation of selfishness in its Western form, it also includes much more. The Japanese are, at least from a Western perspective, urging a considerable degree of self-nullification.

Yet, from a Japanese perspective, the “killing” of one’s ga is an important part of the achievement of self. Understanding how this can be the case is facilitated by digressing momentarily and briefly exploring the “why’s” of Japanese ego negation.

Some would say that one reason for, or function of, the Japanese emphasis on negating ego is that it allows those in society with more power and authority to exploit their less fortunate countrymen. Minami, for instance, writing in 1953, essentially argued that common Japanese people have long been taken advantage of in this way. Preceding an eighteenth century quote which advocates “(subduing) all your anger and avarice” so as to “live at ease,” he asserts:

No matter how bitterly one is treated, one should bear it. For centuries in Japan, rulers have forced this endurance upon the ruled as the highest virtue. Don’t argue; just be patient with your situation…(Minami, 1970:50).

Similarly, he also writes:

Books of shingaku (popular ethics), which taught a philosophy of life to the masses of the Tokugawa period, always encouraged the people to have no self…The purpose of shingaku was to make the masses into slaves who were selfless, unselfish, and faithful in assigned work (Minami, 1970:11).

More recently, Kondo acknowledges this exploitative potential of the emphasis on negating ego in her Crafting Selves:

The political implications of ethics-center ideology are especially clear when we link selves to the workplace…(T)he discipline and hardship of work was to polish our hearts, rendering them less self-centered. In mastering our work, we became more mature human beings…From the point of view of management, such doctrines provide a ready rationale for asking workers to take on even the most tedious and menial jobs, for…even cleaning toilets and scrubbing floors could be exercises in self-cultivation. By extension, long hours and poor working conditions can be seen as hardships to be borne, not challenged, for such hardships serve to polish the self (Kondo, 1990:ll3).

While it seems doubtful that a primary reason for ego negation on the part of the Japanese is that they have somehow been duped into being taken advantage of, it probably should be recognized that such nullification behavior has at least been supported by the fact that certain benefits are had by those who are “in charge.”

Opposite “being deceived into exploitation” lies “the promise of contentment” as a reason for Japanese efforts at ego negation. As Lebra points out, “The Japanese are indeed concerned with maintenance of the contented, serene, happy, mentally healthy self,” and such a state is seen as possible via “acceptance of nature as it is” (Lebra, 1976:162-63). Rohlen, in a passage that was quoted earlier, also notes this belief:

Seishin education aims to help the individual achieve contentment through the development of an ordered and stable psyche free from confusion and frustration. This is to be attained through the gradual conquest of waga or ga…(Rohlen, 1973:1559-60).

The notion that negating one’s ego can bring contentment is, of course, tied to the Buddhist conviction that it is desire that is the cause of human suffering. It is worth noting, incidentally, that at least one observer has seen what could be construed as a connection between ego nullification and happiness. Takeda (as quoted in Lebra) lists the following therapeutic results of undergoing Naikan therapy (with its directive to live “as though you are dead”): “Frustrations and anxiety diminish, while vital energy is heightened; the feeling of happiness increases…” (Lebra, 1976:213).

A third motivation or reason for ego negation is its utility in assisting the individual with fulfilling his assigned role(s). Rohlen most clearly makes this connection when he writes about “spiritual education”:

While seishin kyooiku seeks to sponsor an accepting attitude toward all of life’s necessities, greatest attention is paid to developing the proper attitude toward social responsibilities. The requirements of a social system and the interdependent quality of society, both of which make the diligent performance of every role important, are taught as the basic facts of life. The necessity that individual responsibility to the role assigned by the system be accepted and fulfilled follows from this fact (Rohlen, 1973:1558).

In other words, the expectation — obviously echoing Confucianism — is that one will carry out one’s assigned duties successfully regardless of what they are and how one might feel about them. The meeting of such an expectation is, of course, facilitated by the “killing” of one’s ga. Lest this all somehow sound like nothing more than a variation on the aforementioned “exploitation” theme, it should be remembered that the individual himself typically has reason to want to be able to fulfill any and all assigned roles well: he is quite aware that his fate is tied to that of a larger group and that his efforts are essential to the success of that group. In addition, he realizes that “an error in his performance may lead to a breakdown of the whole project,” in which case “he would feel he has harmed other members of his group” (Lebra, 1976:83). Thus, the desire to carry out one’s allotted tasks as expected serves as a strong personal motivator for ego negation.

A final function of ego nullification (and one whose exploration will lead back to the issue of the achievement of self) is that it increases the individual’s capacity for relationships with others. In this writer’s opinion, this is the primary force driving attempts at ego nullification, for, as Lebra (1976:2) notes, the Japanese have a strong tendency to be “socially preoccupied” — to see the world as consisting foremost of other people and one’s relationships with those people. Plath, in his Long Engagements, calls attention to the Japanese emphasis on the development of the person as a social being:

…(T)he Japanese archetype (of growth is attuned) to (cultivating) a self that can feel human in the company of others (Plath, 1980:218).

Similarly, most, if not all, of Kondo’s ethics school experience essentially dealt with how one is to behave vis-à-vis others, and she writes:

The concept of sunao na kokoro directs the energies of ki and kokoro toward constructing selves in human relationship…The moral force of the ideal of sunao na kokoro emerges…in contrast to its opposite: hinekureta, i.e., twisted, eccentric, crotchety, perverse, and prejudiced. These are the characteristics of someone who is self-indulgently anti-social, who allows egocentric quirks to disturb smooth social relations. Were people made aware of their social connectedness, they would also realize the inappropriateness of such selfish behaviors (Kondo, 1990:105).

“Such selfish behaviors,” of course, are rooted in ego, and the negation of that ego results in one becoming less self-focused, less “resistant,” less concerned with “me” and the prioritization of what “I” thinks and feels. Stated positively, it makes one, ideally, other-centered, with an exceptional degree of flexibility and responsiveness vis-à-vis one’s social “partners.” Hamaguchi comments on this when he notes that Japanese ideas about personhood do not involve:

…Ptolemaic conceit which sees the world as rotating around the immovable “individual.” Rather, (they) humbly adopt Copernican theory…That is, one can stipulate (kitei-suru) one’s own behavior after establishing one’s companion as the point of standard (kijunten) (Hamaguchi, 1982:140).

Clearly, ego negation, by making such “Copernican” behavior possible, increases one’s capacity for establishing and maintaining human relationships.

There is, however, a more important point — relating to the issue of achievement of self — to be made here. It will be helpful to quote Lebra’s and Smith’s observations regarding this contingent nature of Japanese interpersonal behavior:

The Japanese Ego acts upon or toward Alter with the awareness or anticipation of Alter’s response, and Alter in turn, by responding according to or against Ego’s expectation, influences Ego’s further action. If Ego talks, Alter is likely to talk back, and thus they will alternate in a chain of interaction until a conversational trajectory is felt completed. Activation of the chain cannot be attributed to either Ego or Alter exclusively but to both or to the relationship between the two…

…(A)n actor acts in a certain way not because he is forced to do so by an external prime mover…nor because he is driven by an internal prime mover…; his behavior is rather a result of interaction and mutual influence between himself and his (Alter) (Lebra, 1976:7-8).

The selection of one from among the great array of (personal) referents (in the Japanese language) will reflect the human and social relationships that obtain between the two parties. There are no fixed points, either “self” or “other,” and as I have already remarked, it is of the utmost significance that designation of the other invariably precedes designation of the self in any interaction. (Smith, 1983:77. Emphasis not in the original.)

As Smith’s passage implies, corresponding to Japanese “Copernican” behavior is a sort of Copernican self, both situational and contingent upon the identity and behavior of its “other.” Acting based more on external cues than some inner “essence,” it locates the position of aite (one’s “partner” or “companion”) and then moves with (while also moving) him, creating its identity. As Plath (quoted in Smith, 1983:73) puts it, “the interactionist self…emerges — or is enacted — in social relations. Awareness (of self)…is endlessly re-created as one lives on, responding to the responses of others.” Further support for this argument is found in Hamaguchi, who contrasts Western and Eastern senses of self and the concepts used to describe those awarenesses. Drawing heavily on Kimura, he makes the distinction between the Occidental self -consciousness “ego,” “self,” or “jiga,” and the Oriental “jibun“:

“(J)ibun” does not indicate a jiga-like, internally firmly established essence of the self, but “rather is discovered outside oneself…each time in the space (aida) between oneself and one’s partner; (it is) the realization / actualization (genjitsusei) acquired each time as (one’s) ‘share’ from that space”…(Hamaguchi, 1982:142) .

To return to the original issue, the point to be made here is that the positing of a different kind of sense of self demands a re-examination of the relationship between self and the practice of ego negation. While Hamaguchi tends to write as though the realization of jibun somehow occurs automatically, such is not the case. The shift to this (preferred and more mature) experience of self , in which one essentially “becomes” by constantly taking into account and responding to others, requires a nullification of the concern for what is “I” and “mine.” Thus, while ego negation may, from a Western perspective, be a kind of “killing” of the self, from the Japanese standpoint it is an important step toward the achievement of mature selfhood. Restated, ego negation allows one to experience the interactionistic sense of self by liberating one from self-concern. Again, it is this kind of awareness of self — resting on a sensitivity to “other” — which is socially sanctioned and held up as “right.”


Although perhaps somewhat obscured, at the heart of this discussion has been the Japanese concern for human relationships and social interaction. For it is this social concern that has served as both the primary driving force behind Japanese efforts at ego negation and the origin or source of the “Copernican” or interactionist self. Having recognized this fact, however, one logically wonders what it is that motivates such keen attention to relations with others.

Any discussion of Japanese social behavior must begin, of course, with Confucianism. As Reischauer notes:

Contemporary Japanese obviously are not Confucianists in the sense that their…ancestors were…(but) Confucianism probably has more influence on them than does any other of the traditional religions or philosophies…(S)trong Confucian traits still lurk beneath the surface…(Reischauer, 1981:214 ).

Among such traits, he goes on to point out, is an emphasis on interpersonal relations. Similarly, Bodde describes the Confucian world view as including the idea that:

The welfare of the social organism as a whole depends upon harmonious cooperation among all of its units and of the individuals who comprise these units…(S)ociety should be like a magnified family, the members of which…all work in harmony for the common good (Bodde, as quoted in Rohlen, 1974:58-9).

Obviously, the Confucian heritage of the Japanese has been very instrumental in inspiring an emphasis on the importance of one’s relationships with others.

A second source of the concern for successful interpersonal relations is what might be called a “core value” of wa or “harmony.” The Japanese, as do all peoples, prioritize the importance of certain values over that of others, and wa is clearly near, if not at, the top of their list. Able to be traced back to early Japanese history, this emphasis on social harmony can be found in Prince Shohtoku’s Seventeen Article Constitution, which begins: “Concord (wa) is to be esteemed above all else; make it your first duty to avoid discord” (Nakamura’s translation in Rohlen, 1974:46n).

Obviously an integral part of the Confucian world view (the quoted opening to Shohtoku’s constitution was, according to Smith, 1983:50, originally taken from the Confucian Analects), harmony has also come to be valued for its own sake. As Rohlen writes, “To achieve wa is certainly a major goal for any Japanese group…” (Rohlen, 1974:47). Finally, it is interesting to note that the prioritization of social harmony finds support not only in Confucianism, but in Buddhist doctrine as well (Smith, 1983:49).

Both the Confucian heritage of the Japanese and their orientation toward the value of harmony are important elements contributing to the emphasis on and concern for successful human relations. There is however, in this writer’s opinion, an additional factor at work which is much more “real” to the average individual. That factor is, to paraphrase Hamaguchi, “the judgment that the basis of one’s existence is being borne, in large part, by others” (1982:142). In other words, it is the awareness that one truly depends on, indeed, needs others in order to survive. That such a consciousness would strongly motivate one to attend to establishing and maintaining positive relationships hardly needs to be pointed out. Why that awareness exists, however, is worth briefly exploring.

Life in Japan is, to a very large extent, group life. It is the group that mediates between the individual and society, and “the group is responsible for taking care of all the needs of its members” (Lebra, 1976:31). Related to this is the fact that, in general, as the group goes, so go the individuals that make it up. One’s status or financial condition, for instance, is frequently tied to that of one’s collective. Thus, in a variety of ways, one’s fate and well-being rest at least as much with the members of one’s group as they do with oneself. The sense that “the basis of one’s existence is being borne, in large part, by others” is indeed an accurate one. And in a world where the importance of others is so crystal clear, the significance of human relations is bound to be appreciated.


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