Out of Japan: Mother love puts a nation in the pouch

TOKYO - Revealing one's emotions is frowned upon in Japan. Great value is placed on self-restraint. But sometimes what has long been suppressed comes bursting out with the force of a volcanic eruption. And then there is no stopping it.

An American woman teaching English in Tokyo was recently presented with an extraordinarily candid confession by one of her male students. She thinks it was precisely because she was a foreigner that the man chose to open up to her.

The student, in his early twenties, was receiving private English conversation tuition from the American woman who in the course of one lesson asked him about his mother. The student fell silent, looked out of the window, and suddenly burst into tears.

After some time he calmed down, and, with little further prompting, began to talk about an experience eight years before. It was during his final year at school, when he was immersed in the 'examination hell' that demands long hours of study, cram schools and demonic dedication from those who want to get into a good university. One day he was offered, and received, sexual favours from his mother to encourage him to persevere with his schoolwork. Afterwards he felt crushing guilt, although he came to suspect that something similar had happened to at least one of his classmates. But he had never before spoken directly about it.

Satoru Saito, head of the sociopathology department at the Psychiatric Research Institute of Tokyo, doubts that mother-son incest is any more common in Japan than elsewhere. But, he says, 'emotional incest' between mothers and their sons is almost a defining feature of Japanese society - 'the entire culture has this undertone'.

It is a vicious circle, says Dr Saito. Women who rarely see their husbands except late at night when they come home after drinking with workmates automatically funnel their emotions towards their children, particularly towards their sons.

The sons grow up with over-indulgent mothers who smother them in affection, preventing them from developing emotional independence. The sons accept the power their mothers have over them, and, when they begin dating, they naturally look for another woman to mother them.

This maza-con (mother complex) is a ritual complaint of young Japanese women seeking a husband. But as soon as they get married, they inevitably transfer the emotions that their husbands will not absorb to their children. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.

'The Japanese male does not like responsibility,' says Dr Saito. 'He is always controlled by someone else: his mother, his teacher, his boss in the company. I call this the ofukuro (pouch) function - he seeks to be protected in a maternal pouch all the time. We call our school the 'mother school'; employees regard their company as some kind of mother figure.'

The mother complex even extends to the state, whose organs of control - police, tax inspectors, railway guards - treat citizens like precious children, in constant need of surveillance and gentle chiding.

'A train is coming. It is dangerous, so please stand behind the white line on the platform,' is the recorded message that is played every time a train comes into a subway station in Tokyo.

It continues after work. Men who do not want to face up to the responsibility of the father/husband role will delay going home by taking refuge in a hostess bar, where they find the mama-san (bar-mother) and her female cohorts who treat their guests as overgrown schoolboys, pouring their drinks, lighting their cigarettes and listening to their complaints about work and, with mock disapproval, to their dirty jokes.

All this goes on in a cosy, womb-like room with low couches, soft music and a pervasive undertone of sexual promise.

Dr Saito's institute runs a telephone hotline for people with mental problems. One man calls regularly to tell of incestuous relations with his mother many years ago which he claims still haunt him. Dr Saito is almost certain the man is reflecting his fantasies, rather than recalling real events in the past, since over time the stories contradict one other in small details. But, real or imagined, the incest theme is there.

'There is no clear distinction between male-female relations and mother- son relations,' says Dr Saito. 'Japanese males are always mixing these two: they want to assert their sexuality, but at the same time they want to be held by their mothers - warm, safe, secure.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk