Being Inside: Uchi Dynamics

What’s it like being inside uchi? Is this the exact opposite of being a soto outsider? Family interactions with outsiders involve formality, indirect communication, and politeness. Does this mean that insider interactions convey just the opposite— informality, frankness, and solidarity?

Not so.
 When one moves into the uchi realm, one does not find a different world operating as a mirror opposite of the outside world of uchi versus soto ties. Instead, one finds yet another realm of uchi/soto distinctions—only this time in a much more intimate context.

As we saw in Modules 4 and 5, deference is a major sign of communication in relationships between uchi and soto. But it turns out that deference is also a major sign of relationships even within the family uchi. And just as deference to a soto guest revolves around the dynamics of the host “indulging” and the guest “being indulged”, within uchi the dynamics revolve around “indulging” and “being indulged” as well. But deference within uchi has a very different focus. This time the dynamics often communicate intimacy, rather than distance, and the focus of indulgence is on spontaneous communication itself.

Rather than everyone within uchi communicating spontaneously together, spontaneity is expressed within a two-person dynamic. This means that one person is “indulged” by being allowed to be spontaneous (amaeru). A second person allows (or facilitates) indulgence. This person is the “indulger” (amayakasu). The indulger cannot be as spontaneous, but instead must be disciplined, in order to facilitate the other person’s spontaneity. Often the person indulged is otoosan, while okaasan is the indulger. But it is important to keep in mind that these roles can and do reverse themselves, depending on the context.

The anthropologist Nancy Rosenberger illustrates how these dynamics work, in a homestay she experienced in a doctor’s family, while a graduate researcher in a regional city:

Around 9:00 p.m., the father—called otoosan by all—would return home and instantly the mother began scurrying around helping him change into the kimono he wore at home, giving him his dinner, and beginning to draw his bath. Again things would settle down as the otoosan finished his meal and his tea. Okaasan would sit down beside him in a rather tentative position, not a formal position but with legs folded to the side on the edge of her zabuton “sitting pillow”, ready to jump when he needed anything. She got up and down regularly to bring him tea, cigarettes, newspaper, and drink in response to his informal expression of need “Oi!” He spoke in the abbreviated informal style and talked of little except his immediate needs. She alternated between use of verb endings that show semi-polite deference and shorter, informal endings during those intervals when she, too, was able to sit and relax as when otoosan was eating. If she initiated any conversation, it was usually an entertaining or worried remark about the daughter.


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Part 5