Why Lacan says : “no one who dwells in the Japanese
language has a need to be psychoanalysed”
Summary : It is often said that Lacan remarked that the Japanese
are unanalysable, and in fact it is true that there are very few psychoanalysts and very little demand for analysis in Japan. I present here my reflections on this based on
Lacan’s remarks about the Japanese language and the Joycean lalangue.
2. The linguistic history of Japanese
3. Japanese, lalangue par excellence
4. The hole in the apophatico-ontological
topology of Lacan
5. The hole of formations of the unconscious
and the master significance
6. The intra-linguistic translations and the
possibility of Witz in Japanese
7. The Japanese lalangue and the Finneganian lalangue
8. The paranoiac predominance of master
significance in Japan
Lacan visited Japan in 1963 and 1971, each time
in the Easter season, and made some comments on the Japanese language and the
possibility of psychoanalysis in Japan mainly in these three texts : Lituraterre (1971, in Autres écrits, pp.11-20), L’avis au lecteur japonais [ Advice to
Japanese Readers ] (1972, ibid., pp.497-499)
written as a preface to what is supposed to be the Japanese “translation” of
his Écrits (in
his Avis Lacan tells Japanese to
close the book as soon as they have read the preface because he knows a
Japanese translation of his Écrits is absolutely impossible, and we know he is perfectly
right) and the postface to his Séminaire
XI Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la
psychanalyse [ The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis ] (1973). Notably he said this (Autres écrits, p.498) :
C’est ce qui
permet à la langue japonaise d’en colmater les formations si parfaitement que
j’ai pu assister à la découverte par une Japonaise de ce que c’est qu’un mot
d’esprit : une Japonaise adulte.
[ That’s what enables the Japanese language to plug formations
of the unconscious so perfectly that I was able to observe how a Japanese lady discovered what a Witz is — an adult Japanese lady ].
prouve que le mot d’esprit est au Japon la dimension même du discours le plus
commun, et c’est pourquoi personne qui habite cette langue (*), n’a besoin
d’être psychanalysé, sinon pour régulariser ses relations avec les machines-à-sous,
— voire avec des clients
plus simplement mécaniques.
[ That proves
that in Japan Witz is even the dimension
of the commonest discourse, and that’s why no one who dwells in the Japanese
language (*) has a need to be psychoanalysed if not in order to regularise his
relations with coin machines or with more simply robotlike clients ].
Lacan’s expression : « habiter le langage » [ to dwell in language ] refers to these phrases
of Heidegger : “Die Sprache ist das Haus
des Seins. In ihrer Behausung wohnt der Mensch” [ Language is house of Being. Man dwells
in its housing ] (cf. Brief über den »Humanismus«). The Lacanian definition of human being is parlêtre, that is, “Being-in-language”
who dwells in the structure of language.
Because no one will ever undergo a psychoanalysis
in order to normalise his relations with machines or robots, we can formulate this more
simply : who dwells in the Japanese language has no need to be psychoanalysed.
It is said that Lacan remarked that the Japanese are unanalysable
as well as rich people, Catholics, the English people — and of course psychotics and perverts.
We could say there is a slight difference of sense
between saying it is unnecessary and saying it is impossible. However it is true
that in Japan there have been, are and will be very few psychoanalysts (including
Lacanians and non-Lacanians) and very little demand for psychoanalysis. It is absolutely
certain that, as far as psychoanalysis is concerned, Japan has been, is and will
remain the least developed country among the most developed and the most
capitalistic countries in terms of political economy.
Nevertheless I, as a Lacanian psychoanalyst practicing
in Tokyo, can say that there are some whose mother tongue is Japanese, who
speak Japanese and think in Japanese and who come to have psychoanalytic
experience with me.
So according to Lacan’s suggestions we might suppose something in the Japanese language which prevents Japanese in general from
having the need or possibility of experiencing psychoanalysis, and which some exceptional
Japanese who come to be analysed have been able to escape. What might it be ? This is the
question which I try to answer in this essay.
linguistic history of Japanese
In all of the three texts mentioned above Lacan points out one particular factor — the prevalence of intra-linguistic translation in Japanese — of which he even says : “it is perpetual translation which became language” [ C’est la traduction perpétuelle faite langage ] (Autres écrits, p.20). And he correlates that factor with what he calls “duplicity” (the 11th February 1975, Seminar XXII) or “bifidity” (the 24th November 1975, at Yale University, Scilicet 6/7, p.36) comprised in the Japanese language because of the massive presence of Chinese characters and words in it.
That remark of Lacan refers to the linguistic
characteristics of Japanese as determined through its long history of relationships
with China and in its modern relationships with Western countries.
Linguistically the Japanese language is the
main member of the Japonic language family, an isolated language family
completely different in its derivation and in its linguistic structure from the
Chinese language or from the Indo-European languages.
Japanese was originally a non-literate language
with a relatively small and simple vocabulary. In the 5th century CE it began to
adopt Chinese characters and words for the purpose of introducing from China,
one of the most developed countries in the ancient and medieval world, such civilizational elements as governmental and legal systems, specific
knowledge and technique from various fields, the Buddhist sutras translated in
Chinese and texts of ancient Chinese sages (Confucius, etc.).
Because it was practically impossible to
translate into the primitive Japanese so many complicated and sophisticated Chinese
terminologies and concepts, the process of civilizational importation compelled
the Japanese language to “speak Chinese in Japanese” (cf. Autres écrits, p.498), that is, the Japanese ruling class and
governmental organs began to use in their language a multitude of untranslatable
Chinese words as such, pronouncing them in Japanized way of pronunciation, that
is, as far as Japanese who don’t speak Chinese can.
That process of massive transplantation of
Chinese characters and words with Chinese thinking and culture transformed
radically the Japanese language in the period from the 5th century to the 9th
century, which culminated in the development of the two systems of Japanese phonetic
letters (hiragana and katakana) invented from Chinese
Then in the 19th century, when Japan began to massively adopt modern sciences and capitalism from Western civilization, a
multitude of technical and abstract words and concepts were translated hastily from
English, French, German, etc. not into properly Japanese words (because of lack
of adequate vocabulary) but into neologistically formed words typically composed
of two Chinese characters and, again, pronounced in a Japanized way of pronunciation.
It was then a sort of Japanese snobbery to believe
that intellectual concepts newly imported from the Western civilization should
be expressed with Sinicised words, not with properly Japanese words. I could
add a remark that it is due to the sexism inherent to the Japanese language
where they believe that to use the properly Japanese words is feminine and even
effeminate while men should use the Chinese or Sinicised words written with
Finally, since 1945, such a flood of American
words has been introduced rapidly and continuously into Japanese society that
they can no longer be translated at all and are only left to be pronounced in
Japanized way of pronunciation and to be written as such in Japanized way of
writing (katakana), that is, as far
as Japanese who don’t speak English can.
The actual Japanese language is a nightmarishly
chaotic compound resulting from all those historical processes of
civilizational and cultural importations of words and notions from Chinese and
Western languages into the primitive Japanese with its grammatical structure basically
unaltered through the course of its history.
3. Japanese, lalangue par excellence
So when you speak Japanese your speech contains
a lot of Chinese words and American words pronounced in a Japanized way of
pronunciation which have no meaning per
se in Japanese phrases, such that it seems that you speak like James Joyce in
his Finnegans Wake.
In fact Lacan says in a lecture he gave in
Kanzer Seminar of Yale University on the 24th November 1975 (Scilicet 6/7, p.7) :
jusqu’à Finnegans Wake, Joyce respecta ce que
Chomsky appelle la « structure grammaticale ». Mais, naturellement, il
en a fait voir de dures aux mots anglais. Il alla jusqu’à injecter dans son propre
genre d’anglais des mots appartenant à un grand nombre d’autres langues, y
inclus le norvégien, et même certaines langues asiatiques. Il força les mots de
la langue anglaise en les contraignant à admettre d’autres vocables, vocables
qui ne sont pas du tout respectables, si je puis dire, pour quelqu’un qui use
in Finnegans Wake Joyce respected
what Chomsky calls “grammatical structure”. But of course he did something hard
to English words. He even injected into his own genre of English those words
which belong to a multitude of other languages including Norwegian and even some
Asian languages. He forced words of the English language in that he compelled them
to admit other vocabularies which are not respectable at all — if I can say — for someone
who uses English ].
So we can say that to speak Japanese is
comparable to speaking, so to say, Finneganian.
In the Lacanian terminology we can say that the Japanese language is lalangue par excellence, even more lalinguistic than English which Lacan privileges
when he calls it lalanglaise in his
seminar on the 13th April 1976 (Séminaire XXIII Le sinthome, p.133).
Well, what is lalangue ? Lacan introduced in his teaching the term lalangue combining in one word the
definite article and the noun of la
langue [ the tongue, the language ] in his Seminar XIX (1971-1972), that
is, about 6 months after the text Lituraterre,
to subsume in the concept of lalangue
the concept of letter as material aspect of signifier.
When a Lacanian psychoanalyst listens to his
patient, to begin with, he hears some fragments of pure lalangue, that is, he hears the utterance as fragments of chain of
vocal matters in their equivocality with no supposition of articulated
phonemes, morphemes or semantemes, that is, with no supposition of meaning,
without comprehension. And then — or at the same time — he reads with his ear (cf. Lacan’s
speech in Tokyo, the 21st April 1971) those fragments of lalangue to interpret them, not in function of their significance,
but in function of the subject $ as
A fragment of lalangue as such can not be written even stenographically because
we need fixed phonemes to do so. Nevertheless Lacan lets us have a taste of
Finneganian lalangue in the titles of
some of his Seminars of 70s :
errent [ non-dupes err ] — les
Noms-du-Père [ Father’s Names ] ;
R.S.I. — hérésie [ heresy ] ;
le sinthome — le symptôme [ symptom ], le saint homme [
holy man ] ;
que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile à mourre [ unbeknown that knows of the one
blunder wings himself to mora ] — l’insuccès de l’unbewusst c’est l’amour [ unsuccess of
the unconscious is love ].
You might say those are Witz. Yes, Finneganian Witz.
If Lacan says that “in Japan Witz is even
the dimension of the commonest discourse”, that’s because, as I said, the
Japanese language is comparable to Finneganian lalangue.
And at the same time Lacan says that in the
Japanese language the formations of the unconscious can be plugged so perfectly that he saw once an adult Japanese discover
what a Witz is, that is, she didn’t
know till then what Witz is as such
because it had been covered and hidden completely to her.
hole in the apophatico-ontological topology of Lacan
I call your attention to this point : if Lacan
says “to plug the formations of the unconscious”, that means the formations of
the unconscious are something susceptible to be plugged, that is, something
like a hole.
In fact, to consider the unconscious as a hole
or a gap is a constant in Lacan’s teaching. For example he formulates it very
clearly in 1964 in his Position of the
unconscious (cf. figure 1 developed from the schemata of alienation Lacan
presents in his Seminars XI and XIII) :
Le sujet, le
sujet cartésien, est le présupposé de l’inconscient. L’Autre est la dimension
exigée de ce que la parole s’affirme en vérité. L’inconscient est entre eux leur coupure en
[ The subject,
the Cartesian subject, is what is presupposed to the unconscious. The Other is
the dimension required by affirmation of words in truth. The unconscious is
between them their gap in actu. ]
To consider the unconscious as a hole or a gap
implies not to consider it as something like an obscure force or energy repressed
or oppressed in somewhere in the mind. Such mythological conception of the
unconscious is alien to Lacan’s teaching.
To think of a hole seriously Lacan first introduced
in his teaching the topology of surface in his Seminar IX Identification (1961-1962), because the simplest way of thinking of
a hole is to represent it as a hole open on a surface.
Thus Lacan introduces in his teaching the
topology of a closed surface called projective plane, alias cross-cap (cf. figure 2) and cuts it into two distinct surfaces (a holed sphere and a Möbius
strip) so that we can have these four elements of the apophatico-ontological
topology : the consistent surface of the holed sphere (blue), the ex-sistent
surface of the Möbius strip (red), the hole (yellow) and its edge (green).
Each of those four elements has respectively a
correspondence in Lacan’s tetrad of Symbolic, Imaginary, Real-Necessary and
Real-Impossible (cf. Le séminaire XXII R.S.I.
and Le séminaire XXV Le moment de
blue : the
discoid surface of consistency (the locus of the Other) — the Imaginary
the Möbiusian surface of ex-sistence (the locality of the subject) — the
Real-Impossible (which doesn’t cease not to be written) ;
: the hole — the Symbolic ;
the edge — the Real-Necessary (which doesn’t cease to be written in Wiederholungszwang).
And each of those four elements has
respectively a correspondence in the structure of Lacan’s four discourses (cf. figure 3 representing the structure of alienation [ cf. Lacan’s Seminars XI
and XIII ] as the structure of what Lacan calls discourse of university in his
schemata of the four discourses) :
blue : the
discoid surface of consistency (the locus of the Other) — the place of
the Möbiusian surface of ex-sistence (the locality of the subject) — the place of
: the hole — the place of truth ;
the edge — the place of other.
In the apophatico-ontological topology of Lacan
lalangue forms the edge of the hole of
the Symbolic and the littoral (cf. Lituraterre)
between the locus of consistency of the Imaginary and the locality of ex-sistence
of the Real-Impossible.
A fragment of lalangue is an object a
in the place of other in the structure of the discourse of university, which corresponds to the
edge of the hole of the Symbolic.
This edge of the object a supports materially the hole so that the hole can present itself
as a hole, and, as Lacan says sometimes so, the object a presents itself as a hole with its material consistency.
This object a
as a hole with the edge (green) supporting it and representing the subject $ in the locality of ex-sistence (red) formalises
the structure of the formation of the unconscious : a / $.
And this hole is what can be plugged occasionally
— how ? By two ways : 1) by the master signifier (signifiant maître) S1
in the place of truth in the structure of the discourse of university, which we
could call also master significance
(Herrenbedeutung, signifiance maître) ; 2) by lalangue itself as in the case of automatisme mental (imposed words) or in the case of the Finneganian
The hole of formations of the unconscious and the master significance
Let us take a famous example of formations of
the unconscious from Freud’s book on Witz
: the word famillionär of Heine, which
Lacan discusses too in his Seminar V. We quote from Freud :
In dem Stück
der Reisebilder, welches ›Die Bäder von Lucca‹ betitelt ist, führt H. Heine die köstliche
Gestalt des Lotteriekollekteurs und Hühneraugenoperateurs Hirsch-Hyacinth aus
Hamburg auf, der sich gegen den Dichter seiner Beziehungen zum reichen Baron
Rothschild berühmt und zuletzt sagt : Und so wahr mir Gott alles Gute geben soll,
Herr Doktor, ich saß neben Salomon Rothschild und er behandelte mich ganz wie
seinesgleichen, ganz famillionär (*).
the part of his Reisebilder entitled
“The Baths of Lucca” H. Heine introduces the delightful figure of the lottery-agent
and extractor of corns, Hirsch-Hyacinth of Hamburg, who boasts to the poet of
his relations with the wealthy Baron Rothschild, and finally say : “And, as true
as God shall grant me all good things, Doctor, I sat beside Salomon Rothschild
and he treated me quite as his equal — quite famillionairely”.]
This Witz word famillionär is a condensation of familliär and Millionär. Lacan
suggests us in which context we can hear it : the relationship of Heine with
the father of the woman he loved, a wealthy man who refused the marriage of
Heine and his daughter because of the poverty of the poet.
When we hear this passage the words “ganz famillionär” strikes our ears as a Witz because of its strangeness and incomprehensiveness.
This fragment of lalangue presents to
us itself as a hole of nonsense — the hole vacated of the master significance S1
in the place of truth (yellow).
A Witz can
have its effect of plus-de-jouir (Mehrlust,
more-lust) as far as its hole is free from the plug of master significance S1.
If the master significance S1 is given in the place of truth, we
don’t really notice the Witz as such,
but we comprehend simply the normalised meaning of the word.
The master signifier S1 supposed in the place of truth in the
discourse of university as the structure of alienation formalises something
metaphysically a priori, for example,
as Heidegger enumerates in the history of Being (die Geschichte des Seyns),
Platonic ἰδέα, ontological οὐσία (Being),
scholastic essentia or substantia, God of philosophers and
theologians (distinguished by Pascal from God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob),
epistemological transcendental ego, Nietzschean will to power, and we can add
to them Freudian super-ego.
The master signifier S1 as master
significance plugs the hole or the gap of the unconscious (cf. figure 3) to
hide the ex-sistent locality of the subject $
and to prevent the formations of the unconscious from having their effect of Mehrlust (plus-de-jouir).
intra-linguistic translations and the possibility of Witz in Japanese
If the Japanese language is lalangue par excellence and fragments of
lalangue are everywhere in Japanese
phrases, the lalinguistic hole is
plugged necessarily in advance by intra-linguistic translations giving to each
fragment of lalangue its
predetermined meaning, that is, the master significance S1 plugging
So let’s see now what the intra-linguistic
translation in the Japanese language is and how it functions. It’s the matter
of what Lacan calls Japanese “duplicity” along with the English “bifidity”.
Lacan points out that the Japanese “duplicity” is
the effect of the duality of on-yomi and kun-yomi of
Chinese characters. In principle each Chinese character in Japanese has an on-yomi and a kun-yomi (of course there are a lot of exceptional cases, for
example a Chinese character can have more than one on-yomi or more than one kun-yomi,
and there are characters without on-yomi
or without kun-yomi in Japanese). On-yomi of a Chinese character is its
Japanized pronunciation, while its kun-yomi
is a meaning allotted to it and formulated in one simple properly Japanese
word. For example the on-yomi of the Chinese
character 人 (which means : man
in the sense of ἄνθρωπος) is jin (its modern Chinese pronunciation is ren) while its kun-yomi
In other words the on-yomi of a Chinese character is its lalinguistic side while its kun-yomi
its significant side. Each Chinese character in Japanese can function as link
between those two sides, and because their correspondence has been established historically,
the link function of Chinese characters in the actual Japanese language is predetermined
as a historical a priori.
Thus Lacan might have believed that in the
Japanese language the lalinguistic
side can be aprioristically translated into the significant side by the link
function of Chinese characters, so that no fragment of lalangue can be free from predetermined master significance and that
every lalinguistic hole a is aprioristically plugged by a master
But we can say it’s not necessarily so in the
dimension of particular fragments of Japanese lalangue, where equivoque can remain.
For example, the phoneme sei in Japanized pronunciation can be the on-yomi of too many Chinese characters to be identified, and
accordingly the corresponding kun-yomi
cannot be determined univocally even if we take into consideration the context
where it is uttered. When I say : “It is said in the Seisho that...”, this word Seisho
made of that multivocal phoneme sei
and the phoneme sho signifying in
this case “writing” or “something written” can mean Holy Bible [聖書], Blue Book [青書] or any published book regarded as
standards on the subject of a particular scientific domain [成書].
Another example is one I had in my everyday
life. One day, when I proposed to my wife : “Shall we go to dine in the restaurant
*** on the day of Seijin ?” with the
intention of dining there on the Japanese national holiday called Seijin-no-hi (the day of Seijin [成人 which means :
adult ]) consecrated for communal celebration of all the people in a community
who are 20 years old, my wife asked me back : “you mean which saint ?” for she
took the word Seijin in the meaning
of holy man, that is, Catholic saint [聖人] (for both of us are Catholic). As everyone
can presume her response had a strong Witz
effect which made me laugh much.
That example based on the equivoque of the lalinguistic fragment Seijin shows us clearly how a Mehrlust effect of Witz can be caused. The response of my wife : “Which saint ?”［どの聖人？ Dono Seijin ?］evacuates from the place of truth
the supposed master significance S1 of the word Seijin［成人，adult］and thus brought it back to a state of pure lalangue. Then this lalinguistic fragment Seijin
happens to function as a signifier a representing
for another signifier S(Ⱥ) the subject $ : a / $ (cf. figure 3) which Lacan says is
“the structure of all the formations of the unconscious” (Écrits, p.840).
The Japanese lalangue and the
Nevertheless Lacan says that “the [ Japanese ] being-in-language
can therefore be subtracted from artifices of the unconscious which don’t attain
the Japanese being-in-language because they are closed to it” [ l’être parlant
par là peut se soustraire aux artifices de l’inconscient qui ne l’atteignent
pas de s’y fermer ] (Le séminaire XI, p.253) in the very same way as he says
that “Joyce [ is ] unsubscribed to the unconscious” [ Joyce désabonné à l’inconscient
] (Le séminaire XXIII, p.164).
That is very true as far as the actual Japanese
language has almost the same structure as the Finneganian language.
Lacan (Le séminaire XXIII, pp.95-97) suggests us
that for Joyce words are more and more imposed to the extent that he writes
finally Finnegans Wake where the language
is dissolved, broken or decomposed to the state of pure lalangue, and that that has something to do with the schizophrenia
of his daughter Lucia whom Joyce believes to be a real telepath. In other words
the text of Finnegans Wake is equivalent
to schizophrenic hallucination or hallucinosis of imposed voices (l’automatisme
mental), and only the artistic creation prevents Joyce from being overtly
The words imposed to Joyce in their lalinguistic state cannot function as signifiers
representing the subject $ because for
Joyce as well as “for the schizophrenic patient, all the Symbolic is Real” (Écrits, p.392), that is, the purely lalinguistic object a in their words doesn’t form edge of the hole of the Symbolic but covers
up completely the hole so that the subject $
is hidden instead of being represented.
In the Japanese language also, generally
speaking, fragments of lalangue can
hardly function as signifiers representing the subject $, even if there can be occasional exceptions. And this unrepresentedness
of the subject $ in Japanese is conditioning
what Alexandre Kojève calls “the snobbism in pure state” [ le snobisme à l’état
pur ] in Japan and what fascinates Roland Barthes who calls Japan “Empire of
8. The paranoiac
predominance of master significance in Japan
Because of the historically determined lalinguistic structure of the language
it is very difficult to think in Japanese, as you can easily presume that to
think in the Finneganian language is practically impossible.
This difficulty or practical impossibility of
thinking in Japanese is conditioning for example some unbelievable characteristics
of education in Japan : pupils and students are not encouraged to think by
themselves but only to assume what is imposed and dictated to them as absolute
norms and traditional standards. If you cannot adapt yourself in that system you
will be simply excluded from your local society or from Japanese
society as a whole. It is no wonder that Japanese society has been, is and will remain
fundamentally totalitarian under its semblance of representative democracy, as well as fundamentally sexist, misogynistic and phallocratic.
Such impositions of norms have effected and are
maintaining the predominance of master significance in the Japanese society.
And that predominance of master significance which we must now call paranoiac
is in fact the compensation for the impossibility of thinking in Japanese.
We can say in general that the function of Mehrlust (plus-de-jouir) of the object a and the effect of phallic jouissance
of the master signifier S1 in the structure of alienation (cf. figure 3) are competing against each other. We can observe the pure
predominance of Mehrlust for example in
the sexual perversions while the pure predominance of phallic jouissance is
observable in the pure form of paranoia without phenomenon of automatisme mental.
Most psychoanalytic patients (analysant in French) are neurotics serving
two masters simultaneously, that is, dominated by both of the two types of
jouissance, Mehrlust of the object a and phallic jouissance of the master
signifier S1, functioning side by side and competing against each
We can say in general that you come to
psychoanalysis if your phallic jouissance is weak enough and your Mehrlust is not strong enough to
compensate the insufficiency of your phallic jouissance, that is, if you are
not paranoiac nor pervert.
And we cannot help having the impression that
now in Japan there are so many paranoiacs and so many perverts in the general population.
What in Japanese prevents one who dwells in that
language from having a need or a possibility of experiencing psychoanalysis ? A
possible Lacanian answer is : its lalinguistic
structure which disfavours a signifier representing for another signifier the
subject and which favours the predominance of master significance.
In actual Japanese society this conditions
on one hand the prevalence of nationalistic paranoia, and on the other hand the
prevalence of various sexual perversions which are so much various forms of acting
out to escape from the suffocating effect of the predominance of master
Most of my patients come to psychoanalysis because
they are not capable of being sufficiently pervert nor paranoiac in those
particularly Japanese ways.
I only pray that more Japanese people may find
the way of psychoanalytic sublimation to escape from those Japanese ways of
paranoia and sexual perversions.
In Tokyo, the 2nd January 2019