Amae (甘え) | Manja | Sajiao (撒娇)

A tentative attempt to explore the universality behind three cultural concepts and possible sociocultural factors weighing in the formation of each concept

Emily, Gaffey, Luluk, Luming

  1. Overview

Amae, a well-known cultural conception in Japan society, has been attracting international attention from the academic world since Doi (1971) introduced its significance in understanding interactional pattern of Japanese.

First, it is necessary to clarify the definition of Amae. According to Doi (1992), Amae is the ability “to depend and presume upon another’s love or bask in another’s indulgence”. What’s more, as the research-related literature of Amae grew, its definition has been enriched by other scholars, Yamaguchi & Ariizumi (2006) suggested that Amae as “presumed acceptance of one’s inappropriate behavior or request”. In another word, Amae is an inappropriate behavior with a presumed acceptance from the counterpart, aiming to seek indulgence or a favor.

Although Amae is a quite unique concept which includes a serial inter-personal interactions and people’s relatively positive attitudes toward it in Japan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no similar conceptions existing in other cultures. Given the consensus that Amae involves with “inappropriate request” and “presumed acceptance of the recipient”, we elicited other two cultural conceptions which seem to have the similar interactional patterns and functions from Indonesian (Manja) and Mandarin (Sajiao), and these two languages basically represent mainstream culture of Indonesia and China.

By comparing those three cultural-specific conceptions, we want to make a tentative explanation of not only the universality behind them, but also sociocultural factors which weigh in the varieties of that universality in each cultural context. By doing so, our prospective readers can realize the fact that even different cultural concepts can have things in common and their awareness to appreciate the intercultural differences can be facilitated as a result.

  1. Comparison of three cultural concepts on basis of analysis of Amae

2.1 Amae

2.1.1. Introduction

Amae, suggested by Doi (1971), the key concept to understand Japanese people’s communication pattern, seems confusing to people from other cultures where no corresponding concept exists. There is a necessity to clarify the connotation of Amae in Japanese cultural context before moving forward to an in-depth explanation.

In terms of the definition of Amae, whereas there is no thorough description of it due to the complicated social contexts and interpersonal relationship this concept involves with, researchers engaged in studying this cultural concept have yielded fruitful works thus enriching the connotation of Amae (Kumagai, 1981; Lebra, 1976). However, to make the definition concise, Yamaguchi’s (1999) illustration of Amae is cited. According to Yamaguchi (1999), Amae is an inappropriate behavior or request for one’s age, physical condition, social role and the initiator of Amae presumes acceptance from the counterpart.

Here comes the question, since the corresponding literal expression is hardly observable in other, especially western cultures, does it equally mean that people grew up in other cultures can barely appreciate the emotion accompanied with Amae behavior? Based on a great deal of research literature, it has been proved that it is just not the case. Though with little empirical evidence, Doi (1971) strongly argued from a psychoanalysis standpoint that the mental mechanism of Amae stems from one’s unwilling separation from his/her caretaker (basically mother) when he/she was a child. In order to fill the anxiety and loneliness triggered by the separation, one practice Amae to others to “seek affection” or “to strengthen closeness in a broader social context” (Dalsky, 2018). Therefore, the psychological mechanism behind Amae is actually universal which is consistent over all human beings. This perspective is supported by subsequent study conducted by Ellsworth, Niiya& Yamaguchi (2006). The study implicated that even though with nameless expression to define what people were experiencing, the essays written by American college students who were recruited to attend Amae emotion related experiment were estimated by Japanese students as involving Amae behaviors.

Since we have come to a consensus that the “universal inclination” behind Amae is shared by all human beings, we then attempt to figure out the following questions in this section: a) what factors cause Amae to become the crucial interactional pattern in Japanese society (we consider Amae as a variation of the “universal inclination”, largely shaped by Japanese unique sociocultural factors). b) What might be “universal inclination” be?

2.1.2 Functions

As a prevalent interactional pattern in Japan society, Amae mainly serves the following three functions. 1) To satisfy a desire or help to achieve a certain goal; 2) to test love or seek affection; 3) to strengthen closeness in a broad social context (Dalsky, 2018).

The first function, however, since Amae tends to involve individuals who don’t share equal status in a given situation (teacher and student, for example), through practicing Amae to please the powerful individual can create an opportunity for the initiator to achieve his/her goal with an external help. Whereas, from Doi’s (1971) position, since Amae is “an attempt psychologically to deny the separation from the mother”, this function to satisfy one’s personal goal can be seen as a derivation from the original function of Amae.

The second function, “to test love or seek affection”, seems to be the original function. The relationship of participants involving in this kind of interaction is quite limited. Only truly intimate ones can share this aspect of Amae like families, lovers.  

The third function, from our perspective, has an overlap with the other two. Admittedly if one practices Amae with his/her families or the other half to seek affection, meanwhile the closeness is being emphasized. On the other hand, when one practices Amae to a friend’s help to achieve a goal, the closeness of two individuals are highlighted with no doubt. However, the question is, when Amae occurs between two people who share unequal social status but meanwhile they are not in intimate relationship like families (say, would there be a closeness strengthened when a student who failed in a test by merely one point and asked the teacher to cut him some slack and the teacher did to let him pass), is there still an existence of closeness to be strengthened through the Amae interaction? The answer is still under exploring.  

2.1.3 Cases

Again, before discussing the concrete cases of each function of Amae, the salient traits of Amae are worth emphasizing. First, inappropriateness. Amae is conceived as unsuited with one’s given age or social status. Second, the presumption of acceptance of the counterpart. This is the other crucial component and what makes Amae so intriguing. Based on our team exchange program with three Japanese students (Tomoya, Kazuko, Morimoto), we have reached an agreement that Japanese people would barely practice Amae when they don’t presume that the counterpart would accept it. As for the significance of this component and its potential relevance with the Amae’s prevalence in Japan, more discussion will be given below.

Bearing that Amae is an interactional pattern in mind, we can gain a clearer picture of it if we consider the case along with the relationship of participants involved in. What’s more, we classified the relationship into two categories, Vertical Amae and Horizontal based on Yamaguchi& Ariizumi’s (2006) study. Vertical Amae occurs in relationship involving with a powerful individual and a less powerful individual (for instance, mother and children). On the other hand, Horizontal Amae takes place usually among friends whose status is equal.

  1. Vertical Amae

Vertical Amae refers to Amae which occurs in the interaction between a relatively powerful individual and a less powerful individual in a given situation. In Japanese cultural context, the most typical cases can be relationships like parents with children, teachers and students, bosses and workers, and sophisticated members with new comers in any organization. Under such circumstance, the less powerful can initiate Amae to the powerful to achieve their goals (no matter the goal is affective or practical), and basically, as long as the presence of the social hierarchy is there, this type of interaction does not expect the initiator of Amae to return the favor or affection, the interactional circle is perfectly closed up as the receiver of Amae gains the feeling that they are the one in control in the relationship. For instance, parents don’t ask for any return from their children after admitting their Amae behavior but simply be satisfied by realizing who they are. When it comes to the relationship of teachers and students, this mechanism works as well.

Apart from what mentioned above, there is another aspect we have to pay close attention to about Amae in Japanese cultural context, and it is about exactly who initiates Amae, or in another word, who creates the Amae situation. To many readers this statement might sound weird, however, it is a significant point weighing in the high prevalence of Amae phenomena in Japan compared to other cultures.

So far intensive attention has been allocated to individuals who practice Amae behavior, namely, people who ask inappropriate request with a presumption of acceptance. Whereas, Amae situation can also be established by powerful individuals through either implying or explicitly sending an Amae invitation. For example, in the situation when a teacher offers to pay the meal after eating with his/her students, even though students probably haven’t expected the teacher to do so, they would like to accept the powerful individual’s kindness and say “お言葉に甘えて” (if you insist). When it happens, the teacher ropes the students in an Amae situation and is satisfied by merely feeling his/her authority and responsibility bonded with his/her relatively high social status. We term Amae in such situation as “Passive Amae”.

Passive Amae is a crucial component to understand Japanese people’s interpersonal interaction since the social hierarchy exists everywhere throughout this country. The powerful individual generally does not embarrass when he/she imply an Amae signal because it is common for a powerful one to help out less powerful one. However, as mentioned above, the prerequisite for an individual to initiate Amae is that he/she assumes that the likelihood of being rejected is low thus urge to practice Amae might be suppressed when the situation is ambiguous. Whereas, once Passive Amae is possible, Amae situation can be created without estimating whether the counterpart is an appropriate person to practice Amae with or not. And Passive Amae, to a large extent, is formed on the basis of a strict social hierarchy system, and it is one significant factor to account for the fact that why Amae is rather prevalent in Japan.  

  1. b) Horizontal Amae

Horizontal Amae refers to Amae behavior which occurs between individuals who do not share unequal status in a given situation. Friendship is obvious the typical example of this type of Amae. One might ask his/her friend to lend him/her his/her notebook before the final. This can be considered as an Amae behavior since it both possesses the two characteristics of inappropriateness and presumption of acceptance as long as they are close enough. Nevertheless, the Amae interaction in Horizontal Amae situation is quite different from the one in a Vertical Amae situation not only due to the absence of power distance, but also the awareness of returning the favor. Taking the instance above for illustration, albeit the friend may not ask return immediately, in all probability he/she would hold the belief that the next time he/she is in trouble and if he/she turns to the friend who received his/her help, he/she might not turn him/her down.

In conclusion, the interactional loop in a Horizontal Amae situation can only close itself up with relatively fairly mutual contribution in a long run, so does a healthy romantic relationship.

2.1.4 Sociocultural factors leading to the prevalence of Amae in Japan

As argued above, from our perspective, one of the leading cause to account for the prevalence of Amae in Japan is the existence of strictly constructed social hierarchy. With the presence of this social system, passive Amae between individuals who share unequal social status are more likely to occur thus the phenomena of Amae, to a large extent, have jumped out of the constraints of imitate relationship and became observable everywhere in Japan.

In addition, the property of being a collectivistic society is also regarded as a main reason contributing to the high prevalence of Amae phenomena in Japan. We can easily relate to the idea that Western cultures, as the representative of individualism, appreciate individuals to take care of himself and independence is usually highly evaluated in such cultural contexts. Whereas, in collective society like Japan, where interdependence is one of crucial components to constitute the society, interpersonal relationship is viewed positively thus Amae is more likely to be permitted by the vast majority. What’s more, as a pre-dominant cultural phenomena, people’s attitudes and behavior about Amae are largely influenced by the evaluation of significant others around them. In other words, there is a probability that people’s tendency to act on the conception of Amae is triggered by the fear that discrepancy with others can incur negative evaluations.

2.2 Manja

2.2.1 Introduction

In Indonesian, Manja refers to the childlike behavior aiming to be pampered by others. Typically, it is used for spoiled children and women attempting to adored in a romantic relationship. Manja can be used between close friends, and pets trying to gain a human’s attention by doing adorable actions will also be seen as Manja.

Compared to Sajiao and Amae, Manja tends to strongly link with affection. Literally, the word Manja-manja refers to acts of affection, like to pet or to cuddle. In old texts, Manja was related to some positive characteristics like “kind”, “friendly” or “affectionate”. Indonesia people mentioned that they would only do Manja to their parents, lover or intimate friends. It’s inappropriate to make such an over-intimate require to unfamiliar acquaintances or higher-ups. So from our respective, Manja happens in a relatively innermost circle of relationship, and the indispensable factor is the receiver’s affection and compassion, which makes Manja closer to the concept of indulgence rather than Amae. Therefore, we can easily understand why people rarely use their charm (like sweet voice) as a tool when they try to Manja – they don’t need to do so in the most well-built intimate relationships.

Many Indonesians hold a complex attitude towards Manja. Generally, Manja is a negative thing and people are not willing to be the initiator or be regarded as Manja, which implies dependence and laziness. However, in practice, when taking in such behavior from others, their attitude depends on whether the relationship is close enough. People admit that in certain situations, Manja can be adorable and such interaction helps maintain and strengthen an intimate relationship. On the other hand, Manja from unfamiliar acquaintances is seen as impolite and makes people annoyed.

2.2.2 Functions

(1)to satisfy a desire

People can do Manja for a certain purpose with a clear cognition of it. For example, a 12-year-old boy who wants a pair of new shoes begs his parents to buy it for him. The boy knows that his parents care about him and there is a chance to satisfy his desire through the Manja approach.

 (2)  to test love

    This kind of function mostly happens in romantic relationships where one wants to make sure that she/he is loved by the other. It can be expressed by the frequent requirement of intimate action or some extraordinary demands. However, as foreign popular culture such as Korean series and Japanese anime is playing an important role in young people’s lives, it’s hard to say to what extent it influences people’s attitude about love, which also links with the Manja behavior.

(3) to complain

Manja can also be used in a negative way which shows the actor’s disappointment or sadness. However, unlike a direct complaint, the discontent is demonstrated in a milder way. For example, a girl was blamed by her father for being late for school and she argued that there was too much homework and she didn’t like that teacher at all. In this case, the girl explained and complained in an intimate way, which is also regarded as a kind of Manja.

2.2.3 Cases

  1. Manja in parent-child relationship

A girl from a big family is the smallest among her siblings and she is spoiled by her parents. She asks her mother to wash the clothes for her even she is able to do such thing. As her parents are so fond of her, they tend to agree her requirement.

(2) Manja in romantic relationship

A girl is in love with her boyfriend and she clings to him like a shadow. And the conversation between her boyfriend and a single guy can be like:

Boyfriend: My girlfriend is so manja, she gives me puppy dog eyes and pouts her lips every time she wants a hug.

Single guy: Yeah you girlfriend is manja. The way she puts on her baby voice whenever she wants something from you.

2.3 Sajiao撒娇

2.3.1 Introduction

When it comes to Sajiao, people usually think of the image of children and women, or even pets. In China, it is generally recognized that men shouldn’t do Sajiao because Sajiao is a feminization action. People often use a very cute tone or adorable gestures (e.g., pout, shake body slightly) to do Sajiao. If a man does Sajiao to others, he will be thought by others that he has no masculinity. So, we can regard Sajiao as a behavior which is peculiar to children, women, and pets (I will focus on human behavior in this part so pets will not be discussed).

How about the definition of Sajiao? In fact, when you look up Sajiao in the dictionary, you will find the definition of Sajiao is that someone takes advantage of others’ love towards himself/herself to do some inappropriate things (仗着受人宠爱故意作态).It sounds like that Sajiao has some negative meanings, but actually the meaning of Sajiao can be neutral. It depends on the relationship between the person who does the Sajiao and the person who accepts the Sajiao. We can do Sajiao more easily to someone who has a close relationship with us, such as our parents, lovers and best friends. It also depends on how the behavior is done. For example, there is a common saying in China which says that “women who can do Sajiao well are the luckiest (撒娇女人最好命)”. According to this sentence, we can say that if you can practice Sajiao well, you can gain some benefits. But in the other side, if you do too much Sajiao, or do Sajiao in a wrong time, you may be despised.

So, here comes the question, “How can we do Sajiao well”? As mentioned above, first, you should do Sajiao to someone who loves you, cares you. Second, you should do Sajiao in a right time, when someone is terribly upset you should better not do it. Third, pay attention to overuse of Sajiao, otherwise it will make others think that you are pretentious(做作).

So, we can feel that the action of sajiao has many limitations, the definition of sajiao is very narrow, which is different from Amae. In Japan, people can do Amae to families, friends, lovers of course, but they can even do Amae to their boss or superior, who has a vertical relationship (上下関係) with them. In another word, Chinese usually do Amae to someone who has a close relationship to them. Briefly, Sajiao is more like an intimate behavior, otherwise, Amae can be regarded as a social behavior or an intimate behavior according to different situations. We will talk about the difference in the later part of this report.

2.3.2 Function

Since we have already talked about the definition of Sajiao, we should also know the function of Sajiao, namely the purposes of doing Sajiao.

1)   To make a request

Perhaps many people do Sajiao to make a request more easily, because Sajiao can make them in a lower position, others will think people who do Sajiao are vulnerable group, so the Sajiao is usually be accepted. Also, people who accept Sajiao will have tendency to think that they are in control of the relationship. It seems that Sajiao is a shortcut to realize some goals.

2)   Show the affection or test love

It is important to know that the purposes of Sajiao are not all to make a request. Sometimes people practice Sajiao just to Show their affection or test love. Sajiao is a tool to express feelings, the same as hug and kiss. Generally, we are not likely to do Sajiao to everyone. Someone who accept our Sajiao will feel he/she has a close relationship with us. How about test love? It happens in a love relationship. Girls often do Sajiao to their boyfriend or husband. If their boyfriend or husband replies to the Sajiao positively, they will feel that they are loved, otherwise, they will feel upset or angry. It is like a love test.

2.3.3 Cases

To make the recognition of Sajiao much deeper, we can illustrate some cases.

We often give the example of a girl and her boyfriend to explain Sajiao to foreigners. When a girl doesn’t want her boyfriend to go out with his friends, she will say “Please don’t leave me alone, I will miss you so much (不要丢下我一个人嘛,人家会想你啦)” instead of saying no directly. Using Sajiao here you will get a better ending. In addition, you will see people use modal particle like “嘛,啦”to do Sajiao. It will make the tone cuter, like wawayin (娃娃音). Sometimes girls will use “人家” rather than “我(I)” to make herself more attractive.

Also, we do Sajiao to our family and friends, according to Yueh (2013), we can imagine this scene:

In the hallway of his grandparents’ apartment, the five-year-old boy, Yang, was accompanied with his grandfather after dinner, kicking a ball in the living room. He was so engaged in the activity that he did not respond to his father several times, “It’s late at night, and the grandpa needs to take a rest.” When Yang’s father finally interrupted by taking away the ball and urged the boy to take leave, Yang refused “I still want to play (不要嘛,我还要玩).”

We also should notice that Sajiao can not only be done by tone or gestures, it can be also done by messages. For example, when you texting to your friend, you want your friend to hang out with you even your friend is very busy. You will send the message with some emoji, like 😁, 🙏, ❤️, 😘. It is also an expression of Sajiao.


  1. Implications

The tentative answer for the universality behind these three culture-specific conceptions, might be a psychological term “anaclisis”. It is an internal inclination throughout human beings which stems from the separation experience of a child from his/her mother. And when this internal inclination encounters different cultural environment, it demonstrates itself in people’s interaction patterns correspondingly. In Japan, anaclisis is embedded within a concept people refer to as Amae and it branches out into several derivations in people’s social life. As a result, situations which can be labeled as Amae are almost everywhere in Japanese cultural context since the culture itself allows not only the less powerful individuals to initiate Amae and create such a situation, but also powerful individuals to create an Amae-possible situation and invite the less powerful in. On the other hand, inappropriate behaviors among individuals who share equal social status (in most cases, friends) are viewed as an emphasis of closeness therefore defined as Amae, too. However, what’s apparently distinctive between Amae occurring in a Horizontal Amae situation and in a Vertical Amae situation is that in the former situation, the Amae receivers actually expect the possible privilege to make another inappropriate request as a return in the future. Even they might never choose to do so however the possibility is there. Whereas, it is just not the case in a Vertical Amae situation. Namely, the powerful individuals probably won’t expect return from the less powerful individual, instead, they gain self-satisfaction just by feeling in control in the relationship.

As for the case in Indonesia, things remain in the mist due to the relatively few literature we have in hand about Manja. However, it stills worth speculating from sociocultural and linguistic perspectives. As referred to above, in Indonesia (at least in a certain cultural environment where people can mostly relate to Manja), Manja only occurs among people who share an intimate relationship. It could be families, lovers or close friends. In other words, it’s scarcely observable between teachers and students, bosses and employees and other social relationships. So, if we stand in the sociocultural perspective which has a profound influence on vertical Amae in Japan, can we reach the same conclusion that the absence of strictly structured social status system might account for the inexistence of Manja between people who don’t share an intimate relationship. However, some literatures (国际汉语教师贵州考培中心, 2015) suggested that the social hierarchy in Indonesia is rather sturdy and power distance among different people can be even huger. If taking the prerequisite for Passive Amae to occur into consideration, does not Indonesia a suitable country for the similar concept “Passive Manja” between people who share unequal social status to develop? But it turns out that it didn’t happen, so we are tempted to ask, why? Probably one cultural factor might be able to account for the less prevalence of Manja in Indonesia is the diversity of existing languages. According to Merdekwaty (2006), there are at least 742 languages in Indonesia. Although most of people can speak Bahasa Indonesia simultaneously, however people tend to be raised in an environment where other languages are dominant. The diversity of languages can trigger a result that many people don’t relate to the cultural concept Manja linguistically. And this linguistic factor is the one of the leading courses which result in the less prevalence of Sajiao in China.

In terms of Sajiao in China, it seems that positions to consider about this issue are innumerable and dragging too many standpoints in does not help but merely muddy this waters. Therefore, only social hierarchy perspective and linguistic factors are employed to help us understand this cultural concept. Fairly speaking, in spite of the increasing economic inequality and correspondingly intensified social classes, current China has been stricken by attrition of traditional values and vertical interpersonal relationship is not as strict as it was in the past. It’s morally acknowledged that young people should respect the old and students are supposed to respect their teachers and so forth, however, due to the loss of traditional values, this kind of awareness hasn’t come into being as a well-structured social system yet. Hence, unlike when Passive Amae occurs in Japanese cultural context, even the powerful individual is not sure whether it is fine to create a “Sajiao OK” situation and drag the less powerful individual in or not. Once there is an ambiguity in a situation about whether a behavior is acceptable or not, the likelihood for people to initiate that behavior declines drastically. Whereas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese people don’t appreciate Passive Amae like situations at all. Actually, we do it quite often. For instance, someone offers to pay the bill after a meal can be seen as a behavior of creating a Passive Amae like situation. Nevertheless, Chinese people won’t call this Sajiao due to linguistic constraints this word has to itself.

From a linguistic perspective, the word Sajiao is not, by any mean, sexually neutral word. Namely, it can’t be applied to, to a large extent, describe behavior of males and females simultaneously. If we break this word down to two parts, Sa (撒) literally means “scatter”, and Jiao (娇) means “effeminacy”. This may provide sufficient explanations for why Sajiao is seen as a behavior restricted among women and children, and in rare cases, men.

  1. Conclusion

In this article, we have discussed three culture-specific concepts Amae, Manja, Sajiao respectively in Japan, Indonesia and China and the universal psychological mechanism—anaclisis—behind these three. On the other hand, in order to illustrate the correlations between three varying interactional patterns in each cultural context with the universal psychological mechanism and explore the possible factors shape these three concepts what they are, we utilized a sociocultural approach. As a conclusion, we reached to a consensus that social hierarchy with strict vertical interpersonal relationships weighs in the prevalence of Amae in Japan. In addition, although without empirical evidences, linguistic factors might be another reason accounting for less prevalence of Manja and Sajiao in Indonesia and China cultural context. Whereas, there are still many potential aspects under uncharted, like intimacy between parents and children in each country, the tendency to obey conventional values and the underlying influence from religions toward people’s belief in Indonesia and so forth. These are all likely variables which weigh in the different demonstrations of the universal psychological mechanism in each culture.      

Discussion questions/topics

  1. Why there emerges a sexual constraint in the usage of Sajiao as the Chinese variety of the universality? What happened to other social functions which Amae have yet Sajiao is unlikely to bear in interpersonal interaction in China?
  2. Compared to China and Japan, Indonesia is very special because its strong religious property, does the prevalence of religious belief have any influence on the way people perceive the psychological universality? If it does, how?
  3. Does the employment system in Japan (married females take care of in-house jobs and males work outside) facilitate the development of Amae?


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