Food items such as alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee are not consumed for any nutritional value, but for enjoyment. These food items are referred to as “shikohin.” Why did mankind pursue these items that, at first glance, seem to have little purpose in survival?

“Shikohin” is a term that is difficult to translate outside of Japan and unique to the Japanese language. It is said that the first person to use this term was Ogai Mori, who described “shikohin” as something that is “a necessity in life” that is also “a poison” in his short story “Fujidana” published in 1912. Being both a poison and a medicine, “shikohin” is surrounded by ambiguity. In the DIG THE TEA series, we will explore modern day “shikohin” and its role in our society through interviews with leading experts both in and out of Japan.

For the 6th installment of this series we visited psychiatrist Takuya Matsumoto. While working as a doctor, he also researches and discusses contemporary philosophy based on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Matsumoto explores the truth of “madness” and “pleasure” in our modern world while going back and forth between clinical practice and theoretical concepts. In the first half of the article we will examine the role of “transitional objects” in the process of subjectivation, explore the inseparable relationship between

“pleasure” and “odiousness”, discuss the human tendency towards addiction as well as how it has the potential to let us to deviate into an alternative community. 

Interview&Editing: Masanobu Sugatsuke Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato

“Transitional objects,” a necessity for subjectivation

── As an expert in psychoanalysis, what purpose do you think shikohin serves?

I think shikohin is easier to understand if you see it as a “transitional object” under the argument presented by Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst from the mid-20th century. A transitional object is something like the blanket that the character Linus holds onto in the cartoon “Peanuts,” which is known for featuring Snoopy. It is something that a child must hold onto all the time in order to feel safe. It is like the doll you may have had as a child that you could not throw away no matter how battered it became. I research the work of Jacques Lacan, and he refers to these objects as “objet petit a.” 

In short, I believe shikohin plays a similar role as transitional objects. Winnicott himself suggested that addiction is related to transitional objects also. One could argue that the transitional object is the first shikohin we experience in life. 

── Why do humans seek out transitional objects?

Transitional objects are something that is close at hand and gives us comfort. It is the first place where we can settle our base camp. By attaching ourselves to certain objects, we establish subjectivation for the first time. In other words, we create the formation of “I” or “self” as the subject. I think that we can create a thesis that “humans begin with addictions.”

The same is true for animals. When we bring home a kitten from a breeder, we often take home the blanket it was using before, or some of the sand from the litter box that it was using. These things allow it to feel safe and comfortable in its new environment. 

── Do you mean that transitional objects are an essential part of the subjectivation process?

Yes. Children are closely attached to their mothers from birth and cannot be left alone. However, at times the mother will be distracted by other things and cannot be by the child’s side all the time. In other words, a child will surely go through the experience of losing contact with the mother’s body at some point. When this happens, having something on hand that reminds the child of the mother’s body allows the child to compensate for the loss of their mother. This is how transitional objects work. A typical example is a blanket that the child was wrapped in when being held by their mother. 

However, this is not so simple. The process of acquiring this transitional object requires the child to first separate the identity of one self from their mother. In other words, it is a necessary moment needed in the process of subjectivation. If you think about it, while the mother’s existence is important for the child because she helps it survive, at the same time she is a formidable stranger that controls everything about them. 

While being breastfed, the baby will want the mother to always be by its side, but when the breastfeeding is over, it becomes disillusioned. On top of that, the baby may start to desire that the mother leave it alone. At this time, having the transitional object in hand makes it possible for the baby to distance itself from the mother. 

To elaborate a bit more, the word “transition” here means the transitional period in which we arrive at a state where we are able to distinguish oneself from others. Winnicott stated that having a transitional object allows a child to work out fantasies that are separate from reality. Until then, the only world a child knows is the world in which it is being held in the arms of their mother, but by having the transitional object that works as an abstract of the mother, it breaks free from that world and they are able to develop the ability to think for themselves. This begins the process of subjectivation and the beginning of becoming a unique individual. 

While the transitional object is a remnant of the child’s connection with their mother, it also gives the child the opportunity to break free from the mother’s control, to become independent and to create their own identity. It is inherently ambiguous. 

Odiousness makes pleasure possible

── Does that mean that, like transitional objects, shikohin is also ambiguous? It’s often true that there is only a fine line between feeling good and feeling bad. I love coffee, tea, alcohol and cigars, but when I consume too much I feel ill quite quickly. 

You are right. Transitional objects also begin with addictions. In the same way, sexual love and pleasure is also ambiguous. A little while ago, the movie “Your Name” was a big hit. In the movie, there is a scene with “kuchikami sake” which is the very embodiment of this. This sake is made by spitting out chewed rice and when the hero of the movie is no longer able to connect with the heroine, this drink acts as the only trace remaining of their connection. 

If you think about it, the process of making this sake is quite grotesque. In fact, some people who watched the movie were put off by the scene that portrayed this process. However, this odiousness is what later becomes the key to reconnecting the character’s severed connection. Even when all other connections were gone, this special object created a path to restore their connection. In “Your Name,” the kuchikami sake’s only role is to act as a trace of the characters’ connection, and it is not portrayed as something that will sever the relationship. Perhaps this is why director Makoto Shinkai’s films are often critiqued as “virgin-like.”

As in this example, all things that are indulging or addictive have an odious aspect to it. Rather, it is because of this odiousness that enjoyment or sexual pleasure is made possible. Another example is sushi. If you think about it, the dish is made from raw fish in the bare hands of the sushi chef and that is not very hygienic. However, this does not mean that it would be better if a clean machine made the sushi instead. In fact, there are many people who do not like the idea of a machine making sushi. In my opinion, sushi is another example of how something grotesque is turned into something pleasurable. 

── There are many grotesque things in gourmet foods. Even foie gras, for example, is made by feeding geese and ducks more than they can eat to enlarge their livers. 

All things cultural are fundamentally ambiguous. Even Sigmund Freud argued that the erotic aspect of human minds “turns things of discomfort into sexual arousal.” However, in our modern world, I feel that the movement to abolish these ambiguities is getting stronger and more fierce. Philosopher Masaya Chiba has also warned about the dangers of our world becoming increasingly “clean” and how more and more unpleasant things are becoming eliminated. The growing public criticism of cigarettes is a clear example of this and the concept of how things are “pleasant because they are odious” is disappearing. The idea of things “going full circle” is no more, and as people adopt the simple mindset of “what is gross is gross, and what is dirty is dirty,” we lose our complexities and become plain. 

Everyone is an addict, but having only one addiction is problematic

── Do you mean to say that the ambiguity of shikohin is becoming less accepted in our world today?

Shikohin is something we consume in order to control the things that overflow from inside of us. In psychoanalytic terms, humans are full of uncontrollable desires and we indulge in shikohin in order to dissipate and control those desires. In other words, human desire uses unpleasant things as a way to achieve pleasure. 

Many people who smoke cigarettes do not do it for nicotine intake. Rather, they smoke because they relieve their feelings through a distraction. It is the same for when we are riding on the train and have nothing to do, we often get a feeling of restlessness from inside and we pull out our phones to scroll through our Twitter timeline or play a puzzle game, even when we are not really interested in either. 

Fundamentally, addiction arises from similar reasons. Recently, a model called the “self-medication hypothesis” is garnering a lot of attention. It suggests that when memories of past unbearable experiences come back to our minds, the painful emotions also come rushing in. We become dependent on certain substances in order to have a place to escape to and process those feelings. In that sense, addiction can be seen as a way of self-medication. 

── I see. So the act of consuming shikohin and addiction work in a similar way.

A dependency on something in itself is not an illness. From transitional objects to using our smartphones, everyone has these kinds of dependencies. What is important and often pointed out is that the object of dependence should not be limited to one or a few things. 

Pediatrician Shinichiro Kumagai’s argument on independence and self-reliance is a good reference. Oftentimes, the discussion on independence or self-reliance is focused on people with disabilities, but even those who are considered able-bodied, for example, are not necessarily able to dig their own water lines or supply their own gas. In reality, everyone is dependent on various things at different levels, but for some reason this fact is conveniently ignored and people make an assumption that able-bodied people are independent and people with disabilities are not. This is simply not true. Kumagai argues that dependency is on a spectrum, and the important thing is to have many different outlets to depend upon. 

Relatively healthy people have diversified outlets of dependency. Being healthy means that you have a variety of things to depend on, much like having a hedge fund as risk management for your investments. On the other hand, the state of having only one outlet to handle the internal stress that arises in daily life can be dangerous and unhealthy. There are many different types of addiction, but one thing they all have in common is that there is no risk distribution. Whether the problem is an addiction to stealing, or some interpersonal addiction, the problem arises when “that one thing” becomes the “only option” for that individual. 

From using our phones, talking to friends, watching movies or enjoying some drinks, people have a natural tendency to exert their desires in multiple ways. However, if you only consume one kind of substance you will become ill and that will lead to severing connections with friends and the people around you. This results in even more isolation and limitations on things to depend on. That is the biggest problem. 

── How do you suggest we diversify our outlets of dependency?

I think it is important that our society provides outlets to feed our indulgences in all aspects of life. Even things that may be considered deviant or grotesque by society should have a place in different corners of our society. I mentioned earlier that things that become the object of addiction are fundamentally odious, but what an individual finds pleasure in is also naturally a personal matter. Even if the object is odious for the majority of people, by leaving space in society for it to exist, it leaves people who find it pleasurable the option of enjoying it. As a result, the areas and things that we can depend upon are diversified and increased. On the other hand, if all of these odious things are eliminated because they are “nasty” or “bad for your health,” we lose our options and our addictions become focused on very limited sources and are easily taken to the extreme. 

Shikohin allows us to deviate into alternative communities 

── So the act of eliminating options of shikohin in favor of more “clean” things results in more serious and damaging addictions.

Another important point about shikohin is that they do not exist simply for the sake of forming attachments. Just as the transitional objects act as a tool for babies to gain distance and independence from their mother, shikohin is something that can form connections, but it can also sever them at the same time. One example is smoking rooms. When one goes to a smoking room to have a cigarette during their break, they are cutting themselves off from the social obligations at their desk and entering a different social group and setting. In fact, the smoking room often acts as a place where people exchange various information that they do not share in their own departments. At times, that information or the human relations you attain in the smoking room proves to be beneficial when you return to your usual work space. I myself am not a smoker, but I have often witnessed these situations when I go to smoking rooms to socialize. 

When shikohin is combined with a “place” in which they are enjoyed, it connects us to alternative communities. Shikohin is a tool that creates these alternative communities that are different from our usual capitalistic, institutionalized, rigid and at times stifling communities. It severs and connects. The combination of “shikohin” and “place” is what makes it possible for us to go back and forth between these different communities. 

── Recently, many places are getting rid of smoking rooms. 

Even at Kyoto University, where I work, all the smoking rooms have been removed. I think it is a dire situation that we are losing all of these spaces of escape. We are losing the alternative communities that we were able to deviate to where we can take a moment and escape from our usual communities. 

In the same way, over the last few years, Kyoto University has been removing billboards that are aimed for people outside of the campus. Billboards are essentially a place to encounter something different. Seeing a suspicious sign or some mysterious flier allows one to take a step away from their usual “proper” campus life. These deviations are absolutely necessary for the student, faculty and staff to escape from some of the stresses of campus life. The billboards also encouraged the local residents to take part in events and activities on campus. In other words, these billboards had acted as a kind of open window for the university to connect with the outside world. 

Compared to when I was a student, students today attend classes more vigilantly and they receive a lot more assignments. After we implemented online classes, this trend continued to accelerate. Even if an outlet is slightly strange, if it offers our hearts some excitement, I think it is very important that they exist. They allow us to escape from the stifling “proper” campus life. The things we experience in these outlets often inspire new ideas and disrupt academic life in a good way. Kyoto University has always promoted “free academic culture,” but the seedlings to such freedom are being swept away. Juichi Yamagiwa appeared in one of your articles in this “shikohin” series, but I would like to make a point of saying that it was during his term as president at Kyoto University that the movement to eliminate these outlets became stronger. 

── Don’t you think deviating from society too much is problematic? What do you think is necessary so that we don’t deviate too much and can safely come back into the community of social norms?

If you have various outlets to deviate and escape to, you will come back naturally. Staying in the same place all the time is not pleasant in itself. Being in the office all the time is hard, but if someone told you to spend eight hours in the smoking room, that would also be insufferable. This is why it is better to have many different places to escape to. 

On the other hand, having only one place to escape to is also a very tough situation. The reason why the addiction to gaming is such a problem is because oftentimes these people have no other place where they feel like they belong. When there is discord or violence in their family or bullying or trouble at school and there is no safe place for one to create their base camp, they become addicted to games as their outlet to escape and take refuge. Eventually, even if that outlet becomes insufferable, they have no choice but to remain there because they have no other options. 

This is why it is important to diversify your outlets and the reason why we should not be removing places like smoking rooms or billboards so easily.  Even if there are laws that prohibit such deviations, there are ways to resist those laws through methods of operation. With billboards, for example, one option is to allow them and be sure to clear them at least once a week or once a month. That way, the people who desire to use the billboards can put up or take down signs as they please, and the university can inform the government that it is being properly managed. When you make the faculty come to work early to remove the signs on the billboard immediately, it leaves no room for any freedom. 

Part 2 of 2 》Creating communities to resist holism. Interview with Psychiatrist Takuya Matsumoto

》Past articles of this series can be found here

Translation: Sophia Swanson

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  • Author:
    MASANOBU SUGATSUKE
    Editor / President of Gutenberg Orchestra Co. Ltd. Born in 1964 and works as an editor and consultant. Editor-in-chief of the English culture magazine ESP Cultural Magazine. Works include "Hajimete no Henshu" (Editing for beginners) and "Butsuyoku naki Sekai" (A world free of material desire). President of the art book publishing company, United Vagabonds. Writes a regular series for Commercial Photo. Chairman of "Henshu Suparuta Jyuku" (Cram school for editors) and "Tokyo Geijyutsu Chugaku" (Tokyo Art School for Teens). Winner of the NYADC Silver Prize and the D&AD Award.
Let your heart melt away in moments as fleeting as the stream at full flood.