On Nachas and Patriotism and the Japanese Women’s Team’s Victory

Here I am in Germany, keeping track of the Women’s soccer championship out of the corner of my eye, rooting for the US team out of patriotism. I fell asleep last night before the game was over (US leading 1-0). This morning, I checked the news to find out what happened and learned of the dramatic ending in which the US lost. Disappointed, I was about to turn to something else when the report passed to Japan and the reaction there: “They never gave up, they kept coming back, and in the end they triumphed. This is not just about our women’s team, it’s about Japan.”

Yiddish has a unique term: Nachas. Broadly translated it means the exact opposite of Schadenfreude: taking pleasure in someone else’s success. Some (instinctively self-critical) Jews will immediately take exception to that broad definition: it’s just taking pleasure in the success of a family member or student (i.e., has a self-interested dimension). I disagree. These may be the most common forms, but I insist on the larger definition (which I learned from my father, whose work in economic development pointed out repeatedly that if you can’t take pleasure in others’ economic success, the economy will not thrive).

Who can look at the faces of Japanese, so recently battered by fate, smiling in triumph, and begrudge them their joy?

Go Japan, may your women be an inspiration to you!

18 Responses to On Nachas and Patriotism and the Japanese Women’s Team’s Victory

  1. Sérgio says:

    What about Bertrand Russell´s opinion that envy is the basis of democracy?

  2. Edwin Franklin says:

    Totally agree Richard! I was neutral on the game because of the earthquake and loss of life in the spring.

  3. Richard Landes says:

    got a reference? the same case can be made for communism (i do in my book).

    there’s a superb study of envy by Wilhelm Schoeck in which he argues that envy is part of our human genome, necessary to our evolution. but there are constructive and destructive forms (competitive vs. aggressive) – one might even argue that democracy is the result of a critical mass of the former, communism of the latter.

    obviously feeling nachas at anyone’s success or all the time is a recipe for extinction (e.g., thinking about Muslims cheering 9-11: “finally they have something to feel good about”).

    • Cynic says:

      That was not nachas nor schadenfreude but just the old honour/shame emotion where “I feel good only if someone else loses even if I’m not involved”.
      A people who take pleasure at someone else’s suffering.
      A people who enjoy torturing; pity the dog that has to live among them.

      • Richard Landes says:

        rejoicing at 9-11 is pure Schadenfreude. i wrote a post about Baudrillard’s disgusting trumpeting of this Schadenfreude at the USA’s pain as moral.
        Baudrillard on 9-11: American Derangement Syndrome and the Ideology of Resentment

        • Cynic says:

          I wasn’t referring to a European, (especially a Frenchman with an axe to grind ever since America had the temerity to declare its independence) but to an Arab state of mind.
          For example it was eye-opening being on a bus caught up in a traffic jam because of a motor accident and having to assist the mocking and jeering of the bloodied motorist involved, being attended by the ambulance crew, from some on the bus. Not teenagers by the way ridiculing the accidented driver for for shamefully being involved in the crash. “They would never have brought such shame on themselves by bad driving”. Not that it was obvious the he was to blame.

          • Richard Landes says:

            can you clarify? i can’t understand (reconstruct in my mind) what you’re referring to. where was it, who was doing the jeering? what was the response of others?

          • Cynic says:

            I was on a bus from Haifa to the lower Galilee.
            As usual there was a mixed group of passengers, some from kibutzim, some from kfarim and from the towns.
            The Arab passengers were the ones “rejoicing” at the injured driver’s plight; the others just looked on and what they thought I have no idea. I suspect that the others who understood what was said were shocked but did not remonstrate.
            A person I was discussing this with was very embarrassed and commented it was almost like witnessing the pleasure displayed by children maltreating an animal.

    • Sérgio says:


      The quote is from his book “The conquest of happiness” (1930).

      Wikipedia´s comment on “envy” is also interesting, as it says Russell also thought that envy is the basis of human unhappiness. Also they mentioned two kinds of envy, a malign and a benign one. I quote:

      “Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness.[4] It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy by his envy, but also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Although envy is generally seen as something negative, Russell also believed that envy was a driving force behind the movement towards democracy and must be endured to achieve a more just social system.[5] However, psychologists have recently suggested that there may be two types of envy: malicious envy and benign envy – benign envy being proposed as a type of positive motivational force.[6][7]“

      • Richard Landes says:

        precisely. i say this about envy in my chapter on Marx in Heaven on Earth:

        In an early meditation on “raw” or “crude” Communism (der rohe Communismus), by which he meant the Communism of Babeuf and Buonnaroti, Marx explained its appeal as a universalization of envy. By implication, he distanced himself from it:

        Universal envy establishing itself as a power is only the disguised form in which greed re-establishes and satisfies itself in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at the very least turned against richer private property as envy, and the desire to level, so that envy and the desire to level in fact constitute the essence [of the hatred of the results] of competition. Crude communism is only the fulfillment of this envy and leveling on the basis of a preconceived minimum.

        This is a highly sophisticated moral discourse that cuts to the quick of the mechanisms of ressentiment parading as idealism. But for all such insight, Marx ended up stoking the very fires he here critiqued. Helmut Schoeck notes: “It is only in Marxism, the abstract and glorified concept of the proletariat, the disinherited and exploited, that a position of implacable envy is fully legitimized.” Marx’s aggressive brilliance took hold of history so powerfully that he could shake off the “utopian” fantasies that “all men are brothers” (here, transformative apocalyptic) and drive those who would participate in salvation history into a cataclysmic battle at the side of the true brotherhood, the proletarians. And he accomplished this call to battle with the promise of a hopelessly impossible millennium that could only be “achieved” when alienation had produced so much rootlessness and anger that only a purging violence would clear the decks.

        Such tendencies strengthened among those who inherited and implemented Marx’s millennialism in the following generation, whose envy and resentment Max Scheler chronicled. With an irony that became increasingly bitter with every passing generation, Marx may have written his own self-description in his vicious denunciation of the tailor-agitator Weitling for abusing prophecy. Annenkov, a witness to Marx’s tirade, summarized Marx’s assault then quoted him directly:

        It was simple fraud to arouse the people without any sound and considered basis for their activity. The awakening of fantastic hopes . . . would never lead to the salvation of those who suffered, but on the contrary to their undoing. “To go to the workers in Germany without strictly scientific ideas and concrete doctrine would mean an empty and unscrupulous playing with propaganda, which would inevitably involve, on the one hand, the setting up of an inspired apostle and, on the other hand, simply asses who would listen to him with open mouth.”

        It apparently never occurred to Marx that pseudo-science also constituted “empty and unscrupulous playing with propaganda.”

  4. AT says:

    If we’re shepping nachas … how about the US women who took the loss, easily one of the biggest losses of their career, with the kind of grace and sportsmanship that is sorely needed in the world. At this point, I’d rather watch women’s soccer than men’s soccer!

    • Richard Landes says:

      i didn’t see that footage (not on CNN not on German news channels). but you’re right. they played their hearts out and still had generosity of spirit.
      as for women’s soccer, i think we could level the playing field btw men and women, and make the game more interesting if we had the teams play with two balls at once.

  5. Sérgio says:


    I also have a question for you, and it´s about the nexus of concepts involving positive-sum societies, meritocracy, envy, life-as-a-game and the issue of losers/winners. Recently I read Kenneth Minogue´s insightful book “The servile mind”, and he claims that one of the central traist of the West´s success vis-a-vis traditional societies, is the view of life as a game (he mention Huizinga´s homo ludens), because it tends to prize merit (“the best player”) which then tends to be good for all. However, how to deal with losers and their “self-esteem”? The modern PC solution is a sham because they spouse a totally fake/forced egalitarianism in order to spare people *any* feeling of failure or inadequacy (as if it solved anything).
    Minogue doesn´t enter this issue beyond observing that Western societies have so many different possible roles that people, if motivated enough, could find “success” in *some* roles. But the fact is that losers tend to be resentful and we know the power of resentment to create untold damage.

    What´s your view on that?

    • Richard Landes says:

      I would put it slightly differently. We have relegated zero-sum games primarily to games (sports, gambling). There is competition in all cultures; the question is, how do we handle the results. Honor-shame cultures tend to “rig” the deck in favor of the already honorable (incumbency) and to exclude from high-stake competition whole groups of people (manual labor). Here violence plays a key role (most are, by modern standards, militaristic societies), where “la raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure.”

      in the west we have linked egalitarianism with meritocracy – everyone can compete, the best, regardless of class ethnicity etc gets rewarded. (you can complain that affirmative action has reversed that – which it was not supposed to do, but that doesn’t touch the broader point that no culture has been as meritocratic as the west.

      i remember one day i saw a book in my father’s study titled Meritocracy. I asked him what it was about. He described the basic principles of a meritocracy (basically the ones I had grown up learning were the proper “rules of the game”). So what’s the problem? Many people don’t want to hear that they don’t merit what they think they should have. (I.e., as i was later to learn, the difficulty of real self-criticism.)

      Fromm hit the nail on the head in Escape from Freedom: the problem with freedom is that it comes with responsibility. You want to make choices, how do you deal with making the wrong choice. In that sense, democracy calls for maturity, for an ability on everyone’s part to take (at least some) responsibility for our own mistakes. It means that citizens have to struggle with and overcome envy as much as possible. Schoeck would say, you can’t get rid of envy, but you can challenge it into its more positive forms of competition.

      This means, among other things, that you can’t just bring democracy to any culture and say, “there you go.” The notion of a “domino-effect” of democracy, what i call the Chomskyite Bush doctrine that holds democracy as a default mode, and (our support to) dictators as the only reason democracy (or egalitarian unoppressive societies) don’t flourish, is silly. We have a contemporary expression of it in the “Arab Spring” fever of our journalists – get rid of the dictator and you’ll have a flourishing of civil society.

  6. [...] Russel saying “that envy is the basis of democracy?” I asked for the source, and he responded: [...]

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    One key factor is the self-confidence of the observer. As Americans, we’re the big dog and we’re used to winning most of the time. A loss doesn’t sting that much. And when the other side is an underdog, we can appreciate their efforts.

    I first noticed this when the Australian yacht won the America’s Cup in 1983, breaking the 132-year winning streak of the U.S. There was no rancor in the U.S. To the contrary, it was about that time that Americans started becoming interested in Australia in a pop-culture way: the “Crocodile Dundee” movies and the Outback Steakhouse chain both started a few years later.

    For smaller nations, this attitude is much more difficult.

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