Philosophical Ground-Laying for Psychotherapy and Counseling in Korea  
※ Korea Journal : 32-37 (1974.12)
Original Korean Version was published in 1968. (Some part was not translated)

Philosophical Ground-Laying for Psychotherapy and Counseling in Korea


RHEE DONG-SHICK (Yi Tong-sik) is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yonsei University and Ewha Womans University and operates a psychiatric clinic in Seoul. His publications include Modern Man and Neurosis(1972), Understanding and Treatment of Neurosis (1974), and Korean Personality and Tao (1974).


More than 30 years have passed since the idea of western psychotherapy was first introduced into Korea. In the initial period, however, psychotherapy relied mainly on treatment with persuasion or suggestion or Morita’s method of confining the patient to his bed in absolute seclusion. There was one psychiatrist who was analyzed in Japan in the early part of the 1940s; but the interest in psychoanalysis remained mainly in the theoretical aspects, still far from practical application.

Some doctors applied psychoanalysis to practical purposes after the liberation in 1945. It was, however, after the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950, that Korean psychotherapists could have contact with their American counterparts as army medical officers, absorbing from them American psychiatry which was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis. Short-term courses were offered to train psychiatrists for assignment to army divisions. Army doctors who came to have a great interest in psychotherapy in the course of training went to the United States after discharge from military service for further studies at American civilian hospitals, others undergoing training at U.S. army or naval hospitals either in Korea or in the United States. At present Korean doctors who are studying psychiatry in the United States number many times more than those who are being trained in this field at home.

One salient feature of Korean psychiatry after the liberation, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War, was that it centered heavily on the armed forces, especially on the army, as well as on the United States. Seen from another angle, this means that Korean psychiatry broke away from universities, severing ties with the tradition of Korean psychiatry, and tried to absorb modern theories mainly from the United States rather than evenly from all other countries, an ill-digested absorption at that. In clinical treatment, too, Korean doctors are still far from absorbing the essence of Western psychotherapy.

It was also after the outbreak of the Korean War that counselling was introduced from the United States through courses offered to train counsellors for secondary school in cooperation with psychotherapists and on the basis of what they had learned in America. But these courses were still in a superficial stage. After the establishment of the Student Guidance Research Institute at Seoul National University in 1962, however, a similar organ, though small in size, came into being in other universities in succession and in the municipal government of Seoul. But, except for the one at Seoul National University, the others have not yet attained a high standard in providing counseling. Furthermore, many difficulties are hampering Seoul National University from developing its counseling center to a satisfactory extent although some progress was made, because this is an entirely new field.

Some of Korean psychotherapists held a negative view of Korean culture and Korean people by saying that transference does not take place in Korean patients in psychotherapy, that the ability of psychological understanding is far better in the Japanese than in the Koreans, making it far easier to apply psychotherapy to the former, and that the Koreans are so reticent, whereas the Westerners are freely expressive, that it is difficult to practice psychotherapy among the former. This view, however, is nothing but a manifestation of their defeatism, arising from their failure to cope sufficiently with challenges from the encroachment of Western culture and its follower, Japanese culture.

The view of some Korean psychotherapists, as illustrated above, runs counter to an opinion of American or Japanese psychoanalysts and psychotherapists concerning this question, as well as being hardly convincing in view of what this writer has observed. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann said that although sex was repressed and patients disliked to talk about it in the days of Freud, people in the present-day European or American society talk about it freely, but the fact that their hostility and tenderness are repressed poses a difficulty to psychotherapy. Dr. Masaaki Kato of Japan said that treatment with psychoanalysis is impossible for the Japanese and that Dr. Takeo Doi was perhaps the only Japanese psychiatrist who asserted its possibility. As the Japanese have less disposition to thinking, Dr. Kakeda believed, isolation therapy confining the patient to a solitary room, thereby forcing him to think himself, was the only way of applying psychotherapy to them. Dr. Akihisa Kondo who was trained at an institute of psychoanalysis run by the Horney school said that Dr. Doi was the only Japanese who believed that psychoanalysis is possible for Japanese patients.

Even Doi who believed in the efficacy of psychoanalysis for the Japanese reported that he treated his patient only once a week and he had no patients who had received long-term treatment. Kondo also made the same report. As he interpreted psychoanalysis differently from the manner in which they did in the West, Doi explained, he regarded as psychoanalysis a short-term treatment meeting the patient only once a week. This is entirely different from the type of psychotherapy this writer and other Korean psychiatrists provide for their patients in Korea. Most patients this writer treats are those who require more than three years of treatment on the average during which period he has to meet them two to five times a week. Doi and Kondo are the most authoritative psychoanalysts in Japan, as well as renowned internationally, both having undergone formal training in the United States. In view of these facts, it is apparent which are more pliable to psychotherapy, especially to depth therapy, the Koreans or the Japanese.

Next we will scientifically examine the view that Korean culture is authoritarian. Professor Yi Kwang-gyu of Seoul National University asserts that the southern half of the Korean peninsula, at least south of Kyŏnggi Province, was governed by a matriarchy and the influence of patriarchy gradually expanded southward. A matriarchal society is democratic, while a patriarchal society is despotic, according to Professor Yi. On the basis of the democratic culture of matriarchy, he explains, the despotic patriarchal culture was formed on the surface. Compared with the Japanese society, its Korean counterpart is almost devoid of despotism and rather democratic. In other words, the Korean society needed to have more despotic elements, while the Japanese society is too despotic.

Unlike some Korean psychotherapists and most Korean intellectuals, foreigners observe that the Korean people are very emotional like the Spaniards. They say that they feel as if a Korean were a friend of more than 20 years even though he is quite a stranger. They feel no barrier in making friends with a Korean whom they meet for the first time, whereas they feel some barrier before a Chinese or a Japanese. This writer, too, presupposed the notion before he started group therapy that the Koreans are far less expressive, especially so before strangers, than the Westerners and so it might be impossible to glean any meaningful result from group therapy. In fact, however, this writer discovered that though the Westerners are talkative and expressive, their words and expressions often do not flow out of their hearts, whereas the Koreans, though less expressive and less talkative, reveal the bottom of their hearts and the therapy they have undergone proves more effective. It is natural because the most important thing in psychotherapy is not to conceal one's emotion.

In the foregoing paragraph this writer rejected the notion that Korea's traditional culture or the nature of Korean people is unsuitable for or disadvantageous in psychotherapy. On the other hand, some specialists expressed the opinion that Korea has to transplant the Western philosophy of counseling because she does not have her own philosophy of counseling. This, too, is a mistaken notion caused by the lack of full understanding of counseling and psychotherapy. It is also a grave mistake originating from indifference to or disregard of Korea's traditional thought or culture. In fact, the most profound philosophy of counseling or psychotherapy should be found in the Orient, and one is awakened to this truth only after one becomes well versed in Western psychotherapy. Counseling for the upbringing of character is not basically different from psychotherapy.

The purpose of this paper is to correct these mistakes mentioned above and lay the ground for rooting psychotherapy in the Korean tradition. It appears impossible to expect any sound progress in psychotherapy without correcting the mistaken notions.
Untitled Document
Copyright(c) 2004 Korean Academy of psychotherapists. All rights reserved.
※ 심우도는 십우도(十牛圖), 목우도(牧牛圖)라고도 부르며 참선(參禪)에서의 각(覺)의 과정(過程)을 표현하고 있습니다.
그림은 송광사의 십우도 벽화입니다.