1993-08-28: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Patterns of Japanese Culture (1946)

by Ruth Benedict (1887-1948)

This book was written as a result of US State Dept requests for anthropologists’ help in 1944.  They wanted to determine what the Japanese reaction would be to various possible courses of action, so that the best course for expeditious end to the war could be found.  The task was complicated by the impossibility of field study of the Japanese in their natural habitat.  Interviews with persons born and raised in Japan but living in the US, and with prisoners of war, had to substitute.

Benedict found several forms of obligation among Japanese, differing markedly from attitudes of Americans and Europeans in similar situations.  These attitudes are so fundamental to the Japanese world-view that Americans ignorant of them simply cannot understand their motivations, explain observed behavior or predict likely behavior.  Benedict provides a glossary of Japanese terms used in the book.  I have copied it here, and the chart of obligations from p. 116, and added comments [in brackets] for some terms.  Literal translations are in quotes.

The book was reprinted in 1989, with a new foreword by Edward Vogel.  He was among the anthropologists who followed up Benedict’s work, in Japan after the war.  Though he praises her work, he says that most anthropologists in his position found the Japanese to be more free, less rigid than Benedict implies.  He says she was trapped by her need to find patterns in culture into drawing too strong a pattern.


ai, love; specifically a superior’s love of a dependent.

arigato, thank you; ‘this difficult thing.’  [The words for ‘thank you’ given here also have more literal translations that indicate the sense of obligation, the impossibility of fully repaying, that is part of receiving a favor or gift from another.  This feeling is apparently so different from what Americans feel in the situations where they say ‘thank you’ that it makes a very good illustration of the differences in underlying attitudes.  Their memes aren’t like ours in many respects.]

burako, a hamlet of some fifteen houses; a district in a village.  [The fact that such a small unit as a village is subdivided is interesting.  Unlike a Chinese village, the villagers are not all of a single clan.  This divides their sense of obligation into the classes for close family and more distant, formal relationships, which in turn may be a reason for acknowledging subdivisions within a village.]

bushido, ‘the way of the samurai.’  A term popularized during this century to designate traditional Japanese ideals of conduct.  Dr. Inazo Nitobe in Bushido, The Soul of Japan, itemizes as Bushido: rectitude or justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty, and self-control.  [Paul Johnson, in The Twentieth Century, desribes the way that bushido was actively promoted in the1920s as part of a deliberate effort to form public attitudes in favor of policies favored by militaristic elements.]

chu, fealty to the Emperor.

daimyo, a feudal lord.

donen, age-mates.

eta, a pariah class in pre-Meiji times.

geisha, a courtesan especially trained and given high prestige.

gi, righteousness.  [This is the basis for right actions, that is actions in accord with the social conventions of Japan.  It is nothing like the actions based on what Americans call ‘conscience’.]

gimu, a category of Japanese obligations.  See Chart, p. 116.

giri, a category of Japanese obligations.  See Chart, p. 116.

go, a unit of measure of capacity; less than one cup.

haji, shame.  [Unlike America, where the great enforcement emotion is guilt, Japanese morals are based on the emotion of shame.  This difference is fundamental, and probably any society can be characterized as either shame-enforced or guilt-enforced.]

harakiri or seppuku, suicide according to the samurai code.  Seppuku is the more elegant term.

hysteri, nervousness and instability.  Generally used of women.  [Note this is an adaptation of ‘hysteria.’]

inkyo, the state of formal retirement from active life.  [Japanese social conventionsdo not apply to the very young (less than 10) or to those in inkyo.  Only these age groups wear clothing in shades of red.]

Issei, an American of Japanese ancestry born in Japan.  See Nisei.

isshin, to restore, to dip back into the past.  A slogan of the Meiji Restoration.

jen (Chinese), good human relations, benevolence.

jicho, self-respect; circumspection. ‘To double jicho with jicho,’ to be superlatively circumspect.

jin (written with the same character as Chinese jen), obligation which is outside the obligatory code.  But see ‘knowing jin,’ p. 119, footnote.

jingi (variant of jin), an obligation outside the obligatory code.

jiriki, ‘self-help,’ spiritual training dependent solely on one’s own disciplined human powers.  See tariki.

judo, a form of jujitsu.  Japanese wrestling.

jujitsu, Japanese wrestling.

kabuki, popular drama.  See noh.

kagura, traditional dances performed at Shinto shrines.

kami, head, source.  Shinto term for deity.

kamikazi, ‘divine wind.’  The hurricane which drove back and overturned Genghis Khan’s invading fleet in the thirteenth century.  The pilots of suicide planes in World War II were called the Kamikaze Corps.

katajikenai, thank you; ‘I am insulted.’

kino doku, thank you; ‘this poisonous feeling.’

kinshin, repentance.  A period of withdrawal to remove ‘the rust of the body.’

ko, filial piety.

koan, problems having no rational answer, set by the Zen cult for those in training.

ko on, obligation to the Emperor, the State.

magokoro, ‘sincerity.’

makoto, ‘sincerity.’  [Sincerity to the Japanese does not mean ‘genuineness of feeling’, but rather something like a lack of hypocrisy in acting as a member of Japanese society.  Anyone in Japan who does not act in strict accord with the Japanese social conventions might be said to be ‘insincere’ about being in Japan.  Thus sincerity is a fundamental value to the Japanese, as illustrated by a couple of anecdotes.]

Meiji Era, the period of the reign of the Emperor Meiji, 1868-1912.  It designates the beginning of the modern era in Japan.

moxa, powdered leaves of a certain plant, which are burned in a cone on the surface of the body for curative purposes.  It cures ailments and haughtiness.

muga, the elimination of the observer-self achieved by those who have taken training.  [This is the state of an adept of any of the arts, such as the tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arranging, archery, fencing.  It is the stage (rarely achieved) beyond competence (which is quite a high achievement).]

narikin, nouveau riche.  ‘A pawn promoted to queen’ (chess).

nirvana (Sanskrit), final emancipation of the soul from transmigration; state of not-being; absorption into the divine.  [The Japanese Buddhists seem not to accept the notion of transmigration of souls, except for some priests.  Rather nirvana is an earthly state of mind achieved by self-discipline, and reward enough for the trouble in this life.]

Nisei, an American of Japanese ancestry born in the US.  See Issei.

noh, classic drama.  See kabuki.

nushi, master.

on, a category of incurred obligations.  See Chart, p. 116.

oya, parents.

ronin, in feudal times samurai retainers who, because of disgrace or because of the death or dishonor of their overlord, had become masterless men.

sake, a rice-beer which is the principal alcoholic drink of the Japanese.

samurai, in feudal times the warriors, two-sword men.  Below them were the common people: farmers, artisans, and merchants.

satori, Buddhist enlightenment.

seppuku or harakiri, suicide by piercing the abdomen.  In feudal times it was the exclusive privelege of the nobles and samurai.

shogun, in pre-Meiji times the actual ruler of Japan; succession was hereditary as long as a family could remain in power.  The Shogun was always vested by the Emperor.

shuyo, self-discipline; mental training.

sonno joi, ‘Restore the Emperor and expel the barbarians (Westerners).”  A slogan of the Meiji Restoration.

sumimasen, thank you; I’m sorry; ‘this never ends.’

sutra (Sanskrit), short collections of dialogues and aphorisms.  The disciples of Gautama Buddha wrote such sutras in the conversational idiom of their day (Pali).

tai setsu, Higher Law.

tariki, ‘help of another.’  Spiritual blessing which is an act of grace.  See jiriki.

tonari gumi, small neighborhood groups of about five to ten families.  [These are similar in size to the burako, but administratively different.  The burako are traditional among villages; the tonari gumi are governmentally imposed.]

yoga (Sanskrit), a form of ascetic philosophy and practice prevalent in India from earliest historical times.

saibatsu, big business; influential members of the economic hierarchy.

Zen, a Buddhist cult introduced from China and important in Japan since the twelfh century.  It was an upper-class cult of the rulers and warriors and still contrasts with the great tariki Buddhist cults with their huge membership.

Schematic table of Japanese obligations and their reciprocals

I. On: obligations passively incurred.  One ‘receives an on’; one ‘wears an on,’ i.e., on are obligations from the point of view of the passive recipient.

ko onOn received from the Emperor.

oya onOn received from parents.

nushi onOn received from one’s lord.

shi no onOn received from  one’s teacher.

on received in all contacts in the course of one’s life.

Note:  All these persons from whom one receives on become one’s on jin, ‘on man.’

II.  Reciprocals of on.  One ‘pays’ these debts, one ‘returns these obligations’ to the on man, i.e., these are obligations regarde from the point of view of active repayment.

A.  Gimu.  The fullest repayment of these obligations is still no more than partial and there is no time limit.

chu.  Duty to the Emperor, the law, Japan.

ko.  Duty to one’s parents and ancestors (by implication, to descendants).

nimmu.  Duty to one’s work.

B.  Giri.  These debts are regarded as having to be repaid with mathematical equivalence to the favor received and there are time limits.

1.  Giri-to-the-world.

Duties to liege lord.

Duties to affinal family.

Duties to non-related persons due to on received, e.g., on a gift of money, on a favor, on work contributed (as a ‘work party’).

Duties to persons not sufficiently closely related (aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces) due to on received not from them but from common ancestors.

2.  Giri-to-one’s name.  This is a Japanese version of die Ehre [honor?].

One’s duty to ‘clear’ one’s reputation of insult or imputation of failure, i.e., the duty of feuding or vendetta.  (N.B.  This evening of scores is not reckoned as aggression.)

One’s duty to admit no (professional) failure or ignorance.

One’s duty to fulfill the Japanese proprieties, e.g., observing all respect behavior, not living above one’s station in life, curbing all displays of emotion on inappropriate occasions, etc.

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