The chrysanthemum and the sword (Ruth Benedict, 1946)


The chrysanthemum and the sword, by Ruth Benedict (1946).

“Ruth Benedict’s obituary for Japanese culture”, by C. Douglas Lummis (1980-2007).

Something virtually everyone can agree on is that The chrysanthemum and the sword is one of the most influential anthropological works in Japanese culture. Not the most accurate, not the most insightful, but definitely a very influential one, to the point Plath, David W., and Robert J. Smith once said “all of us have been writing footnotes to [Chrysanthemum] since it appeared in 1946”.

So, what does it say, exactly, to be such a controversial book?

First off, we should look at the conditions of its genesis. The chrysanthemum and the sword was born as part of an effort from the USA to better understand Japanese culture in order to know what to expect from them at war, namely under what conditions they would capitulate. This doesn’t necessarily mean Benedict was hostile towards Japanese culture, all the opposite, she sounds really interested in actually understanding such a different civilization. But since both countries were at war, she didn’t have the opportunity to visit the country, but based her work in bibliography and interviews with Japanese citizens residing in the USA.

Benedict starts off as describing Japanese culture as a very hierarchised one. She describes it as a society where everyone stands in their place, and does what is expected of them. People that occupy subservient places owe obedience and respect to their superiors and the leaders owe care and guidance to their guarded, and are responsible for them. This happens in the spheres of the family, the town, the workplace, the school and ultimately the state. This is how Benedict explains their loyalty to the Emperor during and after the war. In a very Socratic way, the Japanese feel they owe to the state, incarnated in the Emperor, for their nurturing, education and bringing up.

Benedict proceeds to characterise Japanese culture in terms of on, or debt. On is a passive debt and there are two kinds of it: gimu and giri.Gimu can never be paid back fully and there is no time limit for it. Gimuis owed to the Emperor (that is, the state, society, your country), the family (parents and children) and your own work. Giri has to be paid back with an equal favour and have a time limit. Giri is owed either to people we have relationships with that are not close (far relatives, teachers, bosses, coworkers), and to oneself. This can be understood as dignity or pride: doing what is expected of you, doing what is appropriate, not admitting defeat, avenging ofense to your name or persona.

If someone does something for you, you owe them, and the longer you take to pay it back, the more interests you have to pay. This is why Japanese people are reluctant to do favours to strangers, to avoid burdening them with on. Within the family, on is paid to parents by taking care of your own children, and only close family members are bound by the reins of debt. Respect to parents goes to extremes unthinkable for Westerners due to on. The Japanese will take almost anything from them for the debt they feel they have for having been brought up.

As for giri, it explains for Benedict why the Japanese avoid doing and receiving favours, and if they absolutely have to, they repay as late as possible, with a big interest. It’s seen as normal and honourable to do a big favour to your primary school teacher, since you owe them for having given you an education, and since many years have passed, you have to pay a lot of interests. Debt to far-removed relatives is understood as debt to common ancestors, not to them.

Giri to oneself explains why the Japanese are so cripplingly afraid of failure and humiliated by it. It still happens today that Japanese people commit suicide over professional or academic failure, or being unable to pay a financial debt in time. It also explains why they might seem vengeful, since taking revenge on someone who hurts our honour or good name is seen as retribution of the same kind as repaying a favour, not a vicious behaviour.

The explanation for this social order is the very late Meiji revolution, which brought Japan from a feudal society to a contemporary one in the late 19th century, without having a Modern age in-between. This is explained by pointing out that bourgeoisie never developed, since rich merchants married into nobility, or bought it, which means there was greater class mobility than in Europe, causing the system to stay stable for a few more centuries.

In this context of debt and burdening duty, sensible pleasures are below duties and debt but are very appreciated when they are free to pursue them, such as food and drink, sleeping, hot baths and sexual activity. As long as it doesn’t interfere with on, earthly delights are completely acceptable. But at the same time, since they are deemed unnecessary, proving to oneself that one can go without any of them is seen as composure.

Furthermore, the Japanese adaptation of buddhism into Zen buddhism uses self-discipline and sacrifice as a means not to Nirvana, or the annihilation of the senses, but a mastery of the senses, in the form of martial arts, art or even menial works. Austerity is not a punishment or a currency to buy bliss, but life is understood as needing training to fully enjoy. Following the debt model, effort now buys mastery later, and is repaid more than fully. Ultimately, mastery leads to peace of mind and the realisation that there is no real conflict between duties and duties and pleasures. The ecstasy of mastery is described as absence of effort.

The book closes with a description of the education of children that one can’t help but find very dated, the same as a lot of customs described in this 1946 book.

A very prominent critic of Benedict’s work has been C. Douglas Lummis in his “Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japanese Culture”. The summary can very well be: “Benedict took the ideology of a class for the culture of a people, a state of acute social dislocation for a normal condition, and an extraordinary moment in a nation’s history as an unvarying norm of social behavior”. So even if she had the best of intentions to understand Japanese culture, she mistook a very specific situation for the norm.

Benedict is also criticised for falling in the trap of orientalism, presenting Japan as an absolutely alien culture that can only be understood through the magic of ethnography. Also, even if Benedict is not hostile towards Japan, she is definitely condescending and justifies the American occupation in the last chapter of the book, oversimplifying the reasons Japan got into the war at all: “Japan did not follow the well-known logic of colonial and imperialist powers, seeking markets, resources, investment outlets and cheap labor. Nor did Japan follow the well-beaten path of tyranny, seeking power, glory, a central place in history. Nor had Japan (in contrast to Germany and Italy) passed over into an extraordinary state of political pathology: nowhere does she use the concepts of fascism, totalitarianism, or any similar notion. To admit the relevance of any of these explanations would be to admit that Japan’s behavior was understandable according to ordinary “Western” reason”.

The main point Lummis makes is that the book says a lot more about the person who wrote it and the country that commissioned it than what it was supposed to describe, and is very obviously a product of its time. Lummis argues that The chrysanthemum and the sword is more closely related to works of political fiction such as Gulliver’s travels, The Republic or Utopia than to actual works of ethnography, and underlines Benedict’s literary background as a poet and her willingness to educate near the end of her work Patterns of culture. Which he points out, is not always bad, until the studied culture is deformed so the desired conclusion can be extracted from it. He compares Margaret Mead’s fiasco, where her informers would tell her what they knew she wanted to hear, with Benedict’s excessive reliance on his informant Robert Hashima.

Benedict was criticised for writing about Japan without visiting it or learning its language, but in this context of literary aspirations turned to discovering an ideal country and writing it down, it was just the natural thing, what she had always done. The poet part of herself felt that cultural patterns were prisons for society, which, as before, is fine for a poet but not so fine for an anthropologist: “Culture patterns then carry a double meaning. When the culture is dead, its pattern has the same beauty Benedict found in the faces of dead people – the aesthetic closure of something reconciled and finished. But for the living, the patterns are a kind of death-in-life, an oppressive, imprisoning force. If the living do not struggle to liberate themselves from them they will never be fully alive. These “other-directed” ones, as David Reisman was to call them just a few years later, who live only by pattern and custom, have neither the beauty of death nor the joy of life: they are in a state of life resembling death, a state of atrophy”, writes Lummis.

Nevertheless, her classification of cultures as “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures” has been discussed and developed over and over as a genuinely anthropological insight. The prominent place of duty in Benedict’s analysis is not something that she received as a given from her bibliographical sources, but something she selected from a varied collection of virtues and values. Lummis theorises that this bias came from Robert Hashima, who fed her not raw information but his interpretations of what she was asking him. And his experience of Japan was not the one of a person who grew up there and moved naturally in the conventions, but of someone who was raised in the USA and had to learn the protocols formally, in order to obtain a position as an educator. Hashima was fed pre-WWII propaganda and ideology and took it in not naturally but as an object of study, which he transmitted to Benedict. Because he couldn’t tell the propaganda for the real country, neither could Benedict. “Hashima’s combination of rich insider information and radical alienation made him the ideal informant for Benedict’s assignment, which required her both to analyze and to maintain distance from America’s “most alien enemy”. And one can easily see how the deep fear that must have been instilled into him by his bitter boyhood experiences would harmonize well with Ann Singleton’s [Benedict’s poet pen name] “horror of pattern”. And lead him to a cataclysmic conclusion: nothing but total transformation, down to the root of the language, would do”, sentences Lummis.

The last pages of The chrysanthemum and the sword make a parallel between Japanese culture and its gardening contests, where flowers are held into place in their pots by invisible wires inserted in the living plant. It’s very clear that Robert Hashima probably felt like that when he emigrated to Japan and this aspect of the matter horrified Benedict, who forgot her impartiality and stated that such a society was so unnatural that the Japanese must have been grieving for democracy and Western ways to set them free. “But there is no basis in anthropology – certainly not in Benedict’s anthropology – for describing a particular social behavior as natural. The behaviors of all peoples are patterned, only the patterns are different. To imply, as Benedict did, that the behavior of the people of one’s own country is “natural” was both to fly in the face of her own teaching and to fall into blatant ethnocentrism, all the more so when the point of reference is the enemy at the end of a bitter war. Is this the damage war inflicts on the scientific spirit?”

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