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Ethnography Series II: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

September 10, 2011

Ruth Benedict, US Military, and the Japanese

And the bartender says “What is this? Some kind of joke?”

Actually, it’s the setup for a fascinating sub-genre of anthropological research. I will say first of all, this was a hard book to get through. In a lot of ways it’s a rigorous taxonomy of Japanese culture, and gets pretty intense. Benedict was first started her research in 1944, before the war had ended. It was first published in 1946, and has acquired a large reader base, both in the US, as well as in Japan.

I dig the cover

I chose this book for a couple reasons, namely my interest in anthropology’s role in the military. First exposed to this whole controversy at the Southwestern Anthropological Association conference of 2009 with Montgomery McFate, this seemed like an good place to start.

The Book

This book is chock-full of relevant information. Even the Acknowledgements section put me on the trail of some juicy gossip from the anthropological community of the time. Turns out Benedict thanks both George Taylor, the head of the Foreign Moral Analysis Division of Pacific Affairs, and Clyde Kluckhohn. Born in the same year, Kluckhohn died, and Taylor remarried Kluckhohn’s wife. I haven’t found anything relating to the social interactions of the related groups, but I would imagine there would have been somereally awkward cocktail parties.

After the acknowledgements comes the foreword, by Ezra Vogel that gives a little bit of a historical context for the book. There are 13 subsequent chapters, each laying the groundwork for a specific aspect of Japanese society. I say “laying the groundwork” in part because an ethnography is necessarily surface (as compared to the black-box ingrained perspective of a native), as well as the fact that each section builds up to the next.

For the sake of brevity

I’ll concentrate on the more piquant subjects. (That’s right, I just used the word ‘piquant’)

One of the main themes that runs through the book, and indeed inspired the title, was a sense of contradictions. The author defines the Japanese in a series of apparent opposites, saying:

When a serious observer is writing about peoples other than the Japanese and says they are unprecedentedly polite, he is not likely to add, ‘But also insolent and overbearing.’ When he says people of some nation are incomparably rigid in their behavior, he does not add, ‘But also they adapt themselves readily to extreme innovations.’ When he says a people are submissive, he does not explain too that they are not easily amenable to control from above…When he writes a book on a nation with a popular cult of aestheticism which gives high honor to actors and to artists and laviches art upon the cultivation of chrysanthemums, that book does not ordinarily have to be supplemented by another which is devoted to the cult of the sword and the top prestige of the warrior.

This theme is repeated in her description of her work researching Japanese culture, saying that it both requires generosity and tough-mindedness. By this she means the sense that the generosity of ‘brotherhood’, where the basic differences between different groups of people are minimal compared to the similarities. She feels that this position almost requires a view that all people are essentially a different “print from the same negative”, and that in some ways, that requires a cultural conformity not possible. At the same time, the hard-line tough-minded people achieve a similar result by declaring that people must conform to a specific view of culture, or a form of ethnocentrism. She argues that it’s best to walk the line between the two, which I think serves for her as justification for US involvement in the Pacific war. It’s almost a libertarian view that countries should stay out of each other’s business such that each is free to entertain the pastimes of its national identity, without infringing upon the freedoms of other countries.

An important point: it is clear that Benedict supports US involvement, and obviously, Anthropology’s service in the war effort.

She expresses the view that, while it is possible for the United States and Japan to live in peace, this peace must not be at the expense of submission.

Because the Japanese were such a foreign enemy, says Benedict, tactically, the US was bamboozled by their military tactics, a problem that could be rectified by cultural understanding.

Chapter 2: The Japanese in the War

This chapter serves to expand the cultural reasons for Japanese involvement with the Axis Powers, and contrasts them with the US justification. The author presents a very altruistic view of  US involvement, stating: “Whether the Axis had seized power in Manchukuo or in Ethiopia or in Poland, it proved that they had embarked on an evil course of oppressing weak peoples. They had sinned against an international code of ‘live and let live’ or at least of ‘open doors’ for free enterprise.”

This view of US involvement is interesting on a couple levels. It supplements the view that the reason for the United States to enter the war was a moral one with the notion that free enterprise is something culturally basic in the Occident. Benedict doesn’t specify what she means exactly by “free enterprise”.

This is contrasted with the Japanese view that everyone, including foreign nations, should “take their proper station”. She represents their view that sovereignty means disorder, and that it would be to the benefit of the world that they take a subservient position in relation to Japan.

In another contrast, Benedict explains the differences in priorities between the US and Japanese. The US were relying on machinery and physical force, the Japanese putting their faith in the Spirit. She illustrates this with an interesting quote, in which it describes an air force pilot who, during a mission was shot and killed, but managed to carry out the attack, flew back, and reported the victory. By sheer force of will, it was said, did this man manage to keep his body functioning, until the point at which the victory was reported, when he collapsed and fell, dead to the floor.

Benedict also discusses the Japanese sense of honor. Honor was such a big deal, according to her, that the Japanese were expected to fight to the death. This has been documented in cases of kamikaze pilots, and as a result, american soldiers were often less likely to take Japanese prisoners. When Japanese soldiers were captured, it was considered a terrible betrayal to their country. They were reluctant to have their names sent back to Japan.  Under these circumstances, they often performed a complete about-face, and sided with Americans, sometimes leading US raids on military targets.

On the other side of things,  The Japanese couldn’t understand American POWs. There was nothing more stinging than a laugh fromt the American prisoners. When Americans, even unknowingly, violated Japanese custom, the punishment was harsh. These customs weren’t just personal interactions. Because the Japanese were expected to fight to the death, they were completely unprepared for US submission in certain battles. When Americans gave up and asked for their names to be sent home, it was extremely confusing for the Japanese, who felt that the Americans had committed a betrayal to their homeland.


I’m not really sure how much the story about the fighter pilot zombie was meant to be believed in a literal sense. Often times in cultural research, the researcher ascribes a more fundamentalist understanding to the emic perspective than is actually warranted. In the book, I see this happen a couple times.

The Kamikaze issue is crazy. Apparently the claim that all kamikaze pilots were volunteers is disputed. It seems that debate continues as to what amount of coercion pilots faced when joining the suicide missions. This is supplemented by the fact that there were a number of Korean kamikaze pilots, meaning either outsiders from Japanese society had some sort of conversion, or they were coerced in some way.

Chapter 3: Taking One’s Proper Station

This chapter develops what was briefly discussed in the previous about the ideal global organization of powers, Japanese style. Firstly, the social prescript of equality. By discussing the basic American tenet of equality, Benedict explains that the Japanese are more inclined to believe in hierarchy. This is mirrored on an individual human level, as well as through international relations. Where America (in spite of the Hamiltons of the founding fathers) is anti-aristocratic, the Japanese are strictly aristocratic.

Linguistic Anthropology!

Benedict refers to the language of respect in Japanese vocabulary. She argues that the social hierarchy is reflected in instances where one would use the second person in varying degrees of formality. This is assisted in various framing features, like bowing or kneeling. These degrees apply to both economic or social hierarchy as well as family or interpersonal hierarchy. This is compared to English, which has significantly fewer of these rules of language.

This chapter proceeds to investigate in-depth the stratifications of Japanese society. Long story short, everyone answers to the emperor.

Chapter 5: Debtor to the Ages and the World

BTW not all chapters require a summary (’cause they’re boring)

This is an important chapter, and one of a few that deals with the issue of debt in Japanese culture. In the west, we tend to think of ourselves as “heirs of the ages”. The Japanese have a slightly different view. We tend to view our existence as without agency, in other words, our creation was not our responsibility, so our choices are our own. It is possible to say that we “owe nothing to any man”. The Japanese take a different approach: as debtors to the ages, they are owe those that came before them. This is interpreted in the West as ancestor worship, though it’s slightly more subtle.

Chapter 5 deals primarily with On, a confusing Japanese word for debt. According to the author, on is like a load, or weight that one carries in the form of social obligation. One receives on from a superior, and becomes uncomfortable when the person to whom they are in debt is of a lower social standing. They call this creditor their “on man” and carry a load of obligations. On refers to all that a son owes to his mother, as a result of  all that she has done in raising her child, and this on implies the single-minded loyalty a son has towards his parents.

On is expanded to apply to the emperor, and is referred to as ‘imperial on’. On always implies a hierarchy, and someone who is a benefactor. On a person’s social scope, there’s a form of imperial on directed to the pinnacle of the social hierarchy. At times it has applied to feudal lord, shogun, and now Emperor. Benedict goes on to argue that soldiers fighting in the army, had “limitless on” to the emperor, with every cigarette distributed to the troops in the name of the emperor, or glass of sake was a reminder of their debt to this person. When Kamikaze pilots ended their lives, or soldiers fought to the last man, they were said to be “discharging their limitless on” for the emperor.

How to Thank Someone in Japanese

As the author points out, there’s a crapton of different ways to express gratitude. All of them are weird, and confusing. The first is “kino doku”. This would be if someone offered you cigarettes, you might say “kino doku” which the author claims means “This poisonous feeling”. The idea, she claims, is to express how bad it makes you feel that someone would offer you something without reciprocity. It is sometimes translated as “I’m sorry” to express this sense of bad feelings.

The next word is “arigato” which is probably the most common expression for gratitude, used in department stores and other businesses. The author translates this as “oh, this difficult thing” and refers to the special nature of a customer’s patronage, and serves as a compliment.

“Sumimasen” is an expression for gratification that is similar to “kino doku” in that expresses how one feels as a result of patronage, or gift-giving. It comes with the implication that “this feeling never ends, and under current economic customs, I will never be able to repay you, I am sorry to be put in this position”. This word conveys a debtor’s awareness that an on has been received which can never be repaid due to situational barriers, such as having a complete stranger chase and return your hat on a windy day.

Thoughts and reflections

It seems like Benedict is taking liberties with the interpretation of gratitude expressions. To be fair, the meanings have probably changed in the last 65 years, but even so, the people talking about the etymologies of these words have expressed a slightly different interpretation.

One interesting misconception I ran into was that the word “arigato” was a borrowed word from Portuguese, transliterated from the word “abrigado”. Apparently that’s 100% false. The reasons are discussed here. Basically, as far as transliterations go, it’s not the way the word would have been adopted.

As expounded here, the word “arigato” actually uses the concept of difficulty differently than Benedict interprets. It more closely corresponds to the idea that an event is improbable, rare, and special, and therefore, conveys the gratitude of the person supposedly “receiving on”.

Chapter 6: Repaying One-Ten-Thousandth

This chapter continues to deal with honor and social debt. The next level of analysis in this way is the repayment of debt. This can be divided into several different categories. These are those debts which are limitless both in duration and in value. The other is the type of debt that comes due for specific quantities, on specific occasions. These are gimu and giri respectively. There is another level of social interaction, adopted by the Japanese from the Chinese, called jen.

Jen is a term best represented by the word “personal relations”. In Chinese the word “benevolence” also applies, and it implies a social relationship where a people have the right to rebel if a ruler doesn’t have this concept of jen. In Japanese the altruistic social aspects were not adopted along with the terminology.

The Japanese pronounce it “jin” but use the same character as the Chinese do. It primarily serves to describe the set of actions that fall into the category of something that was not required. It is commonly associated with outlaws, and it is considered “doing jingi” if you grant amnesty to a criminal. It also has to do with acts that are “outside the law”, or virtue amongst gangsters. It is said that during the swashbuckling Tokugawa period that one gangster would put up another as insurance-from then on there was a debt that could come in handy later.

There are many more interesting aspects to this book…

I think it’s interesting to see this book in light of a pro-america stance, and also to look at it from a modern perspective on Japan. Let me know if you’re interested in any more information!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. fig permalink
    September 11, 2011 11:41 pm

    You are an impressive human being. This entry makes me feel so laaaaaaaaaaazy and undisciplined. And it takes a lot to make ME feel like that.

  2. Orion permalink
    September 12, 2011 9:34 pm

    Great summaries! Very readable and easily understood. Are you going to follow up on the thread of anthropological ethics with a full overview article? And/or one specifically about military anthro work?

    P.S. Not to pick a nit, but a personal peeve is the use of ‘forward’ to mean ‘foreword’. I’ve seen even some publishers miss this one, though, so maybe it was like that in the book, my deer friend?

    • September 12, 2011 10:49 pm

      Good catch! the story with this entry is weird, mostly in that I had the thing like 90% done months ago, and when my computer accidentally shut down and deleted the draft, I couldn’t bring myself to recreate it in as high quality. I do plan on discussing ethics in the future, maybe with a focus on Gödel’s Incompleteness theorem or something crazy!

      (and good catch with the ‘foreword’)

    • October 25, 2011 7:13 pm

      @Orion: “deer friend” was a pun, right?

      • October 27, 2011 5:05 am

        Well, I was complaining about using the wrong homophone, so…

  3. mio permalink
    September 9, 2012 6:38 am

    so why japan surrender ?? what US do ??

  4. June 9, 2015 3:50 am

    You are a star! I have an exam tomorrow on this and your blogpost was a great help. Thanks a million!

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