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Cross-cultural observation between America and Japan.

Originally, these articles are written for Eiji's newsletter to his friends by DTP with the same title. On the Web, it's not offline anymore:-).

by Eiji Takano


Book Review:
'The Chrysanthemum and the Sword'


Date: March 20, 2003
Place: Briarwood Country Club, Meridian, Mississippi
Hostess: The Pierian Club

In 1944, while WWII was proceeding, the Office of War Information asked an anthropologist to study the Japanese way of thinking, their behavior and their method of decision-making and make a report about them. It was a clever way to 'Know thy Enemy.' At that time, on the other hand, Japanese militarists just spread the words like "British and American soldiers are hairy devils." The difference between the two methods was enormous.

The assigned anthropologist was Ruth Benedict, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. If it were under ordinary circumstances, the standard way of making such a study would be to go to Japan and stay there for at least a few years. But the war had already begun and Ruth Benedict was not able to do it. Instead, she went to California to have interviews with numerous Japanese people who were forced to be in the War Reform Camps.


In 1946, she published the report as 'The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.' The chrysanthemum is a popular flower in Japan and people like its graciousness and the gorgeous look. Also, the chrysanthemum is the crest of the Japanese Emperor. The "sword" represents "Bushido"--a way of Samurai or Japanese style chivalry including world-famous Harakiri suicide. Obviously Ruth Benedict symbolized paradoxical facets of Japan under this title.


Let me recite the 'Forward' of this book which was written by Ezra F. Vogel, a professor at Harvard. He wrote:

"Ruth Benedict was puzzled about the paradoxes she observed, by people who could be so polite and yet insolent, so rigid and yet so adaptable to innovations, so submissive and yet difficult to control from above, so loyal and yet capable of treachery, so disciplined and yet occasionally insubordinate, so ready to die by the sword and yet so concerned with the beauty of the chrysanthmum."

Dr. Vogel summarized the book very well and I agree with him. Ruth Benedict extracted some patterns of Japanese tendencies. Japanese people didn't realize such patterns and were shocked with this book.'The Chrysanthemum and the Sword' became a longtime bestseller in Japan. I believe it also became a bible for ambassadors to Japan from many countries. It was amazing that Ruth Benedict created such a masterpiece without visiting Japan at all.

I'd like to introduce a few parts of this book. The first one is about "hierarchy." Ruth Benedict wrote:

"Any attempt to understand the Japanese must begin with their version of what it means to 'take one's proper station.' Their reliance upon order and hierarchy and our faith in freedom and equality are poles apart and it is hard for us to give hierarchy its just due as a possible social mechanism. Japan's confidence in hierarchy is basic in her whole notion of man's relation to his fellow man and of man's relation to the State and it is only by describing some of their national institutions like the family, the State, religious and economic life that it is possible for us to understand their view of life."


In another part Ruth Benedict wrote this: "Japan's motto is : Everything in its place." I like this expression better than 'take one's proper station.' In the fifth century Confucianism was imported from China to Japan. In the Shogun era, which is the 17th century, it became very popular in Japan. The basis of Confucianism is ethics or moral philosophy. Confucius believed that the key to an orderly social life was to be a gentleman. A gentleman was truly reverent in worship and sincerely respected his father and his ruler. This philosophy made it very convenient for national leaders such as a Shogun or later militarists to rule the country.

Japanese people are very strict in hierarchy or ranking. They are very careful about where to stand and where to sit at any formal ceremonies. The seniors go first and the youth last. Male first and female follows.

What would you think if your husband introduced you to his boss, "Sir, this is my foolish wife." You'd be very upset. But in Japan, this is a polite expression. Japanese women are supposed to be modest. Wives stand slightly behind their husbands. They keep smiling while they are introduced as foolish wives. Nobody thinks they are foolish, though. By the way, there's no counterpart of the expression such as "This is my foolish husband." I'm sorry. Please keep this a secret from the National Council of Women's Organizations. Here is another example. When Japanese people give presents to someone, they say, "This is a coarse and shameful gift." Although these are endangered phrases, you can still hear them from the old generation.

Why do they have such odd expressions? Japan is a very small country. The entire land area is about the size of California. But about 126 million people live in Japan while only 35 million people live in California. In such a crowded country, the Japanese people brushed up on the ways to avoid frictions with others under the influence of Confucianism. The overly humble manner is one of them.

The third quotation is about "sleeping."

Ruth Benedict wrote:
"Sleeping is another favored indulgence. It is one of the most accomplished arts of the Japanese."

My father used to say, "Sleeping is pleasure which needs no expense." He worked for a bank and was very careful about using his money. So his comment was very persuasive. I believe he is enjoying his long sleep in heaven.

The last topic is about 'obligation.' Japanese people have two types of obligations. One is a "must," a legality. For instance, in Japan all the children have to go to school --either public or private until they finish junior high-- because the Japanese government doesn't allow 'home school.' The other kind of obligation is a mental one. Japanese people use the word: "giri" for it.

Ruth Benedict wrote:
"It is in this 'circle of giri' the parallel with American sanctions on paying back money one has borrowed helps us most to understand the Japanese attitude. We do not consider that a man has to pay back the favor of a letter received or a gift given or of a timely word spoken with stringency.

The Japanese, however, regard a man as bankrupt when he fails in repaying giri, and every contact in life is likely to incur giri in some way or other. This means keeping an account of little words and acts Americans throw lightly about with no thought of incurring obligations. It means walking warily in a complicated world."


She was right. Japanese people are carrying their mental "balance sheets." If a neighbor gives me a cake, I won't return the Tupperware empty. I'll put some cookies in it. If not, I feel as if I have a debt.

A Chinese buffet restaurant opened in this town last year. They have a huge frame at the entrance which contains a lot of paper money from all over the world. I found there were no Japanese bills in it and asked the Chinese manager, "Do you want a Japanese one?" She eagerly wanted it. I gave her a 1,000 yen the next time I came in. The Chinese manager thanked me. That's it. There was no free meal or no special sushi. The 1,000 yen was in cash, neither antique money nor toy money. It is worth about $8.00 or more. Though Confucianism was born in China, Chinese people don't seem to care about it anymore.

I have a personal website. I get many questions from both Japanese and American people. Almost 80% of the Japanese people send me thank-you letters and only 10% of Americans do that. To answer the questions I spend at least 10 to 30 minutes. If I don't get any form of appreciation for my time I'm very discouraged.


One of my good friends in this town is J.B. Tutor. He is a retired pharmacist and my golf buddy. J.B. and his wife Katherine occasionally offer me some typical Southern dishes at their home. Katherine is a good cook, and I enjoy her dishes very much. In return I'm trying to offer them some Japanese dishes but they, especially J.B., don't want to come to my house because he's afraid of raw fish or sushi. There are a lot of Japanese dishes without raw fish, and there are some kind of sushi without raw fish, as well. But he is very cautious with foreign things and stubborn even though, as a pharmacist, he knows the right antidote. As a result I feel I'm bankrupted.

I confess, while I was reading this book, I felt as if I was looking in the mirror. I hope this is a strong endorsement for this book.

'The Chrysanthemum and the Sword—Patterns of Japanese Culture' by Ruth Benedict
(Houghton Miffin Company, 1989, ISBN 0-395-50075-3)
Buy this book at amazon.com ($10.50)

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