The review of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”

This time I would like to write my impression on “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” written by an American scholar, Ruth Benedict. Published in 1946, it is a pioneering work on Japanese culture research. The author has never visited Japan, but her analysis of Japan culture is sharp. There are some criticisms of the content, such as factual errors and the expressions that make us think that Western culture is superior to Eastern one. On the other hand, although it was written more than 70 years ago, I felt that there are many points that still fit to Japanese people and culture today in this book.

Kuki no kenkyu“, which I introduced in this blog berore, also describes Japanese people well. According to these two works, Japanese people follow the unwritten customs, rules and premises in the community or society and behave not to be criticized by others.

The first half of the book was not very interesting because of the difficult expressions, so I summarized my impressions of the second half.

義理(giri): Fulfill your duty.

・ In Japan, it is important to repay a favor and fulfill one’s duty(義理, giri).If you don’t fulfill your duty, you are laughed and called a shameless person.

When someone does something for you, even if it is with good intentions, it is important to return the favor in Japanese society. Also, according to the Japanese dictionary, 義理(giri) means “the right course of things, the right way to follow as a person. And, to be obligated or to serve or reward others in a position or as a matter of morality.”

There are a variety of situations in which Japanese people have to fulfill one’s duty, such as in the relationship of master and servant, in family, and in helping each other in the community during weddings and funerals. A mother-in-law teaches her daughter-in-law the etiquette of the house, and the whole village comes together to welcome a daughter-in-law from another village. If you do not fulfill these duties, you will be treated coldly by others.

A common story is that of a daughter-in-law being bullied by her mother-in-law. In the traditional rural households, when a woman living in a city goes back to her husband’s hometown which is in a countryside for a long vacation, the daughter-in-law has to help her mother-in-law with cooking, cleaning, and dealing with relatives. If she does not do this, she will not be recognized by her husband’s family.

For other example, in Japan, it is still customary for the attendees of weddings and funerals to wrap money and for the host to return the money. There is a standard amount of money for each, and if you deviate from it, you may be said to be embarrassed or have no common sense.

My post about Japanese wedding↓

自重する: Refrain from saying or doing anything that would be criticized by the world.

・”自重する(jicho-suru, to self respect, to be prudent)” means to consider the factors that affect your situation and refrain from saying or doing anything that will be criticized by the public. It means to be cautious of the consequences of one’s actions.

The letters of “自重” is the kanji for “to respect oneself” originally. But in Japan it is the kanji for “to be prudent”. In the book, the contrast was drawn between the West, where people put more emphasis on themselves and act according to their own values and conscience, and Japan, where people refrain from saying or doing anything that would be criticized by the world. In Japan, you have to refrain from saying or doing anything that will be criticized by the world. That is “自重する” in Japan. That does not mean act according to their own values. Especially, the higher your position, the more you have to be aware of the weight of the situation.

The same characteristic of Japanese society was also written in “Kuki no nyumon”. It says that Japanese people read the situation around them and speak or act in a way that does not disrupt the situation.

Pay attention to your surroundings.

・Japanese people are carefully observing the suggestions of others’ behavior and at the same time being judged by their surroundings.

It is the Japanese who tend to pay attention to their surroundings. Conversely, the people around you are also watching you. Even today, in Japan, people are concerned about social common sense and customary public opinion, and attack those who deviated from it. For example, this is especially true in rural areas, which are still closed compared to urban areas. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of people moving to rural areas, but I often hear that it is difficult to soon get along with neighbors who have community’s rules and customs.

However, nowadays, with the development of social medias, more people can express their opinions freely not with caring other people in the internet than before.

A culture of shame

Japan is a culture of “shame,” established not by absolute ethical standards (a culture of “guilt” that relies on conscience), but by relative standards. Ridicule in public and the “shame” of being watched are the roots of Japanese virtue. They do not want to be embarrassed, so they act the exemplary code of conduct. Knowing shame is the best in ethics in Japan.   

This is the famous contrast between the culture of guilt and the culture of shame. In the West, they have a culture of guilt, where there are absolute ethical standards and behavior is left to the conscience of each individual. Japan is a culture of shame, where the standard of behavior to avoid criticism from others. There is a code of conduct that says you should do it to avoid being criticized by the world, and you act in accordance with it. If this is the case, it means that the culture has a strong sense of sameness and synchronization. The unity of the team or organization may be strong, but the member would be criticized or be treated cold when straying from the unity.

Bullying in school is an example of this as I saw in “kuki no kenkyu”. And the old value system of being happy to get a good school education and work at a big company may also be one of behavioral norms.

Sometimes it is easy to live by the rules usually determined but sometimes it is hard. In Japan, relationships with other people, the world and the community are important.

Japanese manners and model rules of behavior do not apply in other countries.

・When Japanese people go abroad, it is difficult for them to become friends with the foreign people instantly because Japanese manners and model rules of behavior do not apply. Japanese people are seen as frightened and nervous for non-Japanese people, while the familiarity is rude in Japanese society and they can’t behave friendly at first. When we try to follow the Japanese virtues, we get stuck.

The exemplary rules of conduct only apply in Japan, so Japanese who go abroad are shocked when they do not know how to behave. This episode was in pre-war, and now with the changes in society, Japanese etiquette is fading away and the way of thinking is changing and going back and forth to other countries has become a normal thing. Even so, I often hear people say that they felt the difference in the way of thinking and culture when they studied or lived abroad. Japanese people emphasize harmony, care about their surroundings, and do not assert their own opinions. On the other hand, in the West, people are expected to express their own opinions first and foremost.

Unfortunately, I have never been exposed to people from other countries except for traveling and English conversation schools, so I can’t really feel it.


・By training one can attain selflessness and enlightenment. Observing self, eliminating shame, and living as if you were dead is what the Japanese yearn for.

Japanese people are bound by worldly beliefs, but there have always been attempts to break free from them, and many people are training and practicing. Zen is a famous example. In the end, we want to escape from a world where we are observed and evaluated by others. Many people aim to become enlightened, a recluse, hermit, or away from shame as if they are dead in everyday world. This is exactly what Buddha taught. I understand this feeling of longing because I too tend to worry about my surroundings. But, now I think it would be quicker to move abroad, lol.

Childhood in Japan

・Why do we have such a value system in Japan? For Japanese people, Life has peaks in childhoods and middle age, and downs in the rest. Adults love their children, but when children reach a certain age, they encourage to behave in a way that is accepted by the world as adults. Men and women are educated separately to instill in them a sense of their differences and roles.

The reason why Japanese people behave modestly with these values is because they were taught in the home at that time. During childhood, children are raised freely, but as they grow a little older and become more sensible, they are taught the rules of the world and trained to follow them. If they don’t follow these rules, even their family will be cold to you. In the past, the family had patriarchal and the power of the father was absolute, and the rules of the world were strictly taught. Nowadays, families have changed and couples work together to raise their children, and although they teach general rules, manners, and etiquette, they do not raise their children as harshly as they did in this era.

Summary and my impression

The Japanese society depicted in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is one that observes others, while at the same time following exemplary rules to avoid being criticized by others. This is a presentation of Japanese society today, too, many people still concerned about public opinion even now. There are still many people who choose their appearance, clothes, occupation, education, place of residence, etc. based on the reaction of others.

When did Japanese people start to have this characteristic? It is not written in “The Chrysanthemum and Sword”. I think that, to begin with, Japan is a closed island nation that is geographically difficult to interfere with from abroad, and since the nation land is mostly mountainous and there are few plains where people can live, the country and each village were isolated without much interference, and there was a foundation of strong ties within communities.

Furthermore, historically, the feudal system as a ruling structure and the penetration of Confucian teachings from China spread the hierarchical patriarchal system to the warrior class in the family. The subsequent institutionalization of the Meiji period (1868-1912) spread the patriarchal family system throughout the country, creating a society in which it was easy for the authorities to convey the rules and regulations that people had to follow and the premise in the community(空気, kuki) in which they had to follow them, which may have led to a society that was increasingly concerned about others.

The Japanese people today are much more diverse in their ways of thinking and values than in the era depicted in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. Especially now, with the spread of social networking services, people are clashing in the internet with each other in a variety of opinions and arguments without worrying about the world.

However, in the real world, not the virtual world, there are still many Japanese who worry about criticism from others and observe others, and the life in Japan still can be tough. Of course, worrying about others is not always a bad thing, as by observing the person more clearly and you can help them at times. And it can also increase unity when working as a team. I would like to spend my days making sure that I can express my opinions without worrying too much about the parts I care about.


rice (Japanese OL)

Japanese OL. (OL means “office lady”. Women who work in offices.) I was born in a rural part of the Kanto area in the latter half of the 1980s. I  live and work in Tokyo now. I live with my husband. I study English by writing this blog!

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