by Ruth Benedict
My husband insisted I read this book. He read it years ago, and it either created or enhanced (I’m not sure which) his fascination with Japanese culture ~ and rightly so.
Written in 1946 by “one of the most eminent anthropologists of the twentieth century” (according to the back cover bio), The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is largely based on in-person interviews with Japanese immigrants to America. Ruth Benedict did her research during the War years in an effort to find out (and communicate to Americans) the motivations and beliefs underlying Japanese culture, with the goal of understanding and perhaps predicting their behavior during and after the War.
Benedict’s research was meticulous and thorough. She describes nearly every aspect of life and thought in Japan at the time, and connects the modern patterns with the ancient and medieval roots from which they rose. She explains the Japanese understanding of obligations and debts as the foundation of their society, from within the family all the way up to the Emperor. She describes the goal of repayment as a central virtue and motivation for every Japanese person, and illustrates how this concept is inculcated from earliest childhood all the way through adult life. They are carefully taught what they owe to whom, and the fulfillment of every debt is the line between high honor or deep shame.
She shows how decisions and responses that to a Western mind seem antithetical and contradictory can fit together in the Japanese view of life: how they can “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 chrysanthemum” (from the Foreword).
From home life to the village unit to business relations to the military, Benedict traces these patterns through the Japanese life and culture. She illustrates them with intriguing details from cultural stories and myths, historical events, and personal anecdotes from the lives of her interviewees.
It is an utterly fascinating read, and it makes me wish two things: 1. that there were a more recent book in a similar vein to analyze how ~ and how much ~ Japanese culture has changed since World War II, and 2. that there were books in a similar vein about all sorts of other cultures. If you know of any, please share! I would snap them up in a heartbeat.