This essay first appeared in the BYU student journal, Insight (volume 3:3 Fall 1986). Patrick Smith's 1998 polemic, Japan : A Reinterpretation (Vintage Books), explores this theme--that there is a real and growing gap between "Japan," as pictured in the popular imagingation, and the actual Japanese--in an engaging, contrarian style. I recommend it to those wondering what happened to the economic Godzilla that was Japan in the 1980s, and why the Japanese government is still wrestling with a deeply entrenched recession and banking crisis that the U.S. government slogged through and left behind over a decade ago.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sickle

by Eugene Woodbury

Long before anyone wanted to know about the Japanese because of their propensity for making economic miracles, the Office of War Information wanted to know about the Japanese because of their propensity for making war. An important byproduct of this cold-blooded curiosity was Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an anthropological wonder that remains today one of the most influential, if not of the most inaccurate, studies of contemporary Japanese society ever published. (1)

Benedict was a mentor and colleague of Margaret Mead and possessed no less keen a mind. A professor of anthropology at Columbia University and author of the definitive commentary on cultural relativism, Patterns of Culture, she imparted to her study academic weight and scholastic sophistication. (2) So impressive were her credentials and so original her work that many of the stereotypes she generated are still accepted in Japanese and American academic circles. Benedict failed certainly not in observation, but in interpretation. She limited the scope of her research to such narrow and predetermined objectives that in order to justify her conclusions she found it necessary to integrate the product of a civilization reaching back a thousand years into the product of a man-made political system less than a century old. (3)

Although it might be fair to say that the Japanese immigrants Benedict interviewed during her field research more or less represented Japanese society at the time, lacking in the data she gathered was the context of Japanese political history since 1860. According to C. Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy as Tsuda University, Benedict recognized in Japanese society during the early 1900's a set of publicly condoned patterns and relationships and thereupon concluded that the repression endemic in Japan before and during the Second World War was "voluntarily embraced." (4) In Benedict's eyes, "to be totalitarian and to be Japanese [were] the same thing." (5)

Machiavelli argues that it is possible for the founder of a political state to create institutions that allowed the founder to instill fundamental changes in society while at the same time "mak[ing] [the] new prince seem ancient, and render[ing] him at one more secure and firmer in the state than if he had been established there of old." (6) Likewise, the much heralded Meiji Restoration that thrust a 17th century agrarian society into the 20th century in less that fifty years did not occur without careful planning--few "restorations" or "revolutions" ever do. (7)

Irokawa Daikichi, professor of Japanese history at Tokyo University, recalls that, "[although] it was said the German fascists envied the Japanese 'kokutai' it status as a 'family-state . . . there was nothing I could see in the world around me that suggested a 'familial harmony unparalleled in the world.'"

So, Irokawa asks, who invented the concept? "It appeared to have been created by the Meiji idealogues for the purpose of solidifying the Emperor system." (8) It was a system deliberately planned and deliberately executed and not at all "traditional." If there was complicity on the part of the citizenry, it was that of silence and intimidation: "While [our teachers] filled us with this at school our parents, on this subject anyway, held their tongues." (9) Lummis puts it more bluntly: Benedict's interviewees all reflected the totalitarian patterns she anticipated because those patterns "had been pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it." (10)

"Pounded" is an appropriate verb, for it implies an resistance to de facto toleration. This is perhaps a novel concept in light of popular preconceptions about the lack of political or social plurality in Japan then or now. Prior to the "assassination decade" of the 1930's and the militarization of the government, struggling democratic movements were still alive in Japan's major population centers. (11) The author Kitamura Tokoku wrote in 1891, "On the surface, Meiji civilization manifests truly immeasurable progress, but do the majority of the people enjoy it?" (12) Modernization, like political extremism, was not simply absorbed by a sedate and contented people, but somehow the economic and demographic disruptions of the countryside inflicted by rapid industrialization and the escalating conflicts in China, Korea, and Russia were made transparent to western eyes. (13) Even today, the recollections of an army conscript--"I had accepted that I was going to have to join the army, and that I would probably not come back alive, but I can't say that I felt there was anything particularly fortunate about it"--sound to us iconoclastic, even foreign. (14)

What these biographical notes indicate is that to the individual Japanese, as to the citizen of any country, "feeling a debt of gratitude toward one's parents or to the other people in one's village, and feeling a debt of gratitude to the head of an expansionist nation state, are two utterly different forms of human connection." (15) Traditions transformed by the manipulations of state machinery, Lummis points out, "are by definition dead as traditions." (16)

But the fact remains that Benedict, one of the preeminent scholars of her day, was incapable of discerning this. She maintained that accepting democracy would require the Japanese to divorce the basic principles of their culture. Time, in this respect, proved Benedict's greatest critic. The willingness of the Japanese people to embrace democracy so soon after the war well demonstrated the relative independence of socio-cultural forces from political philosophy. (17) The so-called "acceptance" of totalitarianism was in actuality felt no deeper than the grip of the police state.

Unfortunately, where the course of history has not turned sufficiently to prove them obviously wrong, political apologists are still pressing their data into the "Benedictian" mold. The "unified" behaviors of the citizens of this nation or that are examined as if their omnipresent governments did not exist, as if the past was unremembered. Admittedly, organized evil has always difficult for the sheltered offspring of the 20th century "enlightenment" to grasp. But Machiavellian malfeasance should not be.

One of the most vicious misrepresentations presently condoned by otherwise reasonable men is that basic human rights are not appreciated or understood by the peoples of oppressed nations. "The Japanese," wrote Benedict, "have denied themselves simple freedoms which Americans count upon as unquestioningly as the air they breathe." (18)

The myths fostered by the Meiji Restoration have endured so well because of an eagerness to merge political, national and cultural identity, a one-stop stereotyping that served well enough through much of the 20th century. But it is not at all reassuring that sixty years after Benedict penned her reactionary tome, apologists for the totalitarian Marxist state--in Cuba, in North Korea, in China--are still exercising similarly subtle though nevertheless morally insupportable and ultimately condescending rationalizations.


1. C. Douglas Lummis, A New Look at the Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Tokyo: Shohakusha, 1982) pp. 2-3, 54; Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp 124-25).

2. Encyclopedia Americana, 1984 ed., s.v. "Ruth Benedict."

3. See Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix (New York: Harpercollins, 2000) for a well-documented account of the enormous propaganda effort exerted by the Imperial Court to shore up the supposedly "inbred" proclivity towards the "kokutai."

4. Lummis, p. 76; Roger W. Bowen, Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 312: "The farmers of the 1880s had learned that imperial absolutism was absolute and that they were not going to change the political system by armed rebellion. But that does not mean they ceased rebelling."

5. Lummis, p. 62.

6. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, in The Portable Machiavelli, ed. Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979), p. 157.

7. Carol Gluck, Japan's Modern Myths: ideology in the late Meiji period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 3, 39-41; Reischauer 81-86.

8. Irokawa Daikichi, The Culture of the Meiji Period, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 280.

9. Ibid.

10. Lummis, p. 75; Gluck, p. 3: "Although no society is innocent of collective notions about itself, some countries have made more of ideology than others. From the time Japan began its deliberate pursuit of 'civilization' in the mid-nineteenth century, ideology appeared as a conscious enterprise, a perpetual civic concern, an affair, indeed, of state."

11. Gluck, pp. 49-53; Reischauer, pp. 90-99.

12. Irokawa, p. 241.

13. Ibid., pp. 219, 231-234.

14. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Showa: an inside history of Hirohito's Japan, (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 112.

15. Lummis, p. 73.

16. Ibid. p. 78.

17. Ibid. p. 67; Reischauer, pp. 110-111.

18. Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword--patterns of Japanese culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1946), p. 294; Lummis, p. 63.


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