Occasional Paper 32 (July 2004)
Chrysanthemum’s Strange Life: Ruth Benedict in Postwar Japan
by Sonia Ryang

Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword has played a crucial role in postwar social scientific discourse on Japan. Japanese anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu has noted that Chrysanthemum served as the starting point for the holistic approach to Japanese culture taken by so many postwar analysts (Aoki 1990: 42).[1] Aside from such holistic approaches as those of Chie Nakane (1970) or Joy Hendry (1993), a whole range of works that study the Japanese sense of self or patterns of behavior such as those of Takeo Doi (1971) or Takie Lebra (1976) are influenced by Benedict’s paradigm in one way or another. As recently as 1992, David Plath and Robert Smith emphatically placed Chrysanthemum as one of the most (if not the single most) influential books in the western anthropology of Japan. Smith went so far as to suggest that “there is a sense in which all of us have been writing footnotes to [it] ever since it appeared in 1946” (Plath and Smith 1992: 206). Smith also stated that all Americans who study Japan are “Benedict’s children” (Smith 1989). More recently, Jennifer Robertson has observed: “It seems that cultural portraits contrary to the tenaciously normative template constructed by Benedict and subsequently reproduced can only always be ‘alternative’ or ‘other’ as opposed to unacknowledged facets of the complex, composite, and integrated whole of ‘Japanese culture’” (Robertson 1998; 311). It seems safe to conclude that Benedict shaped the postwar cultural discourse on Japan’s self-representation, and that Chrysanthemum, thus became paradigmatic.[2]

Of all the books written about Japan in modern times, Chrysanthemum has had perhaps the strangest life. One of the inexplicable contradictions about it is that despite the existence of harsh criticism from early on in Japan, to this day Chrysanthemum continues to be read and admired and to create debate about interpretation and reinterpretation of Ruth Benedict. It also needs to be noted that in this process of re-evaluation, some concepts that had first been proposed by Benedict and received self-critically by Japanese readers were revised and came to be understood as positive features of Japanese culture.

In 1984 the sale of the Japanese translation of Chrysanthemum reached 1.2 million copies (Nishi 1983: 12). In a more recent calculation, it is said that a total of 2.3 million copies of the Japanese version of Chrysanthemum have been sold in Japan (Fukui 1999: 73). One random survey has it that 33 per cent of 944 adult Japanese respondents in an urban area have heard of Chrysanthemum (Befu and Manabe 1987: 98). Its pocketsize edition, first published in Japan in 1967, had its 101st printing in July 1995 (Kent 1996: 35). Japan shows a higher statistical interest than in the U.S., where 23,000 copies of Chrysanthemum were sold from 1946 to 1971 (Johnson 1988: 14).

Whereas in the U.S., interest and readership have been confined to business and academe, except perhaps during the initial postwar years, in Japan, Chrysanthemum has been quoted even in high school textbooks (Lummis 1982: 2). Every decade saw important articles or books published with Chrysanthemum as their theme, mostly in conjunction with the thesis that Japan’s culture is unique, what the Japanese call Nihonjinron (see e.g. Suzuki 1967, Nishi 1983, Soeda 1993). With the recent release of the Ruth Fulton Benedict papers at Vassar College, Benedict’s alma mater, debates on Benedict’s life in close relation to the production of Chrysanthemum have been revived among scholars in Japan. The ways in which Chrysanthemum has been read in Japan point to changing self-perceptions of Japanese intellectuals as well as the general public, a self-perception which was interactively fed back into the western discourse on Japan (see e.g., Hendry 1996).

Clifford Geertz emphasizes that by the time one is done with the book, one may wonder whether it is the Americans, not the Japanese, who are strange -- the tenacious insistence on the part of Benedict on juxtaposing Japanese and American cultures, according to him, delivers the effect of inverting our perception (1988). Such a reading, I suggest, is distinctly American. Japanese did not read Chrysanthemum as a book that compares Japan and the U.S. They read it and continue to read it as a book on Japan -- Japan only and nothing else.

It is in this connection that I see the need for a new critique: nowhere in Chrysanthemum is a vision of Japan’s empire and former colonies included. Japanese culture is explained from within, not in interaction with its empire in Asia. The war’s end was not simply about the Americans and the Japanese; it equally involved the former colonial subjects. Yet, given the way the U.S. occupation of Japan and postwar Japanese ignored Chinese, Koreans, Okinawans, and other peoples on the margins of the empire (although they were the ones first to be persecuted if they caused trouble), Japanese (as well as American) readers of Chrysanthemum were left oblivious to Japan’s empire and its peoples. This omission granted the Japanese state a perfect alibi for not offering compensation for the atrocities and exploitation it committed against the peoples of Asia before and during World War II. This is not a coincidence -- Chrysanthemum effectively presents Japan to its readers as a self-contained entity, having no link to any of the societies it colonized.

What Chrysanthemum explores most impressively is the hierarchy embedded in Japanese culture and society. The model Benedict abstracts from Japanese social hierarchy is based on a type of the group such as the family or the army. What creates and maintains rigid hierarchy within such a group is the relationship of individuals to each other, notably, the principle of occupying “one’s proper rank” (1946: Ch.3). Hierarchy, however, does not always function oppressively in Benedict’s depiction: in the family, children are loved by parents, and at the same time, must obey then. The hierarchy internal to Japanese groups involves at once protection and submission, supported by the notion of debt (on) that individuals supposedly owe to their parents, ancestors, community, the emperor, and the society at large (1946: Ch.4).

Another concept that fascinated Benedict is giri (1946: Ch.8). Benedict maintains that giri is distinguishable in two ways: first, giri to one’s name, second, giri to society. The former is a kind of self-respect, but one deeply embedded in the notion of hierarchy. It does not necessarily mean the act of pursuing the highest possible achievement in terms of one’s social success. Rather, it is more closely related to the notion of “taking one’s proper place” within a group that is already set up in a hierarchical order. The second meaning is a public duty that one has to pay. Loyalty to the feudal lord may result in leaving one’s father or in opposing him. But it is a public giri that ultimately justifies such a deed.

By far the most important notion that Benedict formulated about Japan, which heavily influenced both academic and popular discourses on Japan, is the notion of shame culture even though the actual portion in the book dwelling on shame culture is very brief (1946: Ch.10).[3] Benedict contends that shame-based behavior involves the satisfaction of externally institutionalized social requirements. For this, no inner principle -- “one’s own picture of oneself” -- is necessary. Abiding by the rules and the capacity to come up to the socially set standard are all that is required. Benedict is not denying the positive values of shame culture. Because of the shame mechanism, postwar Japan found it easy to shed the dream of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and switch to a different set of performance criteria, those involving peaceful coexistence within the community of (some) nations (in the Cold War). This type of easy change Benedict calls “situational ethics.”

Although enormously successful in reviews, with Alfred Kroeber praising it for being “a book that makes one proud to be anthropologist” (Kroeber 1947: 169; see also Bowles 1947 and Morris 1947a and 1947b), Benedict’s study seen from the standpoint of today’s scholarship has some problems, especially given that anthropology has come a long way from the Boasian culture-and-personality school of Benedict’s time. As with other culture-and-personality scholars such as Margaret Mead, Benedict saw culture in a close a correspondence with personality types. In this way, culture becomes a closed system that houses finite personalities (see Handler 1986). She fails to pay attention to the politico-economic changes that Japan went through, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- that is, in a word, “modernization” -- a process that brings about not only societal transformation but also the individuation of people, who now emerge as critical self-reflexive subjects, albeit with relative cultural differences. What matters to Benedict is “culture,” which, in her view, stands aside from or above history, society, and economy. As a result, she ends up “explaining” such a complex entity as Japanese society by using fragmentary sources of words, isolated ideas, quaint literature, and partial observations based on second-hand information. The result is inevitably to identify an unchanging Japanese cultural essence. The consequent reductionism marks the book from cover to cover.

In contradistinction to the above, Benedict can also be seen as a “culture giver” to postwar Japan. When she refers to American freedom, American informality and openness and therefore, genuine human relationships, and American informal democracy, she effectively places these traits, intentionally or not and despite her relativist principles, one step above those of Japan. They become something that Japanese, even with their peculiar ethics, can hope to aspire to, no matter bow much she insists that her American readers be patient, tolerant, and understanding of Japan’s peculiarities. After all, Chrysanthemum was part of wartime “enemy morals studies” and was produced by the victorious nation about a defeated nation. In this sense, it is understandable that it became a verdict for Japanese -- no doubt a kind verdict -- as to why Japan had to be defeated by the U.S. and how it could make itself more like the U.S. in order to salvage itself and its culture.

At a time when Japan was seen as a society of sub-human monsters, the significance of Benedict’s words was immense: she salvaged Japanese humanity by trying to render its “monstrosity” comprehensible and logical. Her book explained the fanatic loyalty of the Japanese to the emperor as a matter of cultural psychology, not simply as madness: it explained the extreme militarism of the Japanese, which went far beyond that of western military training, in accordance with indigenous cultural rationality, not as irrational frenzy; and it explained the widespread belief in Japan that it would be victorious in the war because of its national character, which could be understood in its own right, not as a pathological illusion.

Before the Japanese translation of Chrysanthemum was published, Tsurumi Kazuko’s critique of the English original attracted Japanese readers’ attention to the book. Tsurumi had been educated in the U.S. and repatriated during the Pacific War. In her brief but critical review, Tsurumi first credits Benedict’s skill in isolating Japanese patterns of behavior in contrast to American patterns of behavior. But Tsurumi then charges Benedict with superficial observation and methodological flaws in tracing national culture back to child-training without paying attention to the socio-historical transformations Japan had gone through, from feudalism to capitalism (1947: 222-224). She also criticizes Benedict for her selective use of examples; examples that fit her hypotheses are preserved, while counter-examples are simply dismissed. Tsurumi writes: “… in Benedict’s method [of studying] patterns of culture ... changes in the means of production and the conditions arising thereby are left totally unconsidered” (1946: 224). Tsurumi further points out that Benedict mistakes the official discourse engineered by the state in order to disseminate emperor worship (for example, the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, Gunjin Chokuyu, 1882) -- that is, “the ideology of the ruling class” -- for the representative view held by the Japanese people at large (ibid.).

Following publication of a Japanese translation of Chrysanthemum in 1948 (Benedict 1948), Minzokugaku kenkyu, the most widely circulated academic journal of ethnology in Japan, paid tribute to the book in a cluster of articles entitled “What is offered in Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword?” Five scholars, starkly divided into supporters and critics of the book, presented their views (see Bennett and Nagai 1953). Among the supporters, Kawashima Takeyoshi, a Tokyo University law professor known for the study of the family system and family law (Kawashima 1950a), expresses his admiration for Chrysanthemum as follows:
Perhaps for those of us Japanese who were taught to blindly accept our own tradition and our own viewpoints ... this book would be immensely shocking. This book was originally written for the wartime purpose of conquering and governing Japan, but for us, it is a book of lessons through and through. (Kawashima 1950b: 1)
Unlike Tsurumi, Kawashima credits Benedict with having abundant data pertaining to Japanese culture and commends her for her analytic capacity, which is displayed in her method of connecting various phenomena that may at first appear as contingent and unrelated but that make sense when carefully connected. Benedict thereby presents a picture that captures Japanese culture in its totality, which Kawashima calls a “structural understanding of Japanese behavior and ways of thinking” (1950b: 2). This is what Aoki later called a holistic approach (Aoki, 1990).

However, Kawashima also notes inconsistencies in Benedict’s work. For example, he argues that the hierarchy Benedict discusses is not unique to Japanese society. He also suggests that feudal patriarchy was supported by the Meiji authoritarian government and forcefully imposed on the people, while the people themselves had their own form of patriarchy that differed from the state-imposed norm. In other words, Benedict’s understanding of Japanese hierarchy buys into the official propaganda of the state, and is simplistic and ahistorical in its perspective. On this point, Kawashima is in agreement with Tsurumi, who has no praise for Benedict. More importantly, Kawashima is reading Chrysanthemum as a critique of the Japanese feudal legacy and looks toward Benedict as a provider of ideas that would lead Japan into democracy and the eradication of feudalism. Nowhere in Chrysanthemum do we find such a stance, but for Kawashima’s postwar frame of mind, hoping for Japan’s reconstruction, Chrysanthemum became a manual for enlightenment. Furthermore, Kawashima misses the point of the culture-and-personality school and Benedict’s technique by trying to read into Chrysanthemum the assumptions of evolutionist history, according to which one historical stage must be discarded and replaced by the next stage.

Another contributor who reacted positively to Chrysanthemum is the sociologist Ariga Kizaemon, also highly acclaimed for his studies of family, household, and kin group in Japan. Ariga endorses Benedict’s approach to Japan as anthropologically valid and complimentary to existing studies of primitive societies. Like Kawashima, Ariga is impressed with Benedict’s attention to the Japanese concept of hierarchy. But unlike Kawashima, who regards the hierarchical aspects of Japanese culture as a legacy of feudalism, Ariga reads Benedict as suggesting that hierarchy is an inherent part of everyday Japanese life across different historical periods (1950: 16). For Ariga, Benedict’s originality lies in her synchronic approach. Ariga emphasizes that Japanese hierarchy is distinct in the sense that its structural base resides in kinship organization: even Japanese capitalism developed from a kin-based hierarchy that historically evolved together with the land-tenure system (see Ariga 1943). Ariga concludes his essay by suggesting that “in order for democracy to grow [in Japan], the conditions [that create hierarchy] must be overcome and an individual-oriented lifestyle needs to be established” (1950: 22).

The other three contributors read Benedict in a more negative light. Social psychologist Minami Hiroshi’s critique revolves around details of Benedict’s interview technique. He questions the appropriateness of samples that were supposedly taken from Japanese-Americans who were born in Japan during the Meiji period and, with emigration to the U.S., preserved the old customs, while the reality in Japan itself moved away from them. Similarly, for Minami, the Japanese films Benedict studied in writing Chrysanthemum were biased from the outset, given that those films were made for specific propaganda purposes and were designed to be exported to the U.S.

Minami then takes up Benedict’s contention that the Japanese have a dual personality, one personality for performing in front of others and the other for oneself -- this being the psychological basis of shame culture -- and that this dual personality derives from the abrupt discontinuity between an indulgent childhood and a strict adulthood (Benedict 1946: Ch.l2). Pointing to the fact that this contention was first published by Benedict in her article “Continuities and Discontinuities in Cultural Conditioning” (1938), Minami suggests that Benedict teleologically applied this conclusion first to “the abstract type called the Japanese” and then tried to avoid examples that did not suit her interpretation, thus resonating with Tsurumi’s critique (1950: 12). What underpins Minami’s critique is his view of shame culture as a negative trait and his resistance to accepting it as an inherent principle of Japanese culture.

Folklorist Yanagita Kunio takes a similar line, although Yanagita is more detailed in counter-examples drawn from linguistic data. For example, Yanagita points out that the term on, which plays a central part in Benedict’s understanding of hierarchical human relations in Japan, is in fact not part of daily language. The term originated in China. Yanagita suggests that Benedict misunderstood the term on used in state-engineered propaganda as a term used by ordinary people, another point that had already been made by Tsurumi, Kawashima, and Minami (1950: 33). He attributes the cause of Benedict’s misunderstanding to the false self-representation that the Japanese state disseminated to the world through prewar and wartime propaganda.

By far the most critical, indeed dismissive, reader of Benedict among the Minzokugaku kenkyu contributors is Watsuji Tetsuro. An important thinker of prewar Japan, whose philosophical investigation of Japanese culture, Fudo: Ningengakuteki kosatsu (Climate: Humanistic Investigations), first published in 1935, is in fact similar to Chrysanthemum in its quest for fundamental Japaneseness, Watsuji seems almost displeased to have had to read Chrysanthemum in order to make a contribution to the journal.[4] He bursts out in complaint, stating that the book “has no academic value whatsoever” (1950: 23). His essay took the form of a letter to Ishida Eiichiro, anthropologist and the editor of Minzokugaku kenkyu.

Watsuji’s first point is on the principle of generalization, or lack thereof. For him, Benedict unmethodically generalizes ideas that the military had portrayed to the world as those of all Japanese -- a criticism resonating with the views of Tsurumi, Kawashima, Minami, and Yanagita. Considering that the media were under strict state control, Watsuji suggests, it would have been impossible to determine what Japanese were really like based on the presentations of the military and the jingoist state (1950: 24-25). Watsuji criticizes Benedict’s statement concerning the Japanese wartime belief in a will power that could overcome material scarcity and even death, thereby transcending the concrete reality of technology (a view of Japanese behavior displayed by the kamikaze bombers, according to Benedict, 1946: 25). Watsuji suggests that such a belief did not exist in Japan prior to the Manchurian incident of 1932; it was only after the military intervened in state affairs that the Japanese media came to be imbued with such extreme views (Watsuji 1950: 25). As such, these views reflected the “patterns of military ideas,” not patterns of Japanese culture.

Watsuji then suggests that in Japan people do not express their thoughts in direct action but rather simply let things happen as they will; because of this habit it was possible for a handful of fanatics to control people’s behavior during the war. Nonetheless, Japanese people knew all along that official propaganda was not their idea; they simply followed those in command. Watsuji connects this to the “multiple layers of Japanese culture” where not only feudalism but also primitivism are found side by side with modern culture (1950: 26), which in fact is almost precisely what Benedict suggests. Watsuji concludes his letter by asking Ishida as an anthropologist to teach him where in Benedict’s book Ishida finds anything of academic value.

What is interesting in these early critiques of Chrysanthemum is that positive reactions and negative reactions rest more or less on the same points. For example: Benedict is majestic in analyzing Japanese hierarchy, which is a feudal legacy; but Benedict is missing the unique nature of Japanese culture in which feudalism always exists with other determinants, including capitalist economy and modern culture. Benedict is ahistorical in her approach to Japanese culture; but it is her strength that she explores Japanese culture from the present-day point of view. Benedict is precise in understanding Japanese culture as a whole and this is all the more admirable considering that she never undertook fieldwork; but since Benedict never undertook fieldwork, her empirical data cannot be true or credible and her use of wartime military propaganda about Japanese cultural traits is not acceptable.

There seems to be a certain emotional charge found in common between opponents and supporters of Benedict, either welcoming the fact that an American anthropologist wrote a study of Japanese culture that has quite a few things to teach Japanese about their own culture, or indignant about her doing so. Those who welcomed the book tended to see Benedict, and the U.S. as a whole, as the leader of Japan’s postwar democratization, whether that involved the eradication of feudal remnants in Japan or the abolition of kinship-based hierarchy and the attempted creation of civil society.[5] Those who denounced the book aimed their criticisms at Benedict’s and the U.S.’s failure to distinguish between the establishment (the ruling class, the military, official discourse, the oppressor, the state, etc.) and the people. This failure was seen as a failure to understand the linguistic discrepancy between the written, classical, and formal Japanese of Chinese origin and the spoken, informal Japanese of everyday life (Yanagita); it was seen as a failure to distinguish between actual Japanese behavior and official state policy and militaristic slogans (Watsuji, Minami); it was seen as a failure to distinguish between the ruling class’s conspiracy and the ordinary people’s innocence (Tsurumi), or between the state-imposed norms and the people’s grass-roots lifestyle (Kawashima). In other words, according to the logic of the postwar critics, people -- whomever that might refer to -- had been either forced by the state and military to join the war or were exercising a dual behavior pattern (which Benedict did not see), distinguishing the façade loyal to the government from their true selves.

This certainly is an interesting mutual misunderstanding between Benedict and her critics. If we remember Benedict’s notion of shame culture, in which individuals are governed not by internally autonomous moral principles, but by externally imposed sanctions, the complaints that her opponents make -- namely, that she failed to see the dual behavioral principle of Japanese, and failed to distinguish the formal façade from inner “true” thoughts or feelings -- are not justified because this duality is indeed the basis of shame culture. Benedict does not necessarily presuppose the existence of inner principles behind behavior that adheres to social norms, but neither does she dismiss such a possibility. Her notion of “situational ethics” captures the ambiguity pertaining to interpreting Japanese behavior, warning that we must avoid hasty conclusions on the basis of external presentation alone.

What appears to me more interesting in the early Japanese critique of Chrysanthemum lies elsewhere. If, as critics suggest, there was indeed such a clear-cut distinction between the official and the unofficial during the war, how is it that some extraordinary personal sacrifices such as kamikaze bombing took place? Were they all simply presentational performances on the surface? In any case, in the reading of these critics, Japanese “people’ were exempt from wartime responsibility and postwar repayment; it was “the establishment” that needed to go through self-criticism. One might, of course, wonder where these intellectuals place themselves -- on the side of the working class (as in the case of Tsurumi) or “the people” (as in Yanagita and Watsuji and to some extent Kawashima), for example? One must not forget that “people” were indeed soldiers also; except for a minority who had been jailed for treason, almost all Japanese individuals -- including men, women, children, and the elderly -- were involved in the war effort in one way or another. I do not intend to offer blame here -- that is far too complex an issue to fit within the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, to conveniently separate people and the military ex post facto is to avoid personal moral responsibility in the name of the collective -- precisely the trait that Benedict attributes to shame culture.

Early reactions to Chrysanthemum were closely connected to the postwar political situation of Japan’s defeat and the U.S. occupation. The ambivalence toward the foreign-induced democratization and social pressure for intellectuals publicly to oppose the prewar and wartime policy of the military government underpin the critiques -- both pro and con -- of Chrysanthemum. Postwar readers read the book as a guide or manual for Japan’s self-criticism and revision of its prewar and wartime militarism. While Benedict wrote Chrysanthemum in order to provide Americans with a better understanding of Japan, including the understanding required to better occupy Japan, the early Japanese readers read it as a guide to the near past, to the war. Criticized or welcomed, there is no doubt that Chrysanthemum was read -- as well as to some extent, written -- not simply as a study of culture but as a tool of political intervention.

This is not to say that Chrysanthemum has no academic value, as Watsuji emotionally declared. But it was a project in applied anthropology that served the specific needs of the war and the aftermath of the war. Although the bulk of research Benedict used for her data had been collected during the war, she actually wrote the book after the war. Hence, there was a different ethos in the reception of the book as compared to the wartime enemy morals studies in which Benedict and many other anthropologists in the U.S. had participated. These included Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who assisted the Office of War Information in trying to gain the upper hand in psychological warfare (see note 2). By the time Benedict published Chrysanthemum, the U. S. had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Japan’s defeat was complete. Sympathy for Japan and Japanese culture was a real possibility.

Benedict herself listened in tears to the news of the Japanese emperor’s radio broadcast announcing the defeat, and wrote to Robert Hashima, her research assistant: “I wish I knew how to say to Japan that no Western nation has ever shown such dignity and virtue in defeat and that history will honor her for the way she ended the war. . . . Now I hope and pray that America will play her part with restraint and dignity too; it will be difficult for many Americans because they are so different” (Hashima 1949: 69). Chrysanthemum provided an explanation for the defeat on the one hand and saved Japan’s face in starting over on the other. Blaming the war on the military or feudal legacy, the ruling class, or on the Japanese habit of dual behavior in group situations were all part of the process of rebuilding Japanese culture.

There have been a number of debates about Chrysanthemum since the postwar period, including some controversy over whether Benedict visited Japan or not, despite the clear statement of Benedict herself that this was not the case (Fukui and Ueda 1995). With the publication of recent biographies, the life of Ruth Benedict is attracting increasing attention in both Japan and the West.[6]

Of many controversies and debates over Ruth Benedict and Chrysanthemum, Douglas Lummis’s critical reading and reactions to it offer a point of departure in considering how Chrysanthemum and Benedict are approached in Japan from the 1980s onwards. By the 1980s, Japan’s long-lasting economic boom originating in the Korean War (1950-1953) had been consolidated, and the material life of ordinary Japanese had become remarkably affluent as compared to the postwar devastation. From 1964 to 1973, Japan’s economy grew by a yearly average of 10.1 per cent, as compared to the U.S.’s 4 per cent, Britain’s 3.1 per cent, France’s 5.4 per cent, and West Germany’s 4.7 per cent (Masamura 1982: 234). Its thriving cities and businesses gave rise to the globally-appreciated cult of “Japanese-style management.” Already from the 1970s, the literature on Japanese cultural uniqueness had become pervasive in Japanese writing, offering domestic readers a chance to indulge their sense of cultural superiority compared to others in the world who were suffering from poorly-growing economies and social and political chaos. Predictably, it was a time when the cultural traits Benedict offered in Chrysanthemum as evidence of Japanese uniqueness -- which had in part led to Japan’s defeat -- was turned around and re-endorsed as positive factors that brought Japan’s remarkable national economy out of the ashes.

Lummis, an American professor at Tsuda College for Women in Tokyo, published a full Japanese version of his critique (1981) and a shorter English version (1982). His major argument rests on two points: Ruth Benedict wrote Chrysanthemum as an obituary for a dead Japanese culture, and she wrote it as a work of political education. His first point stems from his interpretation of Benedict’s other life as a poet, whose main themes were death and the sorrow and beauty of death. Benedict lost her father early in childhood and thereafter, her mother forced her ritualistically to commemorate his death. She expressed her sorrow in hysterical crying whenever the bereaved family mourned his passing. Thanks to this commemoration, the young Ruth Benedict came to distinguish between the world of death as calm and beautiful and the world of the living as disturbed and ugly (Benedict 1959 [1935]). Based on the poems of Ann Singleton (Benedict’s pen name as a poet) -- poems that were by and large extremely cryptic but that often alluded to the serenity and beauty of death -- Lummis concludes that Benedict was fascinated by dying cultures, both those of the Native Americans in the southwest and of the war-torn Japanese. In Lummis’s view, the secret of Chrysanthemum’s success lies in Benedict’s writing it as an elegy to the disappearing past of the Japanese, who now faced the task of completely wiping away this past and building a brand-new culture -- namely, an American-style democracy.

This reading does not contradict the ways in which Kawashima and Ariga read Chrysanthemum. As has been shown, both scholars regarded the Japan depicted in Chrysanthemum as something that the Japanese had to do away with: Ariga with reservations and with a realistic estimation that despite the ideal of an individual-based democratic society, Japan’s kin-based hierarchy would persist; Kawashima with optimism that the disappearance of prewar oppressive Japanese culture would be an historic necessity that no force could stop, especially with the aid of the American occupation.

However, Lummis’s point is slightly different form these two. He argues that to declare the death of Japanese prewar culture is morally wrong. He sees Chrysanthemum as a book based entirely on the victor’s logic of cultural domination and neocolonial re-molding in its assumption that the only way for Japan to survive culturally would be to become like the U.S. According to Lummis:

The element in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword which has overpowered its critics is not its ‘scientific’ conclusions but its brilliant and unforgettable imagery, and the indispensable role which that imagery has played in the ideology of the post-war Japan—U.S. political relationship. . . .
This is the importance of defeat: defeat means being shamed in the eyes of the world, and that is something the Japanese can understand. Therefore only defeat can teach the Japanese to change their ways for the better. And “change for the better” of course means change to more closely resemble the U.S. (1982: 3-4)

Lummis emphasizes that what Ruth Benedict took to be Japanese culture was in fact state ideology. But whereas early critics blame the state and military as falsely representing Japan and claim that Benedict’s flaw was her naïve overgeneralization of Japanese culture based on ruling class ideology, Lummis charges Benedict with having consciously selected the state ideology, expressed to her through her Japanese-American informants, and presented it as if it were scientific data. Lummis understands more clearly than early critics that what might have originally been a state ideology was embodied and internalized by ordinary Japanese in general, and by Benedict’s informants in particular. For him, Benedict’s responsibility as a social scientist should have been to critique the ideological component of the native understanding of Japanese culture, revealing the mechanism by which the dominant ideology reflecting the interests of only a section of the society was successfully internalized by the majority and generalized as a national culture.

Lummis’s more pointed critique is that Benedict was not scientific enough or not scientific at all in her account of Japanese culture. He finds it odd that Chrysanthemum is read as an accurate account of Japanese culture, since it is ultimately a piece of political propaganda endorsing the American way of life and placing the Americans as superior to the Japanese. This does not mean that Lummis thinks Benedict was racist. On the contrary, he denies that. But what complicates his view is not what Benedict directly believed, which was explicitly anti-racist (see e.g. Benedict 1943, 1942a, 1942b, 1942c, and 1940), but rather the effect of Chrysanthemum, which was to teach “a new and subtle form of racism” (1982: 7).

I differ from Lummis in that I do not think Chrysanthemum presented Japanese culture as dead nor do I think that probing into the author’s true intention -- assuming such a thing can be done -- is a productive exercise. Contrary to what Lummis believes, I propose that Chrysanthemum helped give birth to Japan’s national culture. By uncovering the internal cultural logic that led Japan to the war and to its extremely destructive behavior in the war, Benedict presented a justification of Japan’s past as well as the probable future direction the country would take toward a new democratic (read “Americanized”). Contrary to Lummis, I do not believe that Chrysanthemum created a new form of racism by implying American superiority. The book actually created a sense of Japanese superiority over other cultures to its Japanese readers and critics. But Benedict cannot be directly held responsible for this, since this is the product of the Japanese consumers of Chrysanthemum. The problem lies elsewhere, as I hope to show in the final segment of this article.

I disagree with Lummis in his method of directly connecting Benedict’s biographical history with Chrysanthemum. Ruth Benedict may be the author of Chrysanthemum, but she also wrote such books as Race: Science and Politics (1940) and The Races of Mankind (1943, with G. Weltfish), the text that outraged white supremacists in the South, earning her the label “communist” and preventing her from obtaining a top-level security clearance at the Office of War Information (Lapsley 1999: 290-291). We must consider Chrysanthemum not in a simple and unproblematic connection to Benedict’s private life, personal character, proclivities, and taste, but also as a product of historically conditioned social relations and as a text that was and is read by both Americans and, above all, Japanese. What seems to me more interesting regarding Chrysanthemum is that regardless of what Benedict intended or might have intended, it has been read in certain -- sometimes quite contradictory -- ways in Japan, as can be seen in Lummis’s own experience of re-reading it, of which he says that “My own understanding of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword has gone through several stages” (1982: 7).

My third point about Lummis is related to his understanding of anthropology. Lummis seems to understand anthropology as a scientific -- objective -- account of culture, and opposes science to politics. Thus he classifies Chrysanthemum as a work of political literature and hence not “real” anthropology. This view is both out-of-focus and out-of-date, seen from the standpoint of today’s understanding of anthropology. Few socio-cultural anthropologists would call anthropology a purely objective science, while the majority would acknowledge that anthropology and especially the writing of ethnography are in good part political intervention. When Chrysanthemum was written, anthropology may have occupied a position in scientific disciplines, but today ethnography is read more as an interpretive text crafted by anthropologists within given socio-historical conditions and as a result of interaction with natives and informants (e.g. Clifford and Marcus 1986, Clifford 1988). Chrysanthemum itself is now read as an interpretive text, not as a scientific account of Japan; and there is an unresolved tension between Benedict’s literary endowments and her scientific aspirations to be objective and, perhaps, politically neutral (Geertz 1988).

Nonetheless, Lummis offers valuable insights concerning the Japanese reception of Chrysanthemum. He points out that the Pacific War was between two imperialist powers over the dominant position in the world, and not a war between “different cultures” or “ways of thinking” as depicted by Benedict (1982: 77). He clarifies that the political background to Chrysanthemum’s publication must not be forgotten, but this makes all the more curious his effort to explain the political nature of Chrysanthemum in terms of Ruth Benedict’s personal life.

Lummis’s reading was enthusiastically accepted by many Japanese readers, and was hailed as a critique of the American creation of Japanese stereotypes (Saito 1981, Muto 1981, Nishikawa 1994). But it was also strongly criticised. In his historical overview of Chrysanthemum and its critiques, Nishi Yoshiyuki disagrees with Lummis’s statement that Chrysanthemum “tends to make many Japanese uncomfortable or angry” (Lummis 1982: 5). He states instead that “it seems that there are hardly any Japanese who are displeased or made angry by The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (Nishi 1983: 15). He argues that Japanese readers are generally impressed with the book in multiple ways, while nonetheless amused over Benedict’s minor misunderstandings (1983: 16).

By the time Nishi published his book, the Japanese readers of Chrysanthemum were no longer members of a defeated country but were flexing their muscles as members of a nation that had risen from the debris of war and become one of the world’s most advanced industrialized societies. In Nishi’s view, therefore, such readers might be generously and knowingly amused at an American anthropologist who did not quite understand the qualities of Japanese life thirty-five years ago. For Nishi, Lummis’s reading reflects nothing more than Lummis’s own personal and political predicament:

I think Mr. Lummis belongs to the generation whose hopes for their homeland were destroyed by the Vietnam War. These people were disillusioned by the fact that their ideal of the American sacred war and American democracy had been betrayed; they thus turned against their own homeland. This does not mean they became communists. They are in a halfway house, so to speak. And when those people arm themselves theoretically with Marxism, their disease of U.S. denunciation becomes more serious. For them, the U.S. appears arrogant and detestable. They smell in Benedict, who was a cultural relativist, the arrogance of prioritizing the U.S.; their sense of smell ... has a pathological air. (1983: 131-132)

Nishi dismisses Lummis’s view of the Pacific War as an imperialist war by stating that such a view is obsolete and laughable. Nishi wonders if Lummis is a Marxist -- as if this were an important criterion through which to judge him as good or bad (1983: 155).

In Nishi’s view, Lummis’s critique of Chrysanthemum is pathological and political -- more political than Chrysanthemum itself -- mainly because he is still talking about imperialism (which, of course, the Japanese government has long forgotten). At first glance, Nishi’s critique appears to rest on what he sees as the overly politicized nature of Lummis’s criticism of Chrysanthemum. Instead, Nishi suggests that we read Chrysanthemum in its historical context, in which postwar Japanese readers were moved by its method of showing Japanese themselves what they really were like as seen through an American’s eyes. In Nishi’s view, politicalness is a stigma, as if Nishi himself were free from politics.

But of course Nishi’s stance is itself highly political. Why is it laughable to understand World War II as imperialist? Koreans did not fight Americans as Koreans, but as soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army, Japan’s imperial subjects, and the emperor’s children -- yet, many Koreans were executed as war criminals, while many Japanese top leaders, including the emperor himself, were pardoned by the Americans. Okinawans did not sacrifice their lives as free citizens, but as imperial subjects and for the protection of the mainland and the sacred emperor -- yet, Okinawa was offered to the American military after the war as part of the settlement between the imperialists, while the main islands of Japan flourished.

Attitudes like Nishi’s are symptomatic of the Japanese government’s amnesiac dismissal of colonial compensation. One wonders why Japanese readers such as Nishi were impressed by Chrysanthemum when reading it in the postwar years. Perhaps they found a ray of hope in a book that said that the Japanese had their own internal cultural logic that could be used for cultural reconstruction, while saying nothing about Japan’s colonialism, or its annexation of Taiwan and Korea, the Manchurian incident, the Nanjing massacre, the fifteen-year war with China, the invasion of southeast Asia, the forced labor mobilization of men and women from the colonies, including the army’s “comfort women,” and so on?

Nishi’s critique is echoed perhaps even in stronger terms by Pauline Kent, a Japan-based Australian scholar. From the outset, Kent is highly critical of Lummis, stating that “[i]n Japan, commentary on Benedict, fuelled by Lummis’ arguments, includes some outrageous suppositions” (Kent 1996: 34). Kent tries to disentangle what she sees as Lummis’s erroneous suppositions about Benedict. She emphasizes that Benedict was discussing the Japanese ethical system in order to explain Japanese behavior, therefore, Chrysanthemum should not be taken as “a fully comprehensive and fully guaranteed introduction to Japanese society as a whole” (1996: 47). In Kent’s view, it is unfair to blame Benedict for not having accounted for everything about Japan and every aspect of Japanese culture. But in my view -- as argued above -- Lummis’s point is different from this: he is questioning Benedict’s stance and not her lack of comprehensiveness.

Kent describes Chrysanthemum as follows: “the book, written for the American general public immediately after the Second World War led to a wider understanding of the Japanese as a people -- as opposed to a previous image of an exotic people or a fierce enemy which seemed to defy all understanding” (1996: 33). “Benedict had, during her time at OWI [Office of War Information], learnt the value of shunning propaganda for objective data and thus was also able to shun the ‘politically correct’ image of the day of the imbecile and inhuman Japanese. And yet, Lummis would have us believe that ‘what she creates ... is America’s natural enemy’ (Lummis, 1982: 64) because she arranges the facts to fit her purpose to finally produce a simplistic but ‘neat and orderly pattern of values’” (1996: 56). It is interesting to see that Kent holds Lummis responsible for this last point -- many others before Lummis, including Tsurumi had also criticized Benedict for the selectiveness of her data. No doubt Chrysanthemum rendered Japanese more humane. But Chrysanthemum did other things, too. It covers up Japan’s wartime and colonial responsibilities to its Asian subordinates and fails to explain Japan’s historical position with reference to international political economy. These are important historical omissions.

What is common in Nishi’s and Kent’s criticism is that they blame Lummis for misleading the readers of. According to Nishi, Lummis is waging his own anti-American ideological struggle by using Benedict as scapegoat, while Kent criticizes Lummis for not crediting Benedict with having humanized the Japanese within the context of World War II. Nishi appears to fight his own political struggle by dismissing Lummis as pathological, and Kent seems oblivious to the fact that Chrysanthemum was published not during World War II, but after the war, after the Japanese devastation was complete and America was in the position of shaping Japan into its Cold War ally. Both Nishi and Kent take it for granted that Benedict did a good thing, and take the tone of salvaging Benedict from abusive misunderstandings. This itself is a form of ideological consumption of Chrysanthemum.

In a brief but masterful review and critique of the historical consequences of Chrysanthemum, Jennifer Robertson points out that Benedict “collapsed past and present, and fused shreds and patches of data in formulating a unique and timeless janusian core ... that was the Japanese cultural personality” (1995: 304). According to her, “Benedict made getting to know Japan look too easy, and the Japan she profiled seemed all too knowable: once inscrutable, the Japanese were suddenly crystal clear” (1998: 302). Robertson suggests that western anthropological approaches to this “knowable” Japan took the method first of focusing on internal contradictions, paradoxes, and conceptual opposites found in Japanese culture, and second, in contrasting these opposites with the U.S. The conceptual properties Benedict proposed as the key to Japanese culture, including on, giri, and shame thus became the primary loci for anthropologists and other scholars to work and re-work in interpreting Japan (e.g. Lebra 1969, Kawashima 1951). In this process, the key concepts that Benedict offered as descriptive tools are converted into explanations of Japanese culture.

What needs to be emphasized here is that the way Japanese culture is studied has taken a distinctly “national” approach, i.e., nationally stereotyping all Japanese, while ignoring Japan’s own diversity as well as its colonial empire. In that approach, the Benedictian paradigm is firmly preserved in Japanese studies in general and in the anthropology of Japan in particular. This leads me to the most critical point of this article: by “nationalizing” studies of Japan and forgetting about Japan’s empire, many Japanese nationalist scholars avoid discussing Japan’s postwar neglect of its former colonies and its moral obligation, if any, to the peoples it once victimized. Chrysanthemum thus becomes the first of a long list of postwar cultural discourses on Japan, including those that climaxed in the Nihonjinron literature of the 1970s and 1980s, that omits treatment of Japan’s external behavior elsewhere in Asia.

The Japanese government to this day has not properly compensated the former colonial subjects, including the wartime military “comfort women.” Indeed, after half-a-century, new forms of discourse justifying the evasion of postwar responsibilities -- different from a simple amnesia -- are emerging, including the right-wing trend that is loosely clustered around organizations such as Jiyushugi shikan kenkyukai and Atarashii rekishi kyokasho o tsukurukai (roughly translated as the Study Group for Historical Liberalism and the Association for the Making of New History Textbooks, respectively). These organizations attract so-called bunkajin or cultural personnel of varying degrees of visibility in Japan’s public arena. They all maintain that the dispute over war responsibilities is finished, and they emphasize how Japan also suffered in the war – viz. Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- and that the demand for reparation by former military “comfort women” is motivated by material greed.

Needless to say, the above trends need to be contrasted with conscientious historians such as the late Ienaga Saburo, who fought against the distortion of the history of Japan’s war crimes by the Ministry of Education’s systematic engineering of school textbooks. The manifestations of what might be called “the new right” are also different from the more blatant right-wingers who call for the revival of militarism, recovery of the empire (including Sakhalin and the northern territories that Japan lost to the Soviet Union after the war), and a return to “primordial Japan.” The ”new right” ideology comes in the guise of progressivism, forward-looking discourse, and user-friendly presentations, with the publicly expressed support of TV celebrities and comic-book writers. They aim at a broad mass appeal, unlike sectarian ultrarmilitarism, and herein lies a more serious danger of Japan’s turn to the right.

Benedict’s failure to expand her discussion toward the historical processes of empire-building rather than just probing into the inherent Japanese national character, has a certain bearing on today’s reality. I am not blaming Benedict personally, but it is her text, its historical role and popularity, and more importantly, its reception that matter here. It is significant that Benedict completely overlooked Japan’s need to deal with its former colonies and the people whom it forced to serve its empire and then left with little or no reparation. This is even more significant in light of the fact that Japan became the U.S.’s ally in the Cold War in Asia, a setting in which its cooperation with the U.S. became more important than reparations to its former colonies. Although these developments happened after Benedict’s death (in 1948), it is undeniable that Chrysanthemum heralded the age of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

In the historical context of the U.S. military occupation of Japan, issues of Japan’s war responsibility and postwar reconstruction were reduced to a dialogue between Japan and the U.S. The rest -- the Asian peoples Japan had colonized or subjugated -- did not contribute. The inward-looking self-inquiry of Nihonjinron, analyzing “the Japanese and their uniqueness,” that dominated Japan discourse in the l970s was a byproduct of such postwar lay and intellectual patterns of discussion (Dale 1986 and Mouer and Sugimoto 1986 for a critique). In this process, marginal people inside and outside Japan, including Koreans, Chinese, Ainu, Okinawans, the economically dispossessed (the homeless, day laborers, etc.), the socially disenfranchised (the disabled, women who did not fit the standard middle-class norms, the elderly, etc.) have been systematically silenced.[7] Of course, I do not suggest that Chrysanthemum alone created this situation. But I do suggest that Chrysanthemum, with its graceful prose and clear-cut reductionism in portraying Japan as a homogeneous nation with a unique culture, played a key role in its creation.

A Korean critic in Japan, Suh Kyung Sik, notes that new forms of racism justifying the war are evident among Japanese college students today and adds, appropriately in my view, that: “Japanese who do not belong to the wartime generation may not possess consciousness of guilt, but at least they must take the responsibility to go beyond ‘shame’” (Suh 1997: 192). Indeed, it is another paradox of Japanese society that the conventional understanding that Japanese are shame-oriented is blatantly contradicted by the Japanese state’s ongoing refusal to grant citizenship and/or voting rights to former colonial subjects who continue to live in Japan. Whether Benedict intended this ugly reality or not is irrelevant, for the situation transcends the intention of any one author. Chrysanthemum is a text produced within the field of historically-conditioned power relations between the U.S. and Japan. The postwar military occupation helped to create the amnesia of Japan’s former colonial oppression and aggression in Asia, while imposing on Japan the American logic of the Cold War and its power games.

Clifford Geertz suggests that we read Benedict together with Jonathan Swift rather than Margaret Mead (1988). I would like to suggest that, in addition to Swift, we read Benedict along with Frantz Fanon, Primo Lévi, Jean Améry, and many others whose writings would bring our understanding one step closer to the pain of the colonized, persecuted, oppressed, and exterminated. Then -- and only then -- can Chrysanthemum become a text that speaks to humanity at large rather than just a graceful license for self-obsession and self-consolation bestowed by the victor on the vanquished.

SONIA RYANG was born in Japan to Korean parents. She received a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University and is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Her works include Japan and National Anthropology: A Critique (Routledge, 2004); North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology, and Identity (Westview, 1997); and, as editor, Koreans in Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin (Routledge, 2000). This article appeared in a somewhat different form in Asian Anthropology vol. 1 (2002), pp. 87-116, and is reprinted here in a revised version thanks to the permission of the editors, Dr. Gordon Mathews and Dr. Tan Chee-Beng.

The author would like to thank the following: Professor Mark Selden for criticism and suggestions about an early version of this article; students in “Ruth Benedict: Life and Work,” a course offered in the Fall of 2001 at Johns Hopkins University; my teaching assistant Hussein Agrama; Professor Sidney Mintz, one of whose teachers at Columbia was Benedict, who gave me valuable insights into her work; the anonymous reviewers for Asian Anthropology for their comments; and Professor Gordon Mathews for his help in improving the text.
E-mail: sonia.ryang@jhu.edu.

1. Japanese names are listed according to Japanese custom, i.e., with the surname first, except those whose publications appear in the English language with their names cited following the western convention, i.e., the surname last. All translations of Japanese texts quoted in the article are mine. Return to text

2. Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, first published in 1946, was the product of her involvement with the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II. It was Geoffrey Gorer who was responsible for involving Benedict in the work of the OWI: when Gorer, a British citizen who was working in the OWI, moved to the British Embassy, he suggested Benedict as his replacement. In the OWI, Benedict wrote a short piece analyzing Japanese films (Benedict 1944) and another short study, “Japanese Behavior Patterns” (Benedict 1945). It is fair to assume that both provided inputs for Chrysanthemum. Gorer was a British anthropologist specializing in national character. His influential thesis on Japanese national character proposed that the aggressiveness Japanese soldiers displayed during the war could be traced back to their strict toilet training during infancy (Gorer 1942, 1943). Neither Gorer nor Benedict spoke, read, or wrote Japanese. Return to text

3. The coinage of shame culture came as much from later re-readings of the book by Japanese scholars as from Chrysanthemum itself. As with other traits of Japanese culture presented in the book, such as hierarchy and obligation that had at first been accepted as negative in the postwar period and then later re-interpreted, shame culture also was later understood as a positive trait of Japanese culture, especially against the historical background of Japan’s postwar economic recovery. Pauline Kent suggests that Benedict never intended to portray Japanese culture primarily as a shame culture (Kent 1994, 1999). In my view, whether Benedict truly intended it or not is of less concern than how shame culture became, over fifty years, so important in the Japanese reading of Benedict and in Japanese self perceptions. For further discussion, see Sakuta (1967), Hamaguchi (1982), Saeki (1984), Creighton (1990), Soeda (1993), Shimada (1994), and Yoshizaki (1995). Return to text

4. Watsuji’s Fudo (Climate, 1979 [1935]; in English, Watsuji 1961) is seen by some as the origin of Nihonjinron in the postwar period. Nihonjinron is the vast body of literature that explores Japanese cultural uniqueness. Very similar to Benedict’s Patterns of Culture in approach (Benedict 1934), Watsuji’s book explores Japanese and other cultures through classification with reference to climactic adaptation types, including the monsoon type, typhoon type, desert type, pastoral type, and so forth. Return to text

5. It is interesting to note that one of the Japanese reactions to the shock of defeat in World War II was compensatory identification with the victor -- i.e., the Americans (Kitahara 1984). Return to text

6. Perhaps no other anthropologists have had so many biographies written about them as Benedict. In addition to Margaret Mead’s two books on Benedict’s life (1959, 1974), which are more collections of Benedict’s papers than original studies, Modell (1983), Caffrey (1989), and Lapsley (1999) wrote biographies of Benedict. They are all idiosyncratic in approach. Modell’s is more of a eulogy of Benedict’s life (see Stocking (1983), Kuklick (1984), Barnouw (1984), Langness (1984), Handler (1984), for reviews; see also Babcock’s (1986) critique). Caffrey suggests Benedict was a feminist and modernist (see Landman (1991), Glazer (1990), Clairmont (1990); see Babcock’s (1990) critique of Caffrey’s depiction). Lapsley, perhaps her best biographer, places emphasis on Benedict’s lesbian identity. Return to text

7. Within hours of the TV reports of Prime Minister Koizumi’s first visit to North Korea in 2002 and the sensational revelations of the kidnapping of innocent Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, Korean schools, community organization offices, and families began to receive anonymous phone calls from presumably Japanese individuals threatening to kill their children, harm them, or evict from Japan. This new rage against Koreans is directed rather indiscriminately against all Koreans in Japan, without distinguishing whether they support North or South Korea. The stark division of Koreans in Japan between the supporters of the North and the South is today becoming increasingly obsolete. See Ryang (2003). Return to text

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