An anthropologist’s tale of pre-WWII Japan

September 5, 2007

Over the past month, I’ve gotten on a non-fiction, “I want to learn things again” kick. My interest was piqued when I got in a discussion about the way losing sides have to interpret their own history differently than the winning sides, though the winning sides often don’t see the point. The discussion was centered on the US Civil War, Northern vs. Southern perspectives, but then I got started thinking of further examples, and an hour or two later, I had an entire list of books. I just finished two about Japan in the wake of WWII. I had too much to say about them, so I’ve broken their reviews into two separate posts.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by Ruth Benedict, was the first one I read. It was a very interesting place to start. Benedict was an anthropologists¬†assigned to learn about and interpret Japanese culture and behavior for the US government during WWII, starting in 1944. Because the war was actually going on, she couldn’t exactly travel there and interview people. So instead, she relied heavily on any and all books she could find, including a lot of fascinating memoirs from the recent past, and on interviewing Japanese immigrants who were being held in internment camps. (Not that she ever mentions that’s where they were when she interviewed them, but her acknowledgements at the beginning of the book were more up front about it.)

Even given those conditions, though, what she managed to produce was an amazingly insightful work. What’s more, given the circumstances in which she was engaged to do the work, she produced an extremely understanding, dispassionately compassionate look into Japanese culture. She maintains the role of a cultural translator, interpreting what she saw and learned, tailored to explain to others from a non-Japanese background, but not to explicitly contrast and pass judgement through comparison. I suppose it shouldn’t be amazing to think that she managed to actually act as an anthropologist should, but given the pervasive attitude of hatred toward and fear of all things Japanese at the time, and the sheer amount of anti-Japanese propaganda to work against, it is.

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