An anthropologist’s tale of pre-WWII Japan

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.

In light of the book I read after this one, which I’ll review tomorrow, it was very interesting to see that Benedict fit in very well with the post-surrender Americans who went to administer the occupation forces in Japan. She was one of a new wave of Japan experts, who had no knowledge of Japan prior to the war. In many ways, this allowed her to come to the project with no preconceptions or past experiences in Japan to shape her thoughts, and this comes through in the way she explains to the reader everything she herself had learned about Japanese culture. It’s almost like the reader is getting to discover things with her.

Another interesting thing about this book, though, is that it really concentrates on what Japan was like, culturally speaking, before the war. So many books, and so much current thought, concentrate on Japan since then, with its miraculous economic bubble, or on much older Japanese history, with the mystique of samurai culture and feudalism. This book is like a snapshot of culture, as it stood in 1946.

Amongst other things, she explains the relationship between the people and the emperor; relationships between men and women; relationships of family structure; different kinds of respect; feelings of obligation, and how this influences doing favors; cultural feelings of guilt vs. shame, and how they influence behavior; childrearing practices and the lessons taught to children early in life; the ideas behind avenging one’s honor and the fascination with ancient samurai tales; levels of self-discipline; and the apparently situational nature of much of Japanese behavior.

Some of the observations may now seem doubtful or no longer true, certainly, but it is a fascinating work for just being what it is. A final chapter in the book looks at how the society was already changing in the very early stages of the occupation. (It was particularly interesting to read a first-hand American opinion of Gen. MacArthur.) Unfortunately, Benedict died in 1948, so she never had a chance to revisit her conclusions or highlight the changes she saw in the post-occupation culture, which I found I desperately wanted to hear about after finishing the book.

Regardless of how true her observations are in modern day Japanese culture, I thought it was still interesting to read the book to get a better idea of where the modern day people are coming from. Even though the author of the forward points out that “[l]oyalty to the Emperor, duty to one’s parents, terror of not repaying one’s moral debts, these have faded in the age of technology-driven self-absorption,” the book’s explanations of those pre-war and wartime attitudes help reveal the underpinnings of current customs that don’t always seem readily explicable to foreigners in Japan today. Understanding post-war Japan has to involve understanding pre-war Japan, because, to me at least, history and culture are inextricably linked. This book gives us an excellent window into that past.

-posted by Dana


3 Responses to An anthropologist’s tale of pre-WWII Japan

  1. TheGnat says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed Benedict’s book, although I remember when we *weren’t* assigned it in my Japanese anthropology class in Japan. The attitude was “this is one of the only complete works on this topic, but we think it’s not really accurate enough for this class or research purposes”. It is, still, a pretty good book.

    I think the author of forward is pretty jaded though. Was s/he a foreigner? I’ve found that there are two attitudes among academic Japanophiles – adoration or vicious cynicism. The quote strikes me as coming from the latter side. Which isn’t to say what s/he is saying isn’t true, just that it’s not quite as negative as s/he seems to indicate. (Why is it “self-absorption” in Japan, and “individualism” in the States? And considering most of the young people I knew there were obsessed with good grades to please and support their parents…)

    You might like to read “Botchan”, which is set around 1900ish Japan, and describes the life of a ne’er-do-well school teacher from his childhood till his early 20s. It’s a short classic of Japanese literature by Natsume Soseki. ^^

  2. Dana says:


    I actually had a similar response to the end of the forwarder’s statement, about the empty self-absorption, etc, but it would have taken me off on a tangent to get into it, so I just kept going with where I was actually taking my point. The rest of what he wrote was actually pretty positive, so that sentence was kind of surprising. I mean, yeah, some of those attitudes aren’t as strong as they were in the past, but to say that’s because the culture has become decadent? And honestly, maybe he’s just spent too much time in Japan, so he’s forgotten what it was like when he first went there, but for foreigners who haven’t spent years there, or years and years studying the culture academically, those attitudes do seem pretty clear. The emperor still makes the news when he plants the ceremonial rice; they had a huge controversy over whether they should allow a female heir to the throne; people definitely still worry about fulfilling obligations (presents for everyone in the office after every trip, etc.); and so on and so forth. I’m not really sure what his issue is.

    I can kind of see why they wouldn’t assign this book for your class, if they wanted you to focus on modern Japan, or alternatively, on ancient Japan, because it is so time-period-specific. But I’m glad you read it anyway!

    I will look for Botchan. I’m always looking for more books.

  3. […] the Japanese perspective after WWII picked up almost exactly where Benedict’s left off, (see yesterday’s post,) in the post-war occupation period: Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, by John […]

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