Daigaku Z: Ex Benedict

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Ask any anthropologist what the most influential 20th century American work on Japanese culture is, and you’re likely to get the same answer. Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture is widely considered to be just that book, by Anglophones and Japanese scholars alike. However, if you ask those same anthropologists and Japanese scholars what the best work on Japanese culture is, Benedict’s book doesn’t even make the list. This is primarily because The Sword and the Chrysanthemum is awful beyond the capacity for measure. The two assertions are not contradictory.

Published in 1947, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was commissioned by the United States military shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in order to better understand the motivations behind the out-of-the-blue attack. Benedict sought to understand the general cultural motifs present in everyday Japanese society of the time, believing that an understanding of the society would naturally lead to an understanding of the military mind. In the end, of course, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the War in the Pacific, and drastically altered the way Japanese society would be ordered and would function forevermore. In a sense, the book was obsolesced by its own first customers, as the American occupation of Japan instituted sweeping reforms in government and other aspects of life. However, the book was still published in the immediate post-war era, possibly as a way to reassure Americans that they had little to fear from a defeated and now inexplicably-genial Japan.

Admittedly, with almost sixty years of hindsight, the book now appears to be unabashedly racist and xenophobic, in much the same way that Bugs Bunny punching out a caricature of Hideki Tojo to hawk war bonds is embarrassingly cringe-inducing. But even taking the book as a product of its time, Benedict’s work appears to be more about the American perception of the Japanese than it is about the Japanese people themselves. There is, of course, a very good reason for this: Benedict didn’t speak a word of Japanese. She never visited Japan. The majority of her sources were either Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps, Japanese prisoners of war, or films and other media taken from before the conflict. Benedict extrapolated huge swaths of “societal behavior” from the customs and idiosyncrasies of a handful of individuals, not separating herself from the perfidious seed of thought that turns benign commonalities into racist stereotypes. Basically, imagine if the only thing you knew about Japan came from unsubtitled episodes of Dragon Ball Z that you forced someone to translate for you, and you then went on to assume that all of the men in the country acted like Goku and all of the women like Bulma.

So, by and large, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is a load of baloney. Where the story takes a sharp turn into Bizarro World is the fact that the book became a best-seller in Japan. A book which paints the Japanese people and their culture with much the same brush as contemporary depictions of “Darkest Africa” (i.e. not portrayed very well at all) was well-received in the land which it was smearing. In point of fact, the book is widely considered the originator of what would become a non-fiction genre in and of itself within Japan, called nihonjinron. Japanese scholars took Benedict’s book at face value, and began writing similar works in a spirit of self-criticism and cultural introspection. Nihonjinron as a genre is not just an analysis of Japanese culture, it’s an attempt to create a continuity of such.

When scholars describe Japanese culture and society as being “synthetic”, the word should be stripped of its connotations denoting artificiality or being somehow non-genuine. In this case, we use the word as the perfective tense of “to synthesize”, meaning that it has been assembled from parts taken from around the world. Things that we as otaku think of as intrinsic to Japan are more often than not remnants of a past instance of cultural appropriation. For example, when the subject of Japanese schooling comes up, we think almost immediately of uniforms, which were added to the Japanese educational system during the Meiji Restoration as part and parcel of adopting the Austro-Germanic model. The way I like to think of it is that if the United States is considered a “melting pot” of people, Japan is considered a “melting pot of ideas”.

A common theme to nihonjinron is a self-abasing, almost reactionary tone in their depiction of the Japanese culture quirk in question as being, at most generous, out of sync with the rest of the world. The works tend to act as sort of a devil’s advocate, wherein the writer must defend the aspect of culture and provide some sort of justification for why things are done in that particular way, and therefore why it’s not really a change in the culture so much as it is a perfection of it. To take another angle on the matter, they could be considered like patch notes for the culture; they explain how things were before, what problems this caused, and how it should be done in the future. In this way, Japanese society’s act of synthesis is a constant, gradual evolution, like the ocean eroding a boulder over millennia of lapping at the shore. Day by day you don’t notice a change, but skip ahead a few decades and you might not recognize it as the same thing at all.

That is the real reason why Benedict’s awful book is still taught. Its jarring dissonance most eloquently illustrates the fundamental truth of– in addition to Japanese culture– human socialization as a whole: the only constant is that there are no constants. We are all in a state of constant inconstancy, and we must recognize that, if we are to understand not just each other, but ourselves.