Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: classic cultural analysis

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, for the next four years, the Western Allies were at war with an enemy who engaged in suicidal tactics and often refused to be taken prisoner.

Commissioned to examine the nature of Japanese culture, anthropologist Ruth Benedict—through wide reading and extensive interviewing of Japanese-Americans and Japanese POWs (why there were so few of the latter was one of the cultural puzzles American officials were interested in)—produced her classic study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture

Her discussion (Pp77-97) of the Japanese insistence on hierarchy—basic to the culture such that Japan’s war was legitimate because it was seeking its proper place in the hierarchy of nations—and celebration of the power of the will over the weak materialism of the West, has a particularly familiar ring to it.
It is hard to read the book without making comparisons with Iraq. Benedict clearly thoroughly approved of General Douglas Macarthur’s approach as head of the occupation (remembering the book was published in 1946, so was written very early in his tenure). She particularly approved the decision to govern through Japanese state institutions. She clearly judged the approach, from the treatment of Hirohito on down, to be well-calibrated to deal productively with the Japanese. Of course, she had been originally hired to help the US authorities understand and deal effectively with the Japanese, so there was clearly a we want to understand mindset. While Iraq is a much more divided society, with much more corrupted state institutions and a less adaptable set of cultures (Benedict is very informative on the nature of Japanese pragmatism), so was a much harder case generally, the comparison is still fairly sad. (If you come across as more arrogant than Douglas Macarthur, you have a real problem.)

Others have also been making the comparison between Iraq and Japan.

Benedict was at pains to point out how different Japanese culture is to Chinese and other mainland Asian cultures. Japanese culture is concerned with immediate family, entirely lacking the extended clan networks of Chinese culture. Japanese sensitivity to personal reputation is much higher than in mainland cultures. The traditional Japanese concepts of obligation are quite different from Chinese notions. The first two points make Japanese culture much more like Western cultures than other Asian cultures. Even the last, though quite distinctive, obviously developed in the context of competing power centres.

Benedict was also at pains to point out how different Japanese culture is to (American) culture. Such as in the life-time trajectory of freedom and obligation (from social freedom to increasing obligation back to freedom). In its eschewing of moral absolutes (which, she argues, makes acceptance of defeat and the need to do things differently now, easier).

Benedict is particularly perceptive in the way she only touches briefly on bushido. Apart from its use as part of militarist ideology in the period ending in 1945, it played much the same role in Japanese culture as chivalry does in Western culture. (And even the militarist role of bushido was not without Western analogues for the use of chivalry.)

Benedict correctly predicted that a Japan freed from spending 50% of its GDP on Army and Navy would be able to achieve a strong economic revival (p.314). Her common sense on this point is also reassuring. Perhaps in no area has more guff about Japanese culture been written than its alleged influence on economic performance. Japan had private property, markets, rule of law, basically sound institutions (which had something of a “going over” during the American occupation), stopped spending up to half its GDP on the Navy and Army and a national consensus in favour of economic development. Given minimally sensible public policy, its strong and sustained economic growth performance up until 1973 is hardly surprising. It was precisely the attempts to see something “special” in Japan’s postwar economic performance that looked so silly after the bubble economy collapsed at the end of the 1980s. The factors folk tended to cite to “explain” Japan’s economic performance presided over a massive (up to 50%) collapse in Japan’s net national wealth followed by sustained economic stagnation that has only recently showed any signs of coming to an end—Japan had the most bureaucratically managed financial markets in the Western world: it also had the most corrupt (many of the big international financial scandals centred on the Japanse financial market) and poorly run financial markets in the Western world; not exactly a coincidence. (Indeed, Botswana has showed a higher rate of per capita economic growth overall since 1960.)

But, leaving aside my longstanding annoyance over Japan-boosting, the above only touches some of the depth and range of Benedict’s analysis.

Benedict’s methodology was to read all the available written material (from the footnotes, particularly memoirs) and then rigorously interview as many Japanese (both PoWs and Japanese-Americans) as she could. (The foreword notes that many of her subjects found it quite a confronting process as Benedict delved into the details of their feelings and experience.) It was clearly a very effective approach. The book is 60 years old now, but it is still a revealing read and classic cultural anthropology. It is particularly remarkable for what is essentially a product of war.

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