When the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict was asked to write a report on Japan in the spring of 1945 for the American Office of War Information, she was working under difficult conditions. She had never been to Japan and had no chance of going there during wartime. She did her ”field research” among Japanese-Americans living in the United States and wrote Report 25, titled ”Japanese Behavior Patterns,” in just three months between May and August, shortly before the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Enlarged and published as a book immediately after the war, in 1946, ”The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” was an instant best seller and went on to become a classic of Japanese cultural studies.
But most importantly, her government work ended up becoming the bible of American troops who undertook the occupation of Japan.
The choice to rely so heavily on cultural anthropologists in the rebuilding of a defeated enemy has particular resonance now as the United States struggles to rebuild a stable and viable Iraq, a country that, like Japan, is seen as both impossibly foreign and forbidding.
Indeed, at the end of World War II, Japanese militarism was in many ways a far more frightening and incomprehensible phenomenon for most Americans than Islamic fundamentalism is today. Kamikaze pilots were like today’s suicide bombers, symbols of a fanatical culture with no appreciation for the individual.
Many experts insisted that there were deep, unchanging aspects of Japanese culture that made it constitutionally unfit for Western-style democracy. Emperor worship — the veneration of a human being as a divinity — was even more incomprehensible than monotheistic Islam, even of the fundamentalist variety. The hierarchical nature of Japanese society, many experts concluded, made it uniquely unsuited to democratic institutions. In an article in The New York Times Magazine in 1941, Nathaniel Peffer called authoritarianism a ”principle of nature” for the Japanese. ”There are those who command,” he wrote. ”Others obey.”
Perhaps surprisingly, American policy makers, facing global responsibilities for the first time, went beyond such conventional thinking to understand the cultures of the countries they were fighting as well as those they might need to occupy during and after the conflict. The United States, which did not even have a foreign intelligence service before the war, hired numerous professors, scholars and intellectuals of varying backgrounds to prepare reports to help them understand Germany, including Herbert Marcuse, (even though he was a well-known Marxist philosopher), the psychologist Erik Erikson, the great German art historian Richard Krautheimer and the anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Benedict, who left Columbia University temporarily in June 1943 to work for the Office of War Information’s foreign morale analysis division, wrote reports on cultures as different as Romania and Thailand.
With considerable sensitivity, she managed both to stress the differences in Japanese society of which American policy makers needed to be aware and to debunk the stereotype of the Japanese as hopelessly rigid and incapable of change.
Using the tools of anthropology, she pointed out that Japan, as a classic example of a society based on ”honor” and ”shame,” was actually quite adaptable. If anything, she said, ”guilt” cultures, like those of the United States and most Protestant countries, which believe in an absolute standard of good and evil, were in some ways harder to change. Shame cultures, by contrast, respond to externally imposed standards of honorable or shameful behavior: change the standards, she said, and the behavior will change.
Thus, Benedict argued, it was possible to change Japan by working within the norms of its traditional culture rather than by trying to destroy it.
In another memo Benedict wrote for the government, ”What Shall Be Done About the Emperor,” she countered those who argued that the only way to change Japan would be to eliminate the institution of the emperor.
”Veneration of the Imperial House is a strict religious tenet of Japan and, however much it offends nations which espouse other tenets, it commands the deep loyalty of the Japanese,” she wrote. ”Every job to be done in rehabilitation will be less difficult according to the degree to which it has the sanction of the Emperor behind it, and more difficult in proportion to our requirements that he be eliminated.”
Benedict noted that the Japanese were remarkably flexible in their use of the imperial system. Emperors were removed to suit changing times and the emperor’s closest aides assassinated in order to effect changes in policy.
”We must also recognize that another incumbent can, without violence to Japanese practice, be substituted for the present Emperor if desired,” she wrote. ”In propaganda we need only to apply the traditional Japanese clichés the militarists have ‘betrayed the Emperor,’ they have not ‘eased the mind of the Emperor’ — in short, they have failed, and in Japan what fails is by definition not the will of the Emperor.”
The symbolic power of the emperor, she said, ”is not in itself synonymous with conquest and concentration camps as the regime of Hitler was in Germany.” The duty of Japanese subjects toward their emperor, she continued, ”could be just as consistent with a world at peace as with a war-torn world, or it could be sloughed off in time as Japan’s social objectives change.”
When the Japanese government, led by Emperor Hirohito himself, accepted the norms of democracy and renounced militarism, the Japanese people adopted democratic and pacific behavior as honorable and virtuous and their opposites as shameful.
At the heart of Benedict’s argument was an idea about religions that echoes what some of today’s experts on the Islamic world have been saying: ”Religions change their role inevitably with changed conditions, but they cannot be changed on demand from outside without the gravest consequences.”
Perhaps the most impressive measure of Benedict’s work has been its consistent success in Japan itself, as Pauline Kent, an Australian professor of sociology at Ryukoku University in Japan, recounts in a 1999 journal article in Dialectical Anthropology about Japanese perceptions of the book. According to Ms. Kent, Benedict’s book has sold an astounding 2.3 million copies in Japan since its translation. She notes that a public opinion survey in 1987 found that over one-third of Japanese had either heard of ”The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” or of Ruth Benedict.
”Although some have criticized it as offering some over-broad generalizations about Japan, and it has been superseded by more up-to-date and scientific studies,” she wrote, ” ‘Chrysanthemum’ gave a fresh, innovative, unprejudiced external reading of Japanese culture that revolutionized understanding of Japan not just in the West but in Japan itself. Many of its insights are still the starting point for many discussions of the inner workings of Japanese society.”
As the occupation of Iraq appears more complex by the day, where are the new Ruth Benedicts, authoritative voices who will carry weight with both Iraqis and Americans?
– July 19, 2003
Published at The New York Times