The Chrysanthemum and the Sword — Ruth Benedict

A staple of Japanese history, BENEDICT’s book explores the Japanese psyche in a world that had recently been ravaged by the country’s baffling conquest in the pacific.

First published in 1946, the book is an anthropological study of the Japanese. It was written during the war when BENEDICT was employed by the American government to work out what their enemy was thinking.

It is full of fascinating insights but it does drag on a little.

Japan’s motto is: Everything in its place.

The overriding message, as above, was fascinating. BENEDICT tells amazing stories of the way that Japanese soldiers, when captured, often became model prisoners and even helped America out by pointing out secret weapons caches of the Japanese army.

And stuff like this which explains the crying action that my friend Ken does whenever you do something for him:

Even the offer of a cigarette from a person with whom a man has previously had no ties makes him uncomfortable and the polite way for him to express thanks is to say: ‘Oh, this poisonous feeling (kino doku).’ ‘It’s easier to bear,’ a Japanese said to me, ‘if you come right out and acknowledge how bad it makes you feel. You had never thought of doing anything for him and so you are shamed by receiving the on.’ ‘Kino doku’ therefore is translated sometimes as ‘Thank you,’ i.e., for the cigarettes, sometimes as ‘I’m sorry,’ i.e., for the indebtedness, sometimes as ‘I feel like a heel,’ i.e., because you beat me to this act of generosity. It means all of these and none.

Despite all our differences, this is a parallel:

These old tales of times when giri was from the heart and had no taint of resentment are modern Japan’s daydream of a golden age.

This sounds, frankly, idyllic:

The mother lays the baby on its bed whenever she is working and carries it with her wherever she goes on the streets. She talks to it. She hums to it. She puts it through the etiquette motions. If she returns a greeting herself, she moves the baby’s head and shoulders forward so that it too makes salutation. The baby is always counted in. Every afternoon she takes it with her into the hot bath and plays with it as she holds it on her knees.

I wish that I could see the world in simple pleasures, in small joys:

The Japanese have always been famous for the pleasure they get from innocent things: viewing the cherry blossoms, the moon, chrysanthemums, or new fallen snow; keeping insects caged in the house for their ‘song’; writing little verses; making gardens; arranging flowers, and drinking ceremonial tea. These are not activities of a deeply troubled and aggressive people. They do not take their pleasures sadly either. A Japanese rural community, in those happier days before Japan embarked on its disastrous Mission, could be in its leisure time as cheerful and sanguine as any living people. In its hours of work it could be as diligent.