Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Ruth Benedict ( 1887-1948) was one of the leading American anthropologists of the first half of the twentieth century. After graduating from Vassar College ( 1909), Benedict studied at the New School for Social Research, then at Columbia University. At Columbia, she studied with Franz Boas and received her Ph.D. in 1923. She was elected president of the American Anthropological Association in 1947. During World War II, Benedict served in the Office of War Information (from 1943 to 1945); in this period, she wrote her study of Japanese culture. In addition to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword ( 1946), her best-known book was Patterns of Culture ( 1936). The selection from her study of Japanese culture captures Benedict's desire to disabuse American readers of their naivete and also to present Japanese culture as filled with rich, and striking, contradictions, as the book's title suggests.


The Japanese and the Americans

Ruth Benedict ( 1946)

The Japanese were the most alien enemy the United States had ever fought in an allout struggle. In no other war with a major foe had it been necessary to take into account such exceedingly different habits of acting and thinking. Like Czarist Russia before us in 1905, we were fighting a nation fully armed and trained which did not belong to the Western cultural tradition. Conventions of war which Western nations had come to accept as facts of human nature obviously did not exist for the Japanese. It made the war in the Pacific more than a series of landings on island beaches, more than an unsurpassed problem of logistics. It made it a major problem in the nature of the enemy. We had to understand their behavior in order to cope with it.

The difficulties were great. During the past seventy-five years since Japan's closed doors were opened, the Japanese have been described in the most fantastic series of 'but also's' ever used for any nation of the world. When a serious observer is writing about peoples other than the Japanese and says they are unprecedentedly polite, he is not likely to add, 'But also insolent and overbearing.' When he says people of some nation are incomparably rigid in their behavior, he does not add, 'But also they adapt themselves readily to extreme innovations.' When he says a people are submissive, he does not explain too that they are not easily amendable to control from above. When he says they are loyal and generous, he does not declare, 'But also treacherous and spiteful.' When he says they are genuinely brave, he does not expatiate on their timidity. When he says they act out of concern for others' opinions, he does not then go on to tell that they have a truly terrifying conscience. When he describes robot-like discipline in their Army, he does not continue by describing the way the soldiers in that Army take the bit in their own teeth even to the point of insubordination. When he describes a people who devote themselves with passion to Western learning, he does not also enlarge on their fervid conservatism. When he writes a book on a nation with a popular cult of aestheticism which gives high honor to actors and to artists and lavishes art upon the cultivation of chrysanthemums, that book does not ordinarily have to be supplemented by another which is devoted to the cult of the sword and the top prestige of the warrior.

____________________
Excerpt from The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict. Copyright © 1946 by Ruth Benedict, © renewed 1974 by Donald G. Freeman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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