Friday, December 09, 2011
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum and the Sword is probably still the most famous book about Japan. The theory that Japan is a shame culture, whereas Western countries have a culture of shame is still the most widely used framework for understanding the Japanese. Shame, it is argued, is a non-moral ethic where people behave in such a way as to conform with the expectations and evaluations of their peers. This is precisely the opposite of the definition of a moral man as given for example by Plato in The Republic (someone who appears bad but does good), or as exemplified in the life of Jesus who was crucified amongst thieves. Guilt, we are told, on the other hand is a moral sentiment that derives from within the person, from internal standards, from personally held and identifiable notions of good and bad. The theory that Westerners have such things inside them, whereas Japanese are only concerned with keeping up appearances, maintaining face, pleases Westerners and is continued in cultural psychological theories to this day.
It is clear that the Japanese feel a lot of shame. I think that the shame-culture, guilt-culture framework is meaningful, but that Benedict misrepresented Japanese shame. Japanese have private shame (Sakuta, 1967). "But," you may point out, that "if shame too is private then it is indistinguishable from guilt." I claim that the difference is in the medium. Guilt is when ones internal self-narrative sounds bad. Shame is when ones internal self-cinema looks awful.
It is easy to self narrate, and when we do we hear the words that speak or think. Self-speech has a built in mirror. Sound bounced back and around in the sound box of the mind.
That the Japanese can gaze at themselves, on the other hand, is a more remarkable feat. Like most westerners, I can't do it unless I have a mirror. Mead claimed it is impossible to see oneself without a mirror. Some performers, such as Zeami and Nijinsky, claimed to be able to see themselves from the point of view of their audience. And my research it may be argued that the average Japanese man and woman in the street have a mirror in their head.
Herbert Morris (1976) "On guilt and innocence: essays in legal philosophy and moral psychology" p 62
"In guilt the "voice of conscience" speaks and we formulate in words what is do be done and not to be done, words that are spoken and heard. With shame, the disposition is to hide, to vanish; with shame we want to sink into the ground, we cannot stand the *sight* of ourselves. With guilt the urge is to communicate, to be listened to, to confess."
It seems to be a minor change but, transposing the shame guilt divide from external-internal to vision-voice means that Japan ceases to be a lack, a nothing, a collective. Japan becomes something. It because something that is qualitatively different. The Japanese moral behaviour, and self is not just lost, submerged, controlled, collectivistic but *a different kind of self*.
Morris, H. (1976). On guilt and innocence: Essays in legal philosophy and moral psychology. Univ of California Press.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.