January 14, 2006

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

Akira Fujino recently observed on the Taiwan News site that

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a book written by U.S. cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict in 1946 to shed light on Japanese culture, has become a bestseller in China.

It is not at all reassuring that the Chinese, especially now, would settle on this particular book for revealing insights into the Japanese mind. It was written during Second World War on behalf of the U.S. Office of War Information and remains one of the most pervasive but inaccurate studies of Japanese society ever published.

I write more about it here, but The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is essentially a paean to the fruits of Machiavellianism. Benedict limited the scope of her research to such narrow objectives that in order to justify her conclusions she had to integrate the substance of a civilization reaching back two thousand years into the product of a man-made ideology less than a century old.

Benedict's work was undoubtedly a major reason why SCAP bought so completely into the emperor system that in fact had only existed since 1868. The whitewashing of imperial involvement in the war continues to this day to be at the root of diplomatic tensions between Japan and her Asian neighbors.

And in the case of China, this all does sound hauntingly familiar. But by blaming culture and not politics, Benedict's book only confirms comforting ethnic (essentialist) stereotypes, and does not illuminate the true source of the conflicts in the more prosaic world of political gamesmanship and manipulation of public opinion.

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