The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Reviewing an Ethnography

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

I recently had the pleasure of reading Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an ethnography done in an experimental style just at the end of World War II in 1946. Benedict studied anthropology under Franz Boas and was the friend (and lover, I believe) of Margaret Mead. There’s plenty I could go one to say about Benedict, but I wanted to share my reflections of her book, Chrysanthemum, as well as an article written by anthropologist Sonia Ryang, Chrysanthemum’s Strange Life: Ruth Benedict in Postwar Japan, which is critical of Benedict. I’ll also briefly discuss an essay written by Barbara Babcock, which is appears as a book chapter in Women Writing Culture (1996), titled Not in the “Absolute Singular: Rereading Ruth Benedict”.

I’ve listed each of these at the bottom of this post for those interested.

Each of the readings dealt in some way on the nature of experimental ethnography. Benedict necessarily made use of it, perhaps due in part to her deafness, but primarily because the culture she was tasked with examining was an enemy state at the time she began collecting and analyzing data. She presented her conclusions in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in a narrative well-suited for popular audiences and drew both criticisms and praises for her efforts, which seems, ironically, to parallel her characterization of “but also’s” mentioned on the book’s very first page.

According to Benedict, the Japanese were variously described as “unprecedentedly polite, but also insolent and overbearing.” They were “incomparably rigid in their behavior,” but also willing to adapt to new innovations. According to Ryang, Benedict’s Chrysanthemum was variously reviewed as admirable but also propaganda; “anthropologically valid” but also without “academic value.”

During my reading of Chrysanthemum, I found myself thinking skeptically of Benedict’s methods. How was she able to make the various conclusions she did based on documentary and literary materials and personal interviews of informants removed from the culture? Where these perceptions skewed by an occidental lens of examination and did Benedict rely, consciously or unconsciously, on data that supported her expectations, assigning other data to mere anomaly or ignoring it altogether? As an archaeologist, I tend to take a very empirical and positivist approach to data. Still, the experimental nature of Benedict’s approach to ethnography appealed to me and I found her narrative compelling.

While not entirely abandoning my skepticism, I eventually found myself siding with Benedict’s point of view, trusting her perspective and insight. I read Chrysanthemum with an intent to keep in mind the context of the its contemporary issues: the end of a brutal war with an enemy hated by many Americans; the understanding that Japan was, at that time, a surrendered nation -defeated by an enemy it swore to fight to the bitter end; and the reality that the Japanese people would need to rebuild and press on in a post-war world. I considered that Benedict wasn’t merely a disinterested and objective observer, but that she could also have been propagandizing a case for an Americanized or westernized post-war Japan. I also considered that Benedict was romanticizing Japanese culture, as there was no shortage of entertaining and interesting anecdotes, which related to some aspect of wartime Japan that was otherwise mysterious, alien, or otherwise unexplainable under western or occidental terms.

In spite of my natural skepticism, I couldn’t, however, see Ryang’s point of view with regard to Chrysanthemum. To me, Benedict was making an attempt to understand the beliefs, values, and culture of a nation that differs drastically from her own. To do this, she focused, in my mind, appropriately on gender, class and childhood rearing. As example, this passage seems to illustrate her intent:

The arc of life in Japan is plotted in opposite fashion to that in the United States. It is a great shallow U-curve with maximum freedom and indulgence allowed to babies and to the old. Restrictions are slowly increased after babyhood till having one’s own way reaches a low just before and after marriage. This low line continues many years during the prime of life, but the arc gradually ascends again until after the age of sixty men and women are almost as unhampered by shame as little children are. In the United States we stand this curve upside down. Firm disciplines are directed toward the infant and these are gradually relaxed as the child grows in strength until a man runs his own life when he gets a self-supporting job and when he sets up a household of his own. The prime of life is with us the high point of freedom and initiative. Restrictions begin to appear as men lose their grip or their energy or become dependent. It is difficult for Americans even to fantasy a life arranged according to the Japaneses pattern. It seems to us to fly in the face of reality.

Do you see both points of view?
Do you see both points of view?

Benedict acknowledges the differences between American and Japanese cultures with regard to child rearing, and, seemingly without judgment of which is better or worse, remarks on the difficulty Americans would have even imagining life as a Japanese. Perhaps a passage like the one above can be viewed in much the same way as the illusion of the vase which can also appear as two people facing one-another depending on the mental perspective of the observer.

Ryang certainly seems to see an aspect of the image Benedict illustrates that I do not since she notes at the outset of her paper and again later that her chief criticism is Benedict’s failure to acknowledge “Japan’s colonial and imperial history before 1945.” Had Benedict taken this approach, surely Chrysanthemum would have been a very different book: perhaps more history of a nation and less an ethnography of a culture. Ryang was also critical of Benedict for not discussing Japan’s need to acknowledge its former colonies or even pay them reparations. Again, such an economic or political discourse would seem outside the scope of what Benedict seemed interested in accomplishing. Moreover, one wonders what amount of insight, expertise, or understanding of Asiatic politics would have allowed Benedict to effectively or accurately comment on such matters when one considers Chrysanthemum published just a few scant months following the war’s end.

Babcock presents to the reader, through her work “Not in the Absolute Singular: Rereading Ruth Benedict” (written several years prior to Ryang’s), quite a different picture from Ryang of Benedict. Instead of the propagandizing member of a victorious nation, Babcock describes a Benedict that accepted Franz Boas’s emphasis on empiricism and scientific method in anthropology but also willing to apply a certain measure of abstraction to her data in order to make her ethnographies more palatable to the reader.

Throughout Chrysanthemum, Benedict cites Japanese literature and stories, often including passages to which she offers her own commentary to tie the work in with her conclusions. The stories, along with her distinctive literary style, serve to bring the narrative to life, give it interest, and present an ethnography in a way that it becomes accessible to the average reader and not just the academic. An example of Benedict’s use of Japanese literature is her retelling of the children’s story about Hachi, the cute dog.

Hachi is a cute dog. As soon as he was born he was taken away by a stranger and was loved like a child of the house. For that reason, even his weak body became healthy and when his master went to his work every morning, he would accompany him (master) to the street car station and in the evening around the time when he (master) came home, he went again up to the station to meet him.
In due time, the master passed away. Hachi, whether he knew of this or not, kept looking for his master every day. Going to the usual station he would look to see if his master was in the crowd of people who came out whenever the street car arrived.
In this way days and months passed by. One year passed, two years passed, three years passed, even when ten years had passed, the aged Hachi’s figure can be seen every day in front of the station, still looking for his master.

Benedict uses this story to document both the nature of on, which she refers to as a type of debt or obligation and to also point out that from the time they are children, Japanese are taught their places in the hierarchies of family and society. And it allows her to introduce the concept, as she saw it, of the Japanese obligation to the Emperor.

On is always used in this sense of limitless devotion when it is used of one’s first and greatest indebtedness, one’s ‘Imperial on.’ This is one’s debt to the Emperor, which one should receive with unfathomable gratitude.

This concept of on as a form of obligation or debt is a topic central to Benedict’s desire to demonstrate the hierarchical nature of Japanese society. Ryang comments on this point as she cites some of the sources she used, but, for me, it only served to provide an interesting question about on as a concept.

Folklorist Yanagita Kunio takes a similar line as Minami, although Yanagita is more detailed in counter-examples that are drawn from linguistic data. For example, Yanagita points out that the term on that plays a central part in Benedict’s understanding of hierarchical human relations in Japan is in fact not part of daily language in today’s Japan; the term originated in China. Yanagita suggests that Benedict misunderstood the term on used in state-engineered propaganda as a term used by ordinary people, another point that had already been made by Tsurumi, Kawashima, and Minami. He attributes the cause of Benedict’s misunderstanding to the false self-representation that the Japanese state disseminated to the world through prewar and wartime propaganda.

The questions Ryang’s point gives rise to is what then, truly becomes the significance of on? If the Japanese government borrowed this from China, when and why was it done? Was this accepted by the Japanese citizenry? If we accept that the cause is changed, is the effect still the same?

Other questions that came to mind during these readings had to do with empirical results and positivist approaches to obtaining data. I found that Babcock’s essay reinforced my trust in the information Benedict was providing through her ethnography. This was due mainly to the understanding of how she came to be an anthropologist studying under Franz Boas. I still found, however, that I wanted to know more about the data. What documents did Benedict use to gather information from? What data did she discard, ignore, or find to not useful in her research? What informants did she rely on? What were their backgrounds and qualifications as informants? What biases did the informants have?


Babcock, Barbara (1996). “Not in the Absolute Singular.” In Behar and Gordon (eds.) Women Writing Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Benedict, Ruth (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflen.

Ryang, Sonia (2002). Chrysanthemum’s Strange Life: Ruth Benedict in Postwar Japan. Asian Anthropology. 1(1): 87-116