[Book Review] The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

by lsusr1 min read22nd Jan 20213 comments

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Japan was the only non-Western[1] country to build an industrial empire before the establishment of the liberal world order. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict is thus a real-world case study of what culture could have beenen in a counterfactual history where the Industrial Revolution happened without Christianity, the Enlightenment and democracy.

Many books have been written about Imperial Japan. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is exceptional.

  • It was written in 1946[2], before the United States Westernized Japan. Meiji Japan still existed when The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was published.
  • The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was written for the US State Office of War Information. It is more goal-oriented than most histories and ethnographies. This isn't a book about appreciating a beautiful culture. It is an introductory textbook for reengineering an entire society.

The most interesting thing about The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is its philosophy. Western philosophy has Christian roots. Christianity is monotheistic. Monotheism is built around the idea of one truth. Singular truth is useful in the domain of science because the laws of physics are universal.

Western philosophers often take it for granted that ethics, custom and philosophy ought to be singular too. Daoist philosophy doesn't. In traditional Japan, acting differently in different contexts was a sign of refinement. Inscrutability was a virtue.

There were other things which don't make sense in a Western context but which do make sense in an Eastern context. For example, Japanese soldiers were notorious for the savagery of their attacks on US forces. However, when captured, Japanese prisoners of war were well-behaved and followed the orders of their prison guards. This pair of behaviors is not what you would expect from the same American prisoner of war in 1945.

Though I occasionally discuss Daoism with Taiwanese people, it is rare for me to have a complex productive conversation about Daoist ideas with white people. There isn't enough shared cultural context. If you want to read a good book on traditional Eastern culture written in a modern Western style then I recommend The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.


  1. I include Russia in "Western". ↩︎

  2. For reference, Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945. ↩︎

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There's an inaccuracy in this. By 1946 Japan was, if not fully, then way over half Westernized, as the process of Westernization actually began almost a century earlier, in 1853, with Japans forced reopening by the US navy, and then actively from 1868 onwards with the Meiji Restoration.

An analysis based on the actually non-Westernized Japan of the Feudal era would produce quite different results.

Your perspective is valid. That way I look at things, Commodore Perry's expedition kicked off a Japanese-style Westernization of Japan, in contrast to the American occupation's Western-style Westernization of Japan.

I'd say it's the reverse.

See, in 1192, when Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo removed the political power from the Imperial House without declaring himself Emperor, this established the first full separation of Church and State in known History, with the Shoguns having political power but no spiritual authority, and Emperor having, as head priests -- of what would later become State Shinto, but that back in the day was merely the Shinto of the Imperial House --, spiritual authority but no political power. This separation of powers happened circa 500 years before European Philosophers began to think about its mere possibility, and lasted for almost 800 years, ending when the Meiji Restoration, informed by the worst of then current Western ideas, ended it.

Additionally, the Meiji Restoration forcefully ended the natural flow of Japanese religiosity by adopting an also-Westernized view of different religions as necessarily holding independent worldviews -- think Catholicism vs. Protestantism vs. Judaism vs. Islam vs. Sikhism etc., as read through the lens of European colonial powers --, and in sequence decreeing the forced un-merging of Buddhism and Shinto -- and also, indirectly, of Daoism, declared "superstitious" and therefore forbidden rather than merely forcefully-separated, also under the auspices of then novel Western ideas.

Those two traits, the Shogunate-based style of "traditional secularism", and the widespread flow of Ryobu-style religious syncretisms and Shugendo, were the most traditionally Japanese things the Meiji Restoration eliminated.

And afterwards, still under the influence of Westerners, this time Christian missionaries who derisively referred to Shinto as "not even a religion" due to its (amazing, IMHO) peculiarities that make of it an exact opposite of what Westerners expects any religion to be, plus the novel ideas that developed into Fascism, the Imperial House decided to convert Shinto into an obligatory cultural ideology while affirming its commitment to religious freedom, after all, since Westerners said it wasn't a religion, requiring adherence to it didn't violate freedom of religion.

These four aspects, and a few more, were all antithetical to the traditional Japanese mindset, and all driven by the Imperial House in an effort to equal itself to European powers (and then to US power). And, ironic as it may seem, it was precisely the American occupation post-WW2 which restored them. With the US, and the US-imposed Constitution, Japan saw: the Emperor reduced into a simple religious authority, as was the pre-Meiji Restoration tradition; saw Secularism restored; saw religious freedom and syncretisms once again allowed; saw Shinto's status as an actual religion, rather than as a mere ideology, restored; and things moving on as they might have weren't for Meiji Restoration's despairing attempts at turning Japan into a copycat of Western colonial powers.