The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Book Review


To write the book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Benedict Ruth started the study of the Japanese national psychology. It was done in order to create a guide about Japanese for the US military and civilian officials after the occupation of Japan. Benedict widely used a technique called “distance culture learning,” which she developed on her own. It entailed the analysis of scientific literature and fiction, the diaries of prisoners of war, Japanese films, interviews conducted with the Japanese living in the US. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to review The Chrysanthemum and the Sword and identify the essential points of the literature work.

The Summary of the Book

The book by Benedict Ruth, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Houghton: Mifflin Harcourt, 1967) is a classic text in the field of cultural anthropology. Umberto Eco called it “the most amazing book about Japan, which I had ever read” (qtd. in Lummis 52). The symbolism of the title is quite obvious since both elements show the traits intrinsic of the Japanese culture. Chrysanthemum is a symbol of the capacity for extremely deep aesthetic experience, the ability to enjoy the beauty of nature and the world even in its simplest forms. The sword is considered not as a symbol of aggression but rather as a sign of harsh order and dignity or the soldier discipline. The book is about cultural and social behavior of Japanese people during the World War II. The author depicts the crucial stages of the people’s cultural development in the period of occupation. In addition, the book illustrates the opposition of the developed aesthetic skills and martial arts, combined with an exceptional ability to self-denial and a fair amount of violence (Scheer et al. 17).

When thinking about a book about Japan, a modern reader is likely to have the associations with refined aestheticism of the Heian period, the complex symbolism of the theater and kabuki, striking imagery of Zen poetry, painting, and still unfamiliar to the viewers the calligraphy art. However, regardless the existence of so many aestheticism-related expectations on the readers’ part, there are references only to the tradition of admiring cherry blossoms, the cultivation of chrysanthemum rose to an unprecedented level, and a short discussion of the principles of the Zen art of the sword. The reason why people’s expectations do not coincide with the text to such an extent lies in the book purpose.

The Author’s Purpose in Writing the Book

The book was written not as an academic study. As Ruth Benedict said in the preface, “the customer of the research was the USA agency of the military information” (Benedict 6). The book was published in 1946, but work on it was began in 1944 when there were bloody fighting in which US strategists experienced some unexpected difficulties (Caffrey 78). The enemy behaved in a manner completely different than it was in all previous wars. Correspondingly, the military realized that without studying the enemy – not only of the objective characteristics of the military power but also cultural characteristics –they would not have won. The opponent did not comply with European cultural standards, which were considered universal .

The first clash with the Japanese showed their significant difference from the soldiers of European armies (Scheer et al. 17). They struck by a massive sacrifice, passing any conceivable level of patriotism and heroism, absolute willingness to die fighting even with bamboo spears. On the other hand, the Western military had the notion of unacceptable losses, going beyond which resulted in troops losing their resilience (Zhi-Peng 98). Furthermore, Ruth Benedict cited the following figures. The ratio for Western man surrendered into captivity to the soldiers died was typically about 4:1. For the Japanese the same ratio was initially 1: 120, and only later changed to 1: 5 (Benedict 178). They seemed to be evil and cruel fanatics. An example of this statement is the Bataan Death March, which is comparable to the horrors of the German concentration camps (Caffrey 56). The Japanese showed extraordinary cruelty not only in relation to the enemy but also to the own soldiers. Notably, for the Americans and the rest of the world, this behavior is not entirely consistent with the concept of humanity. Furthermore, they had doubts about their human nature and considered that the only way to confront with them was through the destruction. Therefore, Americans either had to be prepared for a bloody war for “a thousand years” or eliminate Japan.

Thus, this is not an academic study (Scheer et al. 17). Furthermore, if to correlate it with the known forms of research activities, this is the report by the grant. It was necessary to solve a specific, quite practical, and extremely urgent problem. Perhaps, it explains that the book does not have much of what the readers expect from the research on the culture of the people. There are no studies of philosophical traditions, art history, or history of political thought. However, there is something much different – the identification of the peoples’ nature and ethos.

The Sources Used for the Book Writing and Their Influence

Benedict classifies the Japanese culture as a “culture of shame” with an ethical focus on interpersonal relationships as opposed to the Western, primarily American, “culture of blame,” the ethical basis of which lies in the divine commandments. On the basis of the collected materials, specifically the numerous documents from the archives, the author wrote the book Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) (Lummis 45). Accordingly, in the publication, from the cultural relativistic point of view, Japanese culture is seen as hierarchical in nature, which implies precise knowledge about the role of each society member and their place in it. Benedict paid special attention to the Japanese concepts of On (grace, kindness), Giri (debt), and the education of children in families (Benedict 256-268). These aspects could have been covered only due to the precise study of the documents. Thus, their usage constitute the proof of the book’s validity and determine its contents to a great extent.

Referring to cultural usages and platitudes as well as using the systematic approach, the author tried to explain the behavior and national psychology of the Japanese as integral phenomena that are common to different strata of Japanese society and are not contradictory for the Japanese themselves (Scheer et al. 17). Both usages and platitudes contribute to the development of the book’s perception and understanding of the concepts depicted. Hence, on the one hand, it is possible to state that the platitudes were not implemented because they are already well known facts. On the other hand, they serve as a basis for the ideas, which are more complicated. Accordingly, the platitudes usage ensured the reader’s understanding of the book’s details.

Benedict was criticized for the anti-historical, western ethnocentrism and that she painted a portrait not of the Japanese, but the Japanese prisoner of war. However, despite the fact that The Chrysanthemum and the Sword received a mixed assessment in Japan and the West (, it has become a classic work of the overseas Japanese studies and cultural anthropology as a whole. It is the work that is still constantly used by the cultural studies researchers.

The Author’s Conclusions

Benedict made several conclusions about the Japanese. First, Japanese culture has a deeply hierarchical nature, around which the whole social, economic and political system of the country develops. One of the keys to understanding The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is described as “the befitting concept of place” (Benedict 87). However, Japanese concept of hierarchy is different from the European one. A person must not only rise the hierarchical ladder, but also merit the right to it. The same concept explains the Japanese military course of the first half of the 20th century. The Japanese saw themselves as those who were able to bring order to the global hierarchy of nations so that each of them “would take its rightful place” (Benedict 94). Furthermore, this statement also explains the fact that the Japanese were “genuinely surprised” when other countries refused to accept such an order and began to resist. They used to live in a strict hierarchy that regulated the possibilities of each person, eliminating his/her “fear of the unknown” (Benedict 88). Consequently, a person living in a culture knows no anguish about their right to do this or that act because the hierarchy makes a choice for him/her. The person should only have sufficient strength of mind to accept this option and fulfill the duty (Scheer et al. 17).

Second, in the book, Benedict concludes that the diligence and devotion to duty are the fundamental processes in the growing system in the Japanese families. That is why most Japanese people are in not willing to accept extra obligations while strictly observing the existing ones. The Japanese meaning of the duty has a complex structure. There are duties to the family, the country, the Emperor, and even a random person, who has done a favor (Caffrey 76). Another conclusion is made about the concept of absolute duty or Giri. Benedict (96) explains it applying the example of the US financial system. Giri is similar to American attitudes toward financial liabilities – They are not required to be performed with zeal and willingness but need to be fulfill (Benedict 89). Otherwise, one becomes untenable in own eyes and the eyes of society. In America, one declares the inability to fulfill the obligations (bankruptcy) while in Japan, the person would commit suicide not recognizing oneself as a worthy member of society. All these facts show that the author’s conclusions are adequate. Besides, they are supported by the exact historic cases and data.

Third, in her study, the American anthropologist drew particular attention to the organization of the moral consciousness, which is a completely different from the European one, and the attitude to the feelings and physical needs in the Japanese culture. The Japanese recognize the important role that a human body plays in the life. Therefore, they relate to the bodily pleasures carefully and wisely, cultivating them and, what is the most surprising fact for the Europeans, teach them, raising this activity to the rank of art. The Japanese do not allow the pleasures to cross the allowed limits and if necessary, completely sacrifice them to the duty. Furthermore, rejection of the pleasures and even suffering is nothing but a sign of accomplishment; that is why the stories of unrequited love with a tragic ending are common in Japanese art (Scheer et al. 17).

Moreover, Japanese philosophy is not based on the concepts of good and evil. Therefore, it is characterized with the harmony of the different spheres of life, each of which is subject to one common fundamental principle, namely the “cause of life.” The Japanese have no absolute moral law on which the society focuses. Human life and the permissibility of person’s actions are determined by his/her connection to a number of relatively independent community life circles. Each of them has its rules and dictates a certain line of human behavior. The ability to balance between the community circles without violating their rules is the Japanese equivalent of moral behavior (Banner 48). Meanwhile, the Japanese have a trait, which Europeans wrongly perceive as a lack of principle, namely the aptitude to quick changing of lines of action that is the result of the change of the circles. The flip side of this mobility is a possible conflict of the circles when the demands of one violate the requirements of the other. In this case, the Japanese need either to build a hierarchy of the circles and allocate it on the basis of priorities or even abandon the complicated choice.

The result of the analysis of the Japanese culture is the division of cultures into “blame culture” and “culture of shame” developed by Benedict (32). The formerseeks to follow absolute moral and, thus, cultivates a person’s sense of wrongness (Scheer et al. 17). To be aware of guilt and plead guilty are a moral ideal for such cultures. In contrast, the cultures of shame raise the moral orientation on the stigma and other’s attitude to the actions (Lummis 103). Thus, the main motivation of these cultures is the outer well-being. It is considered that there is no need to feel guilty because of a bad deed if nobody knows about it. However, if it becomes known, the recognition of guilt and a noble motive of the commission will not help to avoid condemnation. Therefore, a good person, according to the Japanese, is infinitely prudent and successful member of the society, who does not allow belittling of own achievements.


In conclusion, the value of any anthropological research is determined by how it illustrates the culture of the people under study. The work by Ruth Benedict gives answers to many questions about the Japanese society, the historical stock of its mentality, and shows how one should perceive these or those manifestations of its national character. Thus, the study, which in the 1950s helped to establish a dialogue between Japan and the rest of the world, simply cannot be forgotten and shelved as it is one of the best guides on Japanese culture even to this day.

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