C. Douglas Lummis: Ruth Benedict's Obituary for Japanese Culture

[C. Douglas Lummis is the author of Radical Democracy and is a Japan Focus associate. He taught at Tsuda College.]

I first found Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in the Charles Tuttle Bookstore in Okinawa in 1960. I had just decided to spend some time living in Japan (little suspecting that “some time” would turn out to be a big part of the rest of my life) and I was delighted to discover that Benedict, whose Patterns of Culture I greatly admired, had written this book too. I read it avidly, and for some years was corrupted by the myth of (as Malinowski called it) the “ethnographer’s magic”. I walked around Japan like a miniature Benedict, seeing “patterns” everywhere, and thinking it was wonderfully clever to be able to “analyze” the behavior of the people around me, including even invitations to dialogue and expressions of friendship. I claim no monopoly to this kind of attitude; in those days it was rampant within the community of Westerners in Japan, and especially among the Americans, so many of whom saw themselves not only as miniature Benedicts, but also as miniature MacArthurs (some still do today). After some time I realized that I would never be able to live in a decent relationship with the people of that country unless I could drive this book, and its politely arrogant world view, out of my head. The method I chose was to begin the research that led to the following essay.

The original version of “Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japan” was serialized in the journal Shiso no Kagaku (Science of Thought) in 1980, and then appeared as part two of my book Uchi Naru Gaikoku (The Abroad Within) (Jiji Tsushinsha, 1981). In English it was published in the form of an annotated textbook for Japanese college students, under the title Rethinking the Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Ikeda Masayuki, ed. Shohakusha, 1982).

Looking back on it now, I think this essay can be considered as a fairly early study of what is now called the critique of orientalism, though at the time I wrote it I did not know the term, and was blithely ignorant of Edward Said’s then-recently-published book of that title. At the same time, it can also be seen as an, again fairly early, example of post-colonial studies (early because the term had not yet been coined). (Or if there are those who object to using the word “colonial” in relation to Japan, shall we call it “post-occupational studies?”) But while the essay got some attention in Japan, it has pretty much remained unknown outside the country.

In 1996 I was granted a sabbatical leave by Tsuda College where I was teaching then (Thanks, Tsuda College!) and I decided to use it to fill in some of the research gaps in the essay, and to rewrite it in a longer version. I had not, for example, yet had the opportunity to visit Vassar College Special Collections, where the Benedict papers are. When I finally managed to get there, I made two major discoveries. One was Benedict’s “country report” on Germany. Benedict wrote this at about the same time she was doing her research on Japan, but the two works could not be more different. In Germany, Nazism is a recently cobbled together ideology; in Japan, totalitarian militarism is – just Japan.

The other discovery was Benedict’s notes taken from her interviews with Robert Hashima, in which the insights that make up the core of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword are to be found.

After I found the Hashima notes I mentioned them in an interview with the Asahi Shinbun, and shortly after someone called the newspaper and said, “That’s my uncle! He’s well and living in Tokyo.” And that’s how I was able to meet that remarkable man and do two interviews with him. Even people who utterly disagree with the rest of my argument will, I believe, find in the Hashima notes and interviews much that cannot be ignored by Benedict scholarship in the future.

On the basis of this new research I rewrote the essay and published it in Japanese as “Kiku to Katana Saikou – Paato II” (“Rethinking The Chrysanthemum and the Sword – Part II” ) in Kokuritsu Rekishi Minzoku Hakubutsukan Kenkyu Houkoku Dai 91 hen (Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History #91, March, 2001). Then I had an offer to publish it in a book of essays on the work of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. I submitted it, but the editors saw fit to publish, not what I sent them, but a badly hacked up version that I saw for the first time when I received the book. (“Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japan” in Dolores Janiewsky and Lois Banner, eds., Reading Benedict/Reading Mead: Feminism, Race, and Imperial Visions [Johns Hopkins, 2005]) I advise readers who want to quote from this essay, assign it to students, or use it in any other fashion not to use the version in the Johns Hopkins book, as that could lead to serious misunderstanding, but to use only the version printed here.


comments powered by Disqus
History News Network