Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Chrysanthemum and The Sword by Ruth Benedict

After I read Japan Through The Looking Glass, I was quite interested in reading about The Chrysanthemum and The Sword.

But I keep thinking, maybe it's a bias with me, how much Caucasians can understand Asians. Even within Asia, it's hard for us to understand each other, how much can others, who have a very different set of traditional values, understand us? There are even books called Can Asians Think? which aim to give a defence of our cognitive capabilities.

This book, while interesting, has a few inherent flaws in it. Firstly, the authoress never actually went to Japan. This is due to WWII, but still, it does hinder the accuracy. Secondly, she depended mainly on interviews with Japanese living in America. To me, ABC (American Born Chinese) are already very far from our culture, (please, even Singaporean Chinese is far from Chinese culture), and there are Chinese movies poking fun of it. Hence, I really doubt the accuracy of the Japanese descended people she interviewed. If they even wished to leave their home for America, it might imply that there was something they inherently disliked about Japan (remember, it was a very insular nation at that time), which just means the findings would have error.

The book itself, though, is very interesting. She talks about the concept of on, and how it differs from China radically. But unfortunately, because she did not provide any kanji of the word, it's hard to see if that's even true. Much of the book, I have to believe at face value, because really, it could be a lot of words that she's talking about.

There was even a sense, at one point of time, that she was coming from a viewpoint which thought that American culture was superior, although she does take care to avoid it most of the times.

But even though I've pointed out all my doubts about this, the book is still worthwhile reading. The Japan that she talks about cannot really be seen now, with all the modernisation and influx of other cultures (which is the downside of Globalisation). So in a sense, this is a window into the past. Just be careful, this 'window' may not be the clearest. As Robert Frost says in After Apple Picking (my IOC was today)

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary glass

(From North of Boston)

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