What it Means to Take Japan Seriously
Every Japanese, wrote Ruth Benedict, conceives himself as a ‘debtor to the ages and the world’.1 ‘Every man’, says another source, ‘is a debtor to the world: to his parents; his schoolmaster; his friends and employers. He owes them his existence; his knowledge; his happiness and his daily bread’.2 All his social acts must be guided and directed by an awareness of that indebtedness and of the duties towards others which it entails. This ethic would have been explicitly acknowledged by the samurai of the Tokugawa period if he had read any of the books of moral exhortation which were written for him and if he in any way resembled the characters of contemporary fiction and drama. On his feudal lord he was quite clearly dependent for the rice income which he received as a hereditary retainer. To his ancestors and his immediate parents he was quite clearly indebted for maintaining the status of the family which allowed him to enjoy that position. That he should therefore strive to give loyal service to his lord and to maintain the honour of the family, thereby not letting down his forebears, were quite clearly duties of the highest priority. The peasant of the Tokugawa period probably did not have so easily available any such clear verbal forms for explaining to himself and to others why he should behave as he did. Nevertheless his state of dependence on others was just as real. His was a closed society of limited opportunity and limited...
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