GIRI: A Japanese indigenous concept. -i

Masayuki Yoshida (
Tue, 8 Oct 1996 10:17:59 +0100

(Reposting from soc.culture.japan.)

Dear Friends:

If you have some interest in the Japanese mind-sets ...

Good click!
YOSHIDA Masayuki

I do hope that this post will be helpful and
useful for your understanding of Japan and Japanese:

What is GIRI?

There is no possible English equivalent and of all the
strange categories of moral obligations which anthropologists
find in the cultures of the world, [giri] is one of the most
curious. (R. Benedict)

Despite the rapid change of Japanese life, ideas and society, the
"curious" concept of "giri" has remained and still strongly governs
Japanese social behaviour. To analyse "giri" Berdict's famous work,
"The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" might be a useful starting point.
Although this book is now a "classic", it is full of errors and
misunderstandings, such as the confusion of "giri" with "chuu". Thus
we have to take care to avoid citing such errors from her work.

The concept of "giri" is even now accepted as forming an important
part of Japanese social relationships, and has been a perpetual theme
in a variety of arts, such as the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon the
Yedo Playwright, in ningyou-joururi (puppet dramas) and Kabuki. Even
modern television soap operas and cinema films use "giri" themes to
draw tears from the audience.

What then is "giri"? A general definition may be "duty" or
"obligation" which arises from a social interaction with another
person. But this fails to reveal a wide range of significant nuances.
Several scholars have tried to provide a framework for defining
"giri" more completely. I will use their categories to provide a
number of examples of giri effects in modern Japanese society, which
I hope will render this concept more easily understood.

(1)Example of "giri" concerned with "obstinacy":
A is a husband and B is his wife. They live with A's mother C. C
becomes bedridden and at the same time B's mother also falls ill and
is confined to her bed in her home in B's birthplace, another town.
B's Father is looking after his infirm wife. A says to B "I'll take
care of my mother and you had better go home to take care of your own
mother." However, B under "giri" rejects A's proposal.

(2)Example of "giri" concerned with "consideration for another
In example (1) A's statement to his wife was made by reference to
"giri" and did not reflect his real feelings, he did not want his
wife to leave him and go to look after her mother, but "giri" obliged
him to say so.

(3)Example of "giri" concerned with an "exchange of a favours":
D and E have a close relationship in their business. To acknowledge
this during the year a gift is sent by D to E's house.

(4)Example of "giri" concerned with "community living":
F calls at a coffee shop run by G. He asks for some money towards the
cost of a forthcoming festival which will be held in this
neighbourhood. G under giri makes a donation, possible the minimum
acceptable amount. In his mind he does not wish to give anything.

(5)Example of "giri" concerned with "moral choices":
H is a professional sushi chef who has worked in restaurant for ten
years. The owner of a restaurant newly opening in the same
neighbourhood offers him a good job with very attractive conditions.
From "giri" he rejects the offer.

(6)Example of "giri" concerned with "moral indebtedness":
J borrows one hundred pounds from K. At the time of the loan K is
also poor, but is the only person willing to help J. At the time of
the loan K's circumstances also mean that the value to him of the sum
lent is more by far than the nominal amount involved. Ten years pass
and J becomes rich, while K remains poor. J will not simply repay the
inflation and delay adjusted value of the loan, eg. three hundred
pounds. Instead under "giri" J will give ten thousand pounds to
K and a high post in his business.

As "giri" is dynamic and complex the above examples may overlap, so
that "giri" is raised from a mixture of obstinacy, consideration for
others, moral indebtedness or community obligation etc.

[Some futures of "giri"]

In a "giri" relationship there is no explicit request by one party
that the other act under an obligation to do, or refrain from doing,
something. Indeed a large part of "giri" is for parties so obliged to
act in advance of the need arising to ask for any particular favour etc.

However, as "giri" conduct does not result from agreement between the
affected parties, there is always an unsettled doubt as to whether
what is done is sufficient, which leads to a feeling of frustration.
"Giri" actions are therefore subjective and will depend on the
sensitivity of the parties involved.

In a "giri" situation law and morality do not ignore personal
considerations, and are not clearly separated. It is necessary to
consider how "giri" impacts on social rules such as rules of law.
Social rules are generally regarded as obstacles to a "giri"
relationship. However these may be overridden when justified by
particular circumstances.

The individual relationships under "giri" are organic and specific.
In this sense to govern human conduct by such ties seems more human
than to adopt cold rules and regulations which cannot be sufficiently
flexible. How does "giri" affect the settlement of disputes? There is a
definite effect. In the event that parties under "giri" should fall
into a dispute then they will adopt a conciliatory and flexible
concessionaire approach. The presence of "giri" might be incompatible
with the nature of litigation and operate to inhibit a resort to
legal resolution of disputes.

In managing disputes where the parties interact under "giri" there
will be an effort to consent and to act spontaneously rather than to
force agreement. This has led to a large gap between the expectations
of legal codes and the daily reality, which results from numerous
compromises based on human relationship considerations. It may seem
strange, but in disputes law, lawyers and the courts do not seem to
have a primary role and are actively avoided in "giri" situations. In
Japanese disputes there is an emphasis on such mentality as
"sincerity"(sei-i) rather than on "rights" in any legal sense.

[What is SEKEN-TEI?]

I have explained "giri" concept, which affects all aspects of
Japanese social conduct. It is necessary, however, to look into a
further concept, "seken-tei", usually translated as "social
appearances," but like giri having a number of nuances.

"Giri" evolved from the business practices of the merchant class
("shou" or "shounin") and the class of artisans ("kou" or "shokunin")
in the Yedo period. "Seken-tei", derived from the warrior class
("shi", "bushi" or "samurai") who, perhaps more than anyone, were
concerned to maintain "face", and the honour of their name and status
among their contemporaries. Destpite a great many social changes even
since the end of the Second World War, both giri and seken-tei
continue to exert considerable influence over the Japanese mind and
social behaviour.

To understand the concept of "seken-tei it is again helpful to
consider some examples, set against the background of contemporary
life. If some of the situation depicted seem unlikely they are
however no less real and perhaps might be classified as problems
resulting from the transformation of a traditional society into a modern one.

Case 1: A thirty-five year old woman living in a rural area of Japan
is apt to confine herself to the house. When she is asked the reason,
she explains that as all of her contemporaries at school are married
she is ashamed of remaining single. She is worried that others will
disapprove of her or think that she is a bad person and so she
avoids meeting people.

Case 2: A couple are on the brink of divorce. Disputes over property,
child custody and maintenance are not as yet resolved. However, they
do not wish to resort to conciliation proceedings, and still less
to resort to litigation. They wish to solve their difficulties
privately due to a sense of shame which dictates that private
matters should not be revealed to those with whom they have no
relationship, such as a judge or family court councillors.

Case 3: A and B are neighbours. A holds a sumptuous wedding reception
at a four star hotel. B is invited as a guest. Later B gets married
too. His fiancee feels that such an expensive reception is ridiculous
and suggests that they hold an inexpensive gathering for a few
friends. However B being conscious of his social appearances pushes
hard to match A's extravagance.

Case 4: A Middle School girls falls pregnant. When her mother hears
about it, she is shocked. But instead of thinking of the welfare of
her daughter, or the unborn child, she concentrates on keeping this
secret from the local community. Typically she might arrange an
abortion and for her daughter to change school.

"Seken" means the community of people with whom we share daily life.
Such people might include shopkeepers with whom we chat or say hello
to, and our neighbours. The suffix-tei refers to "appearances".
Therefore, "seken-tei" means how we appear before the people of
"seken" or "social appearances."

>From a socio-psychological perspective we can diagram the structure
of seken using concentric circles (sorry for ommitting the figure).
The outermost circle is the world of strangers ("tanin" or "yosono
hito", "strangers") to whom we are indifferent and towards whom we
feel less sense of shame. The innermost circle is the family and
close relations and intimate friendships ("miuchi" or "nakamauchi",
"insiders") in which there is generally no need to be modest or to
keep up appearances.

In between is the realm of "seken", and there would seem to be
sub-division in terms of narrow "seken", which is the most sensitive
group and might include near neighbours, work colleagues and those in
authority over you, and the wide "seken", which includes anyone else
who knows you and who is not in the uchi or narrow "seken" category.

If Japan is a shame culture, it is shame towards the "seken" group
which controls mind and behaviour and not a general sense of shame.
This is a key element of Japanese social behaviour. The belief that a
member of the "seken" group disapproves of some action of yours is
very forceful and can reach levels akin to mental torture, causing
very extreme reactions such as suicide.

YOSHIDA Masayuki

Ps. Please e-mail the copy of your reply at my address
if you don't mind. Thanks in advance.