Honor and Society in Pre-Modern Japanese History

The concept of honor extends both outside and inside, meaning the social standing and the self-respect. Honor as public recognition comes in two ways. The social status is inherited at birth from family, and a reputation, or name, is acquired on the basis of virtuous deeds. As for the value of a person in his/her own eyes, it still depends on recognition from society and how much a person meets the demands of his/her social circle.

For Japan, the public opinion is crucial. The Japanese respect the people of the country, of the community, and of their own family. These are the three different circles of obligations. One who honors oneself has to meet the demands of all three circles. In the 600s, Japan eventually formed its moral ethic by importing Confucian teaching from China. It was based upon an ancestor-worship, much like that of Japan. Confucianism promoted loyalty to the emperor, filial piety and self-control. Later, it became a part of the code of the samurai, bushido. Honor and courage were central to the moral code of nobles. Manhood was doubted if a warrior could not protect his name. Vengeance was encouraged; the extremity of death was favored over dishonor. The honor was part of the ‘package’ of a warrior who had to show “physical courage, bravado, and honor.” Dignity for the Japanese included living according to one’s social position. In Tokugawa times, a man “accepted as part of his self-respect the detailed sumptuary laws which regulated practically everything he wore or had or used.” For example, Tokugawa laws stated what kind of toys farmers of different classes could buy. Japanese society has always observed hierarchy. The class differences were not humiliating for them; not observing the conventions of hierarchy was humiliating and unacceptable.

Being multifaced, honor is sustained by people’s fulfill their numerous obligations; if they fail, they dishonor themselves. In the Japanese language, close to the meaning of ‘honor’ comes one of the definitions of Giri, obligation. There is ‘giri to the world’ – obligations to one’s fellows, and ‘giri to one’s name’ – an obligation to preserve one’s honor. The acts of keeping one’s name clean may include “miscellaneous etiquette requirements, showing stoicism in pain and defending one’s reputation in a profession or craft.” The ways of restoring one’s honor may range from taking vengeance to committing suicide if necessary in worst cases. Nothing compromising should be overlooked. As it used to be in certain periods in Western countries, in Japan, it is virtuous to be sensitive to insults and social mistakes. However, honor to one’s name includes not only aggressive behavior in necessary cases, but it also encompasses “plenty of quiet and temperate behavior, the stoicism, and self-control”. Self-control was required from all classes in feudal Japan: the samurai had to demonstrate their disdain with bodily pain, while the commoners had to be reserved in accepting “the aggressions of the armed samurai.”

Many types of commitments are inherent in the concept of honor or giri to one’s name. Repaying loans is one of such commitments. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, Ruth Benedict mentions a phrase that was common at the beginning of 20 century, “I agree to be publicly laughed at if I fail to repay this sum”. For professionals, it used to be inadmissible to let a slip of tongue happen in ceremonial public readings of Imperial rescripts, for a teacher – to admit ignorance of some aspects of his/her subject, for a diplomat – “the failure of his policy.”

Benedict underscores that Giri was exercised by all classes. The Westerners were somehow misled to think that only the cult of bushido identified with samurai was concerned with heavy obligations and necessity to defend one’s name. It is true that the higher the social class, the heavier are the demands of obligations and discipline. However, as much effort as a samurai had to put in keeping his face, as much a commoner did to be respected. Otherwise, they both were “scorned and ostracized by [their] fellows.”

Confucius believed that people should be taught virtues, not laws. Laws and punishment teach people how to avoid being caught; virtues make people “develop an inner sense of shame and behave themselves.” Therefore, shame became a tool for protecting honor. Confucian Mencius, who developed Confucius’s ideas, claimed that human nature contains four beginnings: compassion, shame, modesty, and a sense of right and wrong. Ruth Benedict explains that for the Japanese, there must always be a balance, “The world tips, they say, so long, as an insult or slur or defeat is not required or eliminated.” Feeling shame, a person can see it as a hint that shows what is wrong in one’s deeds or thoughts. Kaiten Nukariya points in the book “The Religion of Samurai” that shame and honor are the balance levers, and they fall into the general scheme of the law of balance saying, “honor and shame go hand in hand.” Every honorable act may be weighed up by a shameful event. Under the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism, shame was viewed as a tool in acquiring virtues. “Spirit is dragged down by matter from its ideal heaven, then, incited by shame, it tries a higher flight.”

Benedict was the first to call the Japanese the shame society. The main emphasis falls on the fear of external reproof. A Japanese person needs other people’s reactions to his/her deeds, or at least one can imagine what that reaction will be. The feeling of shame is used as a lever to maintain social order. “Shame has the same place of authority in Japanese ethics that a ‘clear conscience,’ ‘being right with God,’ and the avoidance of sin have in Western ethics.” Unlike Western society, where a person is expected to develop a conscience that will expose one’s sins, the Japanese society reacts mainly to other people’s criticism. The thought what other people will think makes people watch their ways. Basically, it means that if no one knows about another person’s misdeed, he/she will not feel ashamed. At the same time, it motivates people not only to be innocent but also to seem to be innocent. Their main priority becomes to ensure that other people think good of them.

The concept of shame is closely related to the one of ‘face’ that means ‘prestige; honor; pride; status; dignity.’ The term ‘face’ was borrowed from the Chinese and is the key to the Orient spirit. For the Japanese, being laughed at and losing face are synonymous, and it is the most dreaded thing, worse than physical pain and deprivation. That concept has been analyzed by the anthropologist Hsien Chin Hu who points to the distinction between a person’s mien-tzi “reputation” and lien “moral character.” “Moral character,” or ability to fulfill one’s obligations regardless of obstacles, acts both as an external pressure of the society and as an internalized motive. To lose lien is to breach the moral code of the society, such as taking advantage of somebody’s plight, failure to keep a promise, or physical violence (especially to ones of lower status). “A disregard for the standards of behavior causes the group to doubt the moral character of the individual and to question his ability to perform his roles.” Unwillingness to lose one’s face has been internalized as a constant reminder that a person is watched by a phantom audience, which led to high sensitiveness in some people and fear to act.

It is crucial for a Japanese to keep his/her honor and dignity. In the guilt society, one can unburden oneself by confession. The shame society does not provide for such easy atonement. In the worst cases, shameful conduct demands death. Hsien Chin Hu gives an example of a girl who committed suicide when she got pregnant and her boyfriend did not fulfill his promise to marry her. Thus, the girl cleared her name and severely accused the boy making him ‘lose lien’ completely. Financial debts could also cause people to commit suicides. Moreover, samurai were widely known for their habit to regard suicides as honorable acts. Samurai followed their Emperor in his death; servants deemed it an honor to kill themselves after the death of their master. Suicide through fidelity was called junshi. By the end of the fifteenth century, honor suicides were preferred by samurai in case of infamy from being captured by the enemy or the shame of execution. The aristocrats preferred to call it, by the Chinese term, seppuku.. In samurai families, children of both sexes and women were trained on how to perform suicide. In the case of women’s suicide, it was called jigai, and it was performed by cutting the throat with a dagger. Married women of the samurai class had no obligation to obey the lord—only their husbands. A woman could make jigai as a sign of loyalty to her untimely deceased husband, but usually, it was “a means of preserving honor in a time of war.” When staying in besieged castles, women knew that if a castle fell, the consequences for women could be tragic: rape, enslavement, and massacres. For a female, it was a disgrace not to know how to commit self-destruction. For example, a girl should have known “the exact spot to cut in her throat; … how to tie her lower limbs together with a belt, so that whatever the agonies of death might be, her corpse be found in utmost modesty with the limbs properly composed.” Honor and loyalty required the samurai man or woman to be ready to commit suicide by the sword at any moment. Their servants, both male, and female, also exercised a “sacrifice of loyalty.”

A part of the code of honor was obligatory vengeance. Confucian ethics demanded to honor the memory of the ancestors by intended vendetta if any of the relatives were murdered. Ancestor-worship and filial piety were the cornerstones on which the whole Confucian system was founded. In later ages, the military code of vengeance became not only universally accepted by custom, but also it was sustained by law. To make a vengeance justifiable, the law required a preliminary notice of it to be given in writing to the district criminal court. Samurai women also practiced acts of revenge. Turnbull mentions an example of loyalty rewarded by the feudal ruler when a wife killed her husband’s killer after waiting for 53 years for an opportunity for revenge.

However, death is a highly drastic response to the necessity of preserving honor. Sometimes, it is possible to do with milder measures. For instance, in case of defeat, a samurai might become a monk. As a moral protest, not a suicide can be committed, but exposing the culprit or causing a stir around the situation. Hsien Chin Hu gives a few examples of such cases:

A mistreated servant may turn on his master in exasperation and denounce him for his inhuman behavior. A customer who finds a business-man trying to get the better in a bargain can expose him by attracting a crowd and telling them what sort of a man the merchant is. As business-men are very careful of their reputation, they will often give in to a particular quarrelsome customer, so as to avoid arousing unwelcome attention. The servant, the student, and the customer maintain their rights by making the other party “lose lien.

In regards to women’s honor, it has been traditionally associated with sexuality and referred to as “chastity” or “virginity. By the late fifth century, the gender relations were regulated by a number of books, for instance, Prince Shotoku’s Seventeen Articles of 604, Yamanoue Okura’s poems in the poetry anthology the Ten Thousand Leaves. Female virtues were cited in Etiquette and Ceremonial: to follow her father at home, her husband when she married, and her sons if she widowed. However, in ancient Japan, fidelity was not regarded as a moral obligation, but it could “result as a matter of personal choice.” In the eighth century, the basis of the Japanese family was primarily the development of the private property, and women were free to decide whether to engage in sexual relations and with whom. Inasmuch as a wife was not considered a husband’s property, “neither “chastity” nor “adultery” was a relevant concept.” Only by the late twelfth century, the term for “adultery”, kantsu, had appeared, and “the sexuality of the courtier’s wife became the exclusive possession of her husband.” Moreover, it became honorable for a wife to separate from her husband before he could divorce her if she felt that she no longer attracted him sexually. Being a Confucian ideal, chastity eventually found its place in the Japanese female code of honor. However, it happened not until the period of the Tokugawa shoguns (1603-1867) when “females were admonished to be both filial and chaste.” From the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, a significant shift occurred in the life of commoners. More and more women chose filial obligations and took care of their households over the honor to be a wife and mother.

The examples given have showcased that the concept of honor had been inherent to Japanese society throughout the whole period of its development. Primarily, the honor was a sign of nobility, and the nobles went to extremes to prove their respectability and worthiness. The samurai, in most cases, chose death rather than allowed shame to disgrace their name. The higher was the social status of a person, the more dignity one had to show. However, the lower classes also demonstrated self-respect, and that it is not possible to do without going to such extreme measures as suicide.

Shame played a key role in forming the Japanese behavioral habits. However, it would be reductionistic to claim that Japan is a country of a single emotional pattern. Both guilt and shame are found in all cultures. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that the emotion of shame is really pronounced, and it is important in understanding the motivation of the Japanese.