The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

As World War II wound to a close, the U.S. government did a remarkable thing. Faced finally with a likely victory in the Pacific, they found themselves utterly confused by Japanese culture. For example, they found that POWs did not want their families notified that they were alive. And they found these same POWs willingly volunteering detailed information about the strength and movements of their former units. And most confusingly, while they were experiencing this with POWS, those self-same former units were fighting with a ferocity and ruthlessness that the U.S. found almost overwhelming.

How could one culture, one code of conduct, one society, explain these wildly divergent behaviours? And more importantly – how could the Americans ever hope to manage a peace with this kind of a vanquished foe? Would the Japanese feel “vanquished” at all, or would they continue to fight just as ruthlessly in a post-war world as they were at that very moment in the Pacific? Or would they be the “humbled” and submissive foe they were seeing in the POW camps? Or were the POWs just acting, and that ferocity was lying just beneath the surface?

None of it made sense to the US government – not in the way, say, the actions of the similarly soon-to-be defeated Germans and Italians made sense. But then, the cultures of Germany and Italy had a great deal more in common with U.S. culture at that time. Arts, sciences, history, trade, politics. Not so much with Japan.

So the U.S government did a remarkable thing. They hired cultural anthropologists to help them crack the code on Japanese culture. Ruth Benedict was one, and this extraordinary book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, is essentially the report she filed.

And let us just for a moment think about how incredible that was. First, the US Government recognized that it did not know something. Second, it was able to see that it would need to know this thing it didn’t know, because, third, “not knowing” could cause disaster and destruction. And so, fourth, it reached outside its own walls to find people who could not only find the answers that they did not think they could find, but could then explain those answers to them so they could build a lasting, functional peace.

And that is precisely one of the reasons this book is so valuable for marketers, brand managers and advertising agencies. Because if the bloody US government can do it, you can do it. If they can stop and say “wait a minute. Maybe we don’t know what we’re doing. Maybe we need to spend the time we would be spending making ourselves feel like our biases and bigotries and narrowminded experiences are relevant – maybe we should spend that time looking for the kinds of people who could actually tell us what we need to know. Because that’s how high the stakes are. And so we don’t end up spending the next three, five, ten years trying to fix what we could have gotten right from the jump.”

If they can do it, then you can. (although admittedly, this was during World War II, when the government had mobilized every industry in to the war effort. So maybe that sort of “hey let’s do this the right way, even if we have to go outside the organization to do it” way of thinking was more possible. Though maybe there’s a lesson there too – that you should structure your organization to make actions like that possible.)

So that’s one reason to read this great book. And another has to do with the actual methodology Benedict uses to develop her insights. For Benedict’s great observation was that society is, in a sense, the sum of its parts. That if you looked closely at what individuals were doing, how they were being taught to live within the society and how those teachings were being enforced, then you would be able to understand how that society worked.

Or, as Benedict writes:

No matter how bizarre his act or opinion, the way a man feels and thinks has some relation to his experience. The more baffled I was at some bit of behaviour, the more I therefore assumed that there existed somewhere in Japanese life some ordinary conditioning of such strangeness. If the search took me into trivial details of daily intercourse, so much the better. That was where people learned.

Which, frankly, should be stapled to the forehead of anyone at any organization who is trying to understand their customers, and which is why anyone involved in any kind of marketing research should read this book. Not because of what it says about the Japanese – although, since Japan represents the 4th largest market in the world, that’s valuable too. But because it teaches you how to look at different cultures. It gives you a virtual roadmap for understanding what you don’t understand. As Ian Buruma writes in this edition’s introduction:

To understand another culture is hard at the best of times. You need, as Ruth Benedict says, the tough-mindedness to recognize differences, even when they are disturbing. The world is not one sentimental brotherhood in which we are all really the same under the surface. Individuals have different perspectives, formed by particular interests, histories, experiences. If this is true of individuals, it would be odd if something similar did not apply to nations. More important, though, for a student of other cultures is what Benedict calls ‘a certain generosity’ – the generosity, that is, to see that other perspectives, even if they go against our own views, can have a validity of their own. A zealot cannot be a good cultural anthropologist.

Tough-mindedness mixed with a certain generosity. One could do a lot worse when trying to describe the research that leads to great strategy. The fact that it comes in a description of a book that helped lay the groundwork for decades of global stability only proves its value.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict was published by Mariner Books on 05/26/2015 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read:

The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett
Culturematic by Grant McCracken
The Humor Code by Peter McGraw & Joel Warner