Scholar Illusion: Japan Seen Through the Distorting Lens of Orientalism


Geschichte | Geographie | Wirtschaft | Gesellschaft


Pierre Loertscher, 2001 | Zürich, ZH


Since its publication in 1947, Ruth Benedict’s anthropological study The Chrysanthemum and the Sword has been highly praised for its astute observations and valuable insights into Japan’s socio-political and cultural structures. Yet through my paper, I could prove the book’s position amidst the imperialist literary structure known as Orientalism, first described by Edward Said in the eponymous study Orientalism (1978). In Orientalist literature, the Orient is imagined rather than truly observed by the author. This idea of the ‘Other’, diametrically opposed to that of the West, is then utilized to further imperial or national interests in the Orient. In my analysis, I was able to show how Benedict’s supposedly objective piece of academia ‘created’ a perception of Japan, tied to a myriad of negative connotations, which implicitly suggested and endorsed the U.S.-American post-war occupation and reformation of Japan.


How does a scholar’s contemporary situation influence his supposedly scientifically objective research and work? In order to answer that question, I took a closer look at Chrysanthemum, since the author’s particular relationship to her subjects of study hinted at the book’s Orientalist nature. Assuming Orientalism’s presence in Chrysanthemum, I aimed to expose the assorted mechanisms and imagery employed by Benedict to represent Japan, using them as indicators of the book’s Orientalist nature.


The analysis was based on the characterization of Orientalism in Said’s original study of the phenomenon, which I read prior to Chrysanthemum’s examination. I then collected all relevant passages from Chrysanthemum connected to Orientalism in an extensive document, where I could classify them into different categories. I also examined both Benedict’s as well as her book’s backgrounds in search for Orientalist features. Though secondary literature directly linking her work to Orientalism was scarce, I was able to use various comments on her study as indicators to more of its Orientalist characteristics.


Through my analysis, I could prove the presence of six overarching Orientalist traits in Chrysanthemum, all of them manifested in manifold variations. Firstly, the political motivations and circumstances behind the book’s genesis already classify it as part of what Said calls the ‘New Orientalism’. Rhetorically, Japan is positioned as essentially distinct and alien from the U.S and the rest of the world. This notion of ‘the Other’ is reinforced by Benedict’s emphasis on the major differences between Japanese and Occidental mores. She then implies that the Japanese sociocultural structures incite and promote aggressive behavior which ultimately drove them into war, thus presenting the Orient as a threat to the Occident. In general, Benedict treats the Japanese as underdeveloped, partly comparing them to primitive tribes – in all points, their culture appears as backward compared to the apparent greatness of the U.S.-American system. By and large, Benedict’s rhetoric thus implies the necessity for the U.S. to dominate and reform Japan in all its aspects.


Overall, those aspects prove the Orientalist nature at the heart of Chrysanthemum. Even if one may question the importance of singular issues and passages about the book which I highlight to make my point, the mere mass and variety of Orientalist traits prove on their own the validity of my case. It is worth pointing out how all Orientalist aspects converge upon the promotion of Occidental values in the Orient through the former’s domination over the latter, highlighting Orientalism’s imperialist nature. The most problematic point in the creation of this paper may have been its initial scope: trying to find all of Orientalism’s aspects in a book of more than 300 pages was overly ambitious, and the range of Orientalist characteristics discussed in this paper had thus to be restricted to the dogma’s most central points.


The paper evokes an eerie sense of skepticism toward Western media and academia. The paper highlights the susceptibility of the human, social and political sciences, including history, to the influence of personally subjective biases or interpretations. This stands in stark contrast to the purely natural sciences such as physics, whose objective validity can be proven through impersonal experiments and calculations. To scientifically validate my paper and the theory of Orientalism as such, I thus call for the application of socio-psychological polling and research methods to general populations to gather empirical evidence on the theory’s real-life impact.



Würdigung durch die Expertin

Dr. Rosine Alice Vuille

In seiner Arbeit befasst sich Pierre Lörtscher mit dem von Edward Said eingeführten Begriff «Orientalismus», und untersucht die orientalistischen Züge von Ruth Benedicts anthropologischen Studie über Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Die Arbeit überzeugt durch eine fundierte Analyse dieses Texts, der in seinem geopolitischen Kontext eingebettet wird. Durch eine strukturierte Argumentation weist die Arbeit ein tiefes Verständnis von Saids Konzepts auf. Die Überlegungen der Konklusion zeugen zudem von einer sehr persönlichen Auseinandersetzung mit dem Thema. Eine beachtenswerte Leistung.



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Kantonsschule Zürich Nord
Lehrerin: Dr. Myriam Spörri