15 February 2011

Japanese Giri

Giri (義理) is a Japanese value roughly corresponding to "duty", "obligation", or even "burden of obligation" in English. It is defined as "to serve one's superiors with a self-sacrificing devotion" by Namiko Abe. Indeed, the conflict between giri and ninjō, or human feeling, is said to be the primary topic of Japanese drama since historical periods. Today, social critics decry the diminishing influence of giri on shinjinrui, the new generations of Japan, who pursue an individualistic path in life that seems quite disparate from traditional Japanese culture, according to traditionalists.
Giri may be seen in many different aspects of modern Japanese behavior:
  1. Japanese children often report feeling a sense of filial piety rather than the cultural tilt found in the Western world of seeking to protect "children's rights."
  2. Japanese gift-giving is marked by an unwritten but no less real perceived balance of "giri," whereupon unusually large gifts must be reciprocated. "Giri choco" is a specific term referring to the obligation of close colleagues or associates to provide Valentine's Day or White Day chocolates to each other even if they feel no romantic feelings.
  3. Japanese corporations fire or layoff their employees at one of the lowest rates of any industrialized nation, for which employees reciprocate this loyalty through their personal habits. Whereas in the West, engineers from different companies might be friends, this is far more rare in Japan. Employees' sense of obligation may be so strong that they consume only the beer and other products produced by their conglomerate's affiliates. Part time workers however are not so protected.
  4. Japanese abroad often complain about the poor service to be found in non-Japanese countries. While Westerners might prize individuality and the right of a serviceperson to be an assertive social equal with opinions, Japanese generally value carrying out one's work obligations (giri) to the best of this ability, including what might seem to those from less formal social environments like excessive or even hypocritical formality/servility.
Some social historians believe the pervasiveness of this concept in Japanese culture is a reflection of the static feudal order that defined Japanese society for centuries. "Giri books," or village registers that included all the unpaid obligations of one family or individual to another were a cultural phenomenon that could only exist in a static agricultural culture, as opposed to a migrant or hunter/gatherer tradition. Other historians see more influence from samurai and Rinzai Zen traditions, which included a placid acceptance of death and willingness to commit suicidal actions forbidden in the Western Christian tradition.

In the 1975 film, The Yakuza, the concept of giri is a major factor in the story. The character Tanaka Ken (Takakura Ken) owes Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) a "debt that can never be repaid," for saving the life of his sister and her young daughter during the post-war occupation of Japan. In the film, he describes giri to a Westerner as "the burden hardest to bear." In addition, in the Transformers animated series episode, "The Burden Hardest to Bear", the Autobot Kup uses the concept of giri to describe the burden of leadership facing Rodimus Prime. Much of the episode is set in Japan, and deals with Rodimus Prime's reluctance to be a leader, only to eventually come to grips with his responsibility.

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