Masayuki Yoshida (
(as editted by Lee A. Makela, February 20, 2002)

October 8, 1996

(Reposting from soc.culture.japan)

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 behavior. To analyze “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 Edo 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 person”:


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 favors”:


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 neighborhood. G under giri makes a donation, possibly 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 neighborhood 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 dollars 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 adjusted value of the loan, eg., three hundred dollars. Instead under “giri” J will give ten thousand dollars 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 and / or community obligation.


Some features 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 favor.


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 the “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 Edo period. “Seken-tei”, derived from the warrior class (“shi”, “bushi” or “samurai”) who, perhaps more than anyone, were concerned to maintain “face” and the honor of their name and status among their contemporaries. Despite 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 behavior.


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 situations 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 is 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 councilors.


Case 3: A and B are neighbors. A holds a sumptuous wedding reception at a four star hotel. B is invited as a guest. Later B gets married too. His fiancée 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 becomes 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 neighbors. 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.  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 “nakama-uchi”, “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-divisions in terms of narrower “seken”, which is the most sensitive group and might include near neighbors, work colleagues and those in authority over you, and the wider “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 behavior and not a general sense of shame.  This is a key element of Japanese social behavior. 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.