Obligations of Free Things


I'm reading Ruth Benedict's book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword for the first time. It is a study of Japanese culture written in 1946 as a way for Americans to understand their Oriental enemy. It's rather academic, but mostly on target even today. That is pretty amazing because Ms. Benedict didn't have access to Japan at that time (we were at war) but conducted interviews with Japanese Americans, read Japanese books, and watched Japanese films instead.

The book is mainly concerned with what motivates the Japanese behaviours that can seem so contradictory to Westerners. Some of the concepts she details are things I already understood to a certain extent just from having lived with them for nearly a decade. But having them well-described in writing gives me a further and fuller understanding.

For example, yesterday when we were handing out Morsbags at Alishan Market Day, many people accepted the bag and said "Sumimasen," which is a way of saying thank you, but also "I'm sorry." This may seem a little weird, but it makes sense when you understand the Japanese idea of obligations. Benedict explains it charmingly:

In English, sumimasen is translated 'Thank you,' 'I'm grateful,' or 'I'm sorry,' 'I apologize,' You use the word, for instance, in preference to all other thank-yous if anyone chases the hat you lost on a windy street. When he returns it to you politeness requires that you acknowledge your own internal discomfort in receiving. 'He is offering me an on [a favor and an obligation] and I never saw him before. I never had a chance to offer him the first on. I feel guilty about it but I feel better if I apologise to him...I tell him that I recognise that I have received on from him and it doesn't end with the act of taking back my hat. But what can I do about it? We are strangers.'

And that's what happened to us yesterday. We handed out bags to strangers and some of them felt uncomfortable accepting this favor from us. A few refused the bags but most took them. They seemed more cheerful when we didn't hand them out directly but let them choose as if they were shopping.

Some of the stall owners repaid the favor by giving us produce. Even though we wanted to give our bags no-strings-attached, it is really impossible to do so here. I certainly accepted the return gifts with happiness. We got all kinds of vegetables, some crackers and this huge cabbage!

Cabbage in Trade

Now I may understand why many Japanese find volunteering a strange concept. If you volunteer your time to a cause, who repays the favor to you? The world at large? The organizers? The simple cycle of obligation and one-to-one repayment is broken and that is out of step with the usual way of doing things.

Which means I may owe a debt to all the people who have volunteered for Morsbags. It's easy enough to give a fabric donor a bag and clear the debt - but how does one repay the people who volunteer their time and talent? Do fruity drinks and our post-Morsbag dinners count? Is that a payback in equal measure in a reasonable amount of time? Maybe I'd better keep reading Benedict's book and see if she has a suggestion.


Just had another thought about this. Yesterday at Market Day, Tengu was giving away packages of gluten-free baking mix and asking recipients to please fax back a questionnaire after they'd tried the mix. I'll bet they get a good response because the questionnaire is a way of repaying the debt of free baking mix.

So, does this explain why there are no tips given in Japan? When servers go out of their way to return a tip given to them by a foreigner, does this mean they do not wish to be indebted to their customers>

Very interesting analysis. I think Westerners also used to feel the weight of "being obliged" to someone more in older times, though probably never to the extent of the Japanese. Perhaps, sumimasen, could be translated "Much obliged." in its original sense. Strange that nowadays we just simply say "Thank you." When did we replace our sense of obligation with a sense of entitlement?

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  • M Sinclair Stevens: Very interesting analysis. I think Westerners also used to feel read more
  • mchangesq: So, does this explain why there are no tips given read more
  • Kristen: Just had another thought about this. Yesterday at Market Day, read more