Giri (Japanese)

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Giri (義理)[1][2] 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. This value is so integral to Japanese culture that the conflict between giri and ninjō, or "human feeling", is said to have been the primary topic of Japanese drama since earlier periods in history.

In behavior[edit]

Giri may be seen in many different aspects of modern Japanese behavior:

  1. 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 (although Valentine's Day is a Western tradition that wasn't imported to Japan until relatively recently and White Day is a holiday invented in 1978 by the National Confectionery Industry Association in order to sell twice as many confections each year).
  2. Japanese corporations fire or lay off their employees at one of the lowest rates of any industrialized nation, and 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 particular.
  3. Japanese abroad often complain about the poor service to be found in non-Japanese countries. While some modern 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 one's ability, including what might seem to those from less formal social environments like excessive, mawkish, or even hypocritical or contrived formality and 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.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the film The Yakuza (1975), 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' (actually Tanaka Ken's wife) 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 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.[3]
  • In William Gibson's semi-dystopian Sprawl trilogy, Eastern themes, including giri, often play a role. Loyalty to one's company, or in this case international corporate mega-entities, is taken to the extreme to include surgically implanted monitoring devices and employees living almost exclusively within the regimented confines of the company. It is also seen at an individual level, the term mentioned several times in the novel Mona Lisa Overdrive. Most notable is the exchange between the console cowboy "Tick" and the Yakuza authority Yanaka.


  1. ^ a b Roger J. Davies, Osamu Ikeno (2002), "Giri: japanese social obligations", The Japanese mind: understanding contemporary Japanese culture, Tuttle Publishing, pp. 95–101, ISBN 0-8048-3295-1
  2. ^ Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,1946
  3. ^ "The Burden Hardest to Bear". The Transformers. Season 3. Episode 91.

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