Giri – 義理

Last week I wrote a post about the Honne and Tatemae, concepts that are highly related to the Japanese samurai tradition. Another concept that has a lot to do with the Bushido is the “Giri”, which is prevalent in the mind of Japanese people.

“Giri” is a difficult word to translate. It means something similar to “Social obligation/duty”, it consists on the obligation to worry for those that have given you something in life and you owe them something in return. Japanese people feel that they have to give back the gratitude they have received in life even though they have to auto-sacrifice to be able to accomplish it. Giri is present in almost every social relationship within Japanese society: teacher-student, man-woman, friends, family, business, etc.

The “Giri” has been present in Japan for ages but it started being used almost always due to the influence of the samurai class during the feudal era. The “Giri” forces us to return favors, to maintain harmony in social and human relationships, in order to maintain a certain peace within society.

Nowadays the “Giri” concept is still prevalent in Japanese customs. Gifts in special occasions are very common, and when you receive something it is almost an obligation to give something back in return that has a similar value. This is common sense in any other culture, but in Japan the amount of gifts that you receive can be really absurd. There was some study that concluded that in Japan the money spent on gifts is the same that the amount spent on justice in the USA. At the same time Japan is the country in the developed world that spends less money per person in justice. It turns out that the “Giri” helps in a certain way to maintain harmony so that Japanese people don’t tend to confront with each other in law courts.

Due to the Western influence, Valentine’s day is widely celebrated in Japan. On Valentine’s day women have to give chocolate to men, it is some kind of obligation, not only with the men they love, but with all men that are close to them. We can differentiate between “two different kinds of chocolate” in Valentine’s day: “giri chocolate” (given by a woman to several men due to social obligations), and the “true chocolate” (given by a woman to the man she loves). If you are guy that works in a Japanese company you will most likely receive a lot of chocolate on Valentine’s day, but it doesn’t mean that all the girls at the company have fallen in love with you. After receiving the chocolate, men feel that they owe something back in return, to solve this “debt” feeling, another day is celebrated a month after Valentine’s day, when men give white chocolate to women. That’s the giri at its best.

These examples should have given you an idea of how powerful the “giri” and the social obligations are within Japanese society, and how they really have an effect in the behavior of Japanese people. An extreme case of the power of the “giri” are the kamikaze, that were volunteer Japanese pilots that committed suicide during Second World War to follow the code of honor, obedience and social obligation to their government and country.

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