"Giri" is a cultural construct that is hard to translate/explain. This week's colum "Cultural Conundrums by Kate Elwood" from The Daily Yomiuri, looks at this concept:
Aki seemed quite taken aback and said, "No, no, giri and gimu are completely different."Click here to read the rest of the article.
Hmm...I took out my heavy old Japanese-English dictionary and looked up giri. It said: "1) obligation; 2) duty." I flipped the pages to gimu: "1) duty; 2) obligation."
In English, we don't make a lexical distinction based on the temperature of water and we don't pay much conscious attention to whether the drive to do what's expected of us stems from within or without. Basically, giri is something you know you have to do without it being made plain. When it's spelled out, it's gimu, as in gimu kyoiku, compulsory education. Both giri and gimu can express either obligation or duty, although it does seem to be true that in English as well there's a certain possible classification along inner/outer lines: Duty is used in terms of ordinary responsibilities, while obligation often falls more to the realms of personal conscience-- although they're fairly interchangeable in a way that giri and gimu most definitely are not.
A quick Internet check of book titles reveals that obligation is often used in terms of legal "debt obligation," "political obligation," and more recently, regarding our "moral obligation" to animals. A collection of essays by Lionel Trilling is called The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent.
Duty, on the other hand, is most frequently associated with public service in the army, police force and so on.
Giri is...well, giri. It is "the proper way of things, the morals which guide personal and social conduct, that which must be done in social relationships," as my Japanese dictionary so elegantly and rather vaguely puts it. It would not be used to express a relationship with animals, but it is frequently used to explain a bond between two people that results in one of them doing something that they may not necessarily feel like doing, like the frivolous but nonetheless real obligation felt by female employees in many offices to give chocolate to their boss on Valentine's Day.
I think it is this concept of "giri" associated with "wa" or group harmony that makes Japan a place where there are fewer conflcits and violence than in other cultures. This issue was also broached in a very different context. I was reading an interivew with a writer being interviewed about a book on sociopaths, when I came across this quote:
Is there the same level of sociopathy in other cultures?
No. In East Asian countries, China and Japan in particular, there is substantially less sociopathic behavior observed. It seems to me that the only explanation for that would deal with overall cultural attitudes. In the East, individual winning is not considered the appropriate goal. The culture is more group-oriented. A sociopath born in such a culture might learn to behave appropriately the way one might learn table manners. They might not have a conscience, but because sociopaths need to fit in, the behavior might be tamped down a bit.
It seems to me concepts like "giri" and "wa" may prevent some sociopaths from going over to their dark side. Anyway, the interview with Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, is fascinating. She suggests that 4% of the population is sociopathic-since the only verified people are violent criminals but she says that dosn't include nonviolent people and women-who casue damage in other ways like seducing women and then dropping them for the fun of it or berating/manipulating employees for fun. They are people without consciouses.