Abstract: The Chrysanthemum and the Factory: Ruth Benedict, James Abegglen, and American Interpretations of the Japanese Economy, 1946–1960

Brian Phelan


This paper examines the ways in which two American intellectuals, Ruth Benedict and James Abegglen, interpreted Japanese cultural practice and economic relations in the fifteen years following the end of the Pacific War. The paper argues that while overtly racialized explanations of Japanese cultural and business practices had faded by the 1950s, they were replaced by explanations steeped in cultural determinism. Furthermore, the work of Benedict and Abegglen, through their cultural typing of Japanese "character" and economic practices, set the essential theoretical stage for subsequent American discourse on the Japanese postwar economic "miracle." The cultural typing of the Japanese economic system had profound implications for how American intellectuals and the popular media discussed the connection between culture and capitalism. As the American economy waxed and waned in the decades following 1960, the Japanese model served an important role as an alternative system that at times seemed a curious variation on American capitalism, at times a threat, and at times a potential model. In each of these instances, the cultural typing of the Japanese economy by some American observers played a crucial role.