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ALTHOUGH shame is a complex notion in any culture, it has strong negative connotations in modern Anglo-American usage. It also often implies experiencing a passive emotion in a private space. Imposing such an image onto other cultures’ usage of shame, however, may obscure the complexity and dynamics of the concept. Premodern Japanese samurai culture indicates that the notion of shame can be a powerful public concept even while rooted in the innermost depth of an individual’s dignity. Although anyone can experience emotions related to shame and honor, social usages and the degree of social influence wielded by these concepts are considerably different if the ruling elite place them at the core of their collective identity. The Japanese concept of shame was closely connected to the rise and transformation of the samurai elite and their political institutions. Yet, a sense of shame was a criterion of honorific autonomy and trustworthiness of individual samurai as well as the inner source of their self-esteem. Interestingly, haji or shame can be described in Japanese by a kanji (Chinese character) that consists of an ideogram composed of two root characters representing “ear” and “mind.”1 As this way of writing implies, by serving as a bridge SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trusthworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture EIKO IKEGAMI between individual aspirations and social expectations, shame in the samurai culture is a case study in the complexity of the interactions between the self and society. To be sure, shame (haji) in Japanese can also represent the private passive emotion related to concern for one’s social reputation . But within the context of the samurai’s elitist honor culture, shame had much deeper and more complex layers of meaning. In this paper, I would like to shed light on an unlikely combination of meanings—namely, the close relationship between shame and moral autonomy. For several centuries, haji played a central role in constructing the identity of the Japanese samurai, the class that ruled the country from the medieval period until the mid-nineteenth century. The samurai collectively defined themselves as those who know shame and would risk their lives to defend their honor. In comparison, members of such other classes as the court aristocracy and the commoners would not think of dying for such a reason—or be perceived by others as so doing. The concepts of shame and honor helped to construct the collective identity of the samurai that differentiated this category of warriors from the rest of Japanese society. The comparative study of shame cultures is not an easy task because shame and honor can be expressed in collections of concepts that are related to one another but applied differently to different gender , age groups, status, and economic categories even within a given cultural and linguistic area (see, for example, Herzfeld, 1980; Schneider, 1971; Abu-Lughod, 1986). The present paper is an overview of the shame culture of the premodern Japanese samurai as an elite male culture. The samurai’s honorific sentiments were expressed by a constellation of words that included na (name), meiyo (honor), haji (shame), chijyoku (shame), iji (pride) and mengoku (face). Within this cultural complex, having a sense of shame meant more than a concern with the externals of honorific status; it also implied a pride and dignity related to internal evaluation in light of the group’s approved behavioral principles. The samurai culture 1352 SOCIAL RESEARCH derived its vitality from the close connections between honor, dignity , and individuality that were often expressed in the lexicon of shame. The internal emotional dynamics of the samurai were attached to the sociopolitical roles of individual members of the class through the vocabulary of shame and honor. I have examined elsewhere the samurai’s role in the making of modern Japan by using their honor culture to gain entrée to their cultural and social history. I investigated the cultural reformulation of the samurai through the examination of numerous examples of honor-related violence in which the samurai’s sense of honor and shame was clearly at stake, including quarrels, fights, and vendettas that took place over the course of several...


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