Japanese Philosophy: Giri 義理

By Jim Caldwell – Shin Ryu Kan

Giri [1] is a difficult subject that is enigmatic to understand Japanese culture. As one embarks in the study of an Asian martial art, it is incumbent upon one to learn about and absorb the philosophy and culture of the source country. This is especially true for those students who enter into the deep study of a martial art. It is axiomatic that if one ever desires to comprehend the essence of any martial art form, one must learn about and attempt to understand the way of thinking of those who created the art. In the Japanese culture this is especially true and evident with the subject of Giri. Giri 義理 translates as [2] a sense of duty, sense of honor, obligation, justice, courtesy, debt of gratitude. The Gi 義 character can be broken down into two characters that comprise it, the character Hitsuji 羊, translating to sheep or lamb and the character Ware 我, translating to self. In essence, the Gi 義 character could be viewed as “putting the anointed lamb over self makes righteousness.” Sometimes the Asian, specifically Japanese, philosophies are in sharp contrast to Western culture and values which make them hard if not impossible for Westerners or Occidentals to understand.

Because of the propensity for Japanese to think in abstract terms, one of the more difficult parts of Japanese philosophy for the Westerner to understand is their complex system of Giri, duty and obligation. [3] ’Giri’ runs the Japanese saying, is ‘hardest to bear.’ A person must repay Giri as he must repay Gimu, but it is a series of obligations of a different color. There is no possible English equivalent and of all the strange categories of moral obligations which anthropologists find in the culture of the world, it is one of the most curious. It is specifically Japanese. Such terms as On, Ninjo, Giri and Gimu can be very confusing and even if the definitions are understood, are still hard to accept. Giri is thought to be impossible to properly explain in English.

Starting with the concept of On 恩 which translated definition is [4] a favor; a benefit; an obligation; a debt of gratitude; kindness; goodness. On 恩 is an obligation when someone does something for or to another. [5] On is in all its uses a load, indebtedness, a burden, which one carries as best one may. An On 恩 may be small or large, good or bad. It may be a minor thing such as an acquaintance picking up the tab for lunch or a major insult requiring a vendetta. If one accepts or adopts this concept as a way of life, it requires you to keep a mental “file cabinet” of all your obligations. In Japanese society one that follows Giri as a way of life never worries about On debt owed to himself. Sometimes I give neighbors vegetables from my garden, apples from my tree or I will help them with a chore. I give these things without expectation of a return. I once saw a documentary on Japanese culture where a farmer kept a list of all of the unpaid On debt, which is inherited, he and his family had incurred. He periodically would review these On debts and decide which one he needed to tend to without worrying about what was owed to him or his family. Some of these On debt dated more than a hundred years. His sense of Giri was evident.

Regardless of how many On debt one has accrued, it is inherent to the one that follows Giri as a way of life that they get repaid. The one that the debt is owed to may have forgotten about what he did that caused the On debt. It does not matter. It still must be repaid. It is inherent in Western society to forget about a debt if it is perceived that the person the debt is owed to have forgotten.

The thing that insures that one does not forget is called Giri 義理. One either possess it or does not; however, if one has Giri 義理, one will never forget it. Call it honor, duty, or obligation, a man with Giri 義理 can be relied upon 100% of the time. Observing and practicing Giri 義理 demands that all obligations are repaid in full measure and with interest if required. Personal feelings in the matter are completely irrelevant. It is irrelevant whether one wants or likes what is provided to them. If one has received an On debt, Giri 義理 demands that it be repaid. There is an old Japanese saying that goes, [6] Death is lighter than a feather, but Giri 義理 is heavier than a mountain. It is impossible to have a little Giri 義理. One has to fully embrace it if it is a professed way of life.

A special type of Giri 義理 is Gimu 義務 which translates as [7] duty, obligation, responsibility, one’s duty to society, a lifelong duty. Gimu 義務 applies to those On 恩 that are of such magnitude that, no matter how much one does, one can only repay a fraction of the debt. An example of this would be man’s obligation to family or country. [8] Gimu, which means the duty of re-payment, is endless and that no matter how much is repaid, it will never be enough. 

Ninjo 人情 is what ones heart tells one to do and this may quite often be in conflict with Giri 義理. Ninjo 人情 translates as [9] human feelings, human nature, humanity; humane feelings; humaneness; sympathy, the heart; kindness; tenderness or probably a better translation would be for Giri-Ninjo 義理人情, justice and charity, duty and humanity, be torn between love and duty; be hard put to it not knowing (unable to decide) whether to choose duty or love. The Giri-Ninjo 義理人情 translation demonstrates the conflict between Giri 義理 and Ninjo 人情 and is a better term and translation than Ninjo 人情 stand alone. It is a measure of the man whether his personal feelings Ninjo 人情 or honor Giri 義理 win out. One’s happiness is immaterial. One either lives by Giri 義理 or does not embrace it at all.

How does this affect an individual’s life in the Dojo? When one is accepted into the Dojo an On 恩 is immediately received. Even though an individual pays his share of the Dojo tuition this does not cancel the fact that the Sensei has accepted you as his student and thereby laid an On 恩 obligation on you. The On 恩 is repaid by being a good student. Such things as showing respect toward your seniors, practicing hard, paying attention in class, attending the Dojo regularly, not dishonoring the Dojo in word or action, and keeping the Dojo rules all contribute to paying off the original On 恩. Other minor things such as buying the Sensei a cup of coffee or bring him some venison from a recent hunting trip or help video a Kata also contributes to this. Favors done by the student for the instructor or the Dojo are not regarded as placing an On 恩 on the Sensei.

If one progresses to the point where one accepts the Sensei as his master teacher or mentor, in turn be accepted as a disciple, the matter becomes more serious. Whether one consider the matter to be Gimu 義務 or Giri 義理 is a personal thing. The realization that a person has permanently altered his life and way of thinking, takes an obligation beyond mere Giri 義理. Remember, no one can force any one to accept Giri 義理. If one accepts it, one’s personal feelings must never be allowed to interfere. I recently was reminded by my young teenage daughter of the issue of force, when she so aptly reminded me in her strong-willed stance that I could place a requirement on her but couldn’t actually force her to perform a task, believe in or accept an ideology. In other words, quoting an old adage, ‘You can lead a cow to water, but you can’t make it drink.’

One wants a new upgrade on one’s smart phone, but one’s tuition is due. One wants to take one’s mate to a concert, but there is a special class scheduled that night. The Sensei embarrassed you in class, but he is your Sensei. One wins a free trip to an exotic tropical location, but one is needed to teach in the Dojo while the Sensei takes his vacation. One wants to get married, but one’s future would require less time spent in the Dojo. All of these are examples of the conflict between Ninjo 人情 and Giri 義理. To the person of honor, the correct choice is self-evident.

Giri 義理 also works downhill. When a position of authority is achieved, Giri 義理requires a certain obligation and duty. In most cases, students of a Dojo never become aware of the load placed on the Sensei until they become master of their own Dojo. This is one reason one may have noted the way one’s own Sensei is always very respectful to his Sensei. One never truly appreciates one’s own parents until one has a family of one’s own to raise. The person who teaches classes when they are sick, who sells his car to get the Dojo a new mat and who works all night to get enough extra money to send a prize student to a tournament or for special training. The person who does things such as these and never tells anyone about it is a person who lives by Giri 義理.

All one’s Giri 義理 is upward in the beginning of training. With each promotion is incurred with a new load of On 恩, both upward and downward. One’s instructor has guided you to where you are, thereby increasing one’s obligation toward him. One’s responsibilities are increased to the Kohai juniors and to the Dojo with the acquisition of new rank. With rank and authority comes increased responsibility and obligation. Is it any wonder that the seniors seem to smile a lot less than the juniors?

The whole theme of this article has a very serious overtone because the subject of Giri has a serious undertow with Japanese society. Giri 義理 is not intended to be fun! Almost every student who has entered a traditional Dojo has inquired about spiritual training and martial philosophy. The concept of Giri 義理 is a part of the spiritual forging process. Please do not confuse this process with a religious practice or a conversion to a religious dogma, it is not. If one ask to study Do 道 the way do not complain if it hurts. A sword cannot be made by petting a piece of iron ergo neither can a swordsman be made by insuring that the student is happy.

  1. [1]Giri Bujin Magazine Article, Frederick J. Lovrett, San Diego, CA 1970’s
  2. [2]Koh Masuda, Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha, Tokyo, 1974
  3. [3]Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946, p133
  4. [4]Koh Musada, Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha, Tokyo, 1974
  5. [5]Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946, p99
  6. [6]John Pickett, First Precept of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, Meiji Era, 1883, Translation
  7. [7]Koh Musada, Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha, Tokyo, 1974
  8. [8]Randal Hassel, Giri, The Japanese Way, Black Belt Magazine, Nov 1983, p62
  9. [9]Koh Musada, Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary, Kenkyusha, Tokyo, 1974