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Duty is heavier than a mountain; death is lighter than a feather.
—Traditional Japanese proverb quoted to death by Rand al'Thor

The traditional moral character of both Japanese society and Japanese individuals is built upon four key elements, which can best be compared to the Western concept of Virtues: On, Gimu, Giri and Ninjō. All four of these orbit and touch upon the Japanese concept of Honor, which combines elements of reputation, self-respect and personal moral/ethical code.

Understanding these concepts can often help clarify the motivations and drives of Anime characters, and can sometimes explain the differences between what Westerners and the Japanese consider funny, tragic and/or dramatic.

On (恩)
The best translation for this term would be "Reciprocity". On is a virtue that requires the individual to acknowledge and repay debts he owes, including debts of honor. A source of I Owe You My Life situations.
Gimu (義務)
Can be interpreted as "Piety". If one owes a debt (including a debt of honor) but cannot repay it, Gimu encourages the debtor to show allegience to the debt-holder in lieu of true payment.
Giri (義理)
"Duty". Much more complicated than the Western concept of duty, Giri requires the individual to execute and balance his obligations as the highest function of an honorable life.
Ninjō (人情)
Usually translated as "Compassion". Ninjō requires empathy with others, and recognizes that all people are one, beneath the surface differences that karma imposes.

This has occasionally been commented on by authors surprised by their series' popularity outside native countries where these attitudes may not be universal. Manga author Rumiko Takahashi admitted surprise that her stories were so popular in the west, as non-Japanese people not indoctrinated with the idea of the Pillars of Moral Character wouldn't find them as funny. This is because the concepts of honor and face are more widespread than they seem. See I Gave My Word, for one thing.

For those that reject or live without these pillars, see The Unfettered.

Examples of Pillars of Moral Character include:


Anime and Manga

  • The applicability of this trope to Ranma ½ is a matter of heavy, heavy personal opinion, as none of the characters are portrayed as anything more than remotely honorable and both messes are played for all the comedy they can. It mainly pops up in regards the Love Dodecahedron, as this isn't merely a matter of multiple girls being attracted to the same guy. Akane Tendo and Ukyo Kuonji both have an Arranged Marriage to Ranma Saotome, and in Ukyo Kuonji's case she also has a Childhood Marriage Promise from Ranma and Genma stole her dowry after agreeing to the arrangement. Shampoo's bond to Ranma may only be an Accidental Marriage, but her people take it seriously enough that she was cursed just for coming back without him the first time. A few fans also think Ranma's reluctance to reveal the fact Ryoga is P-chan to Akane stems from an honor conflict (typically considered to be Ninjo versus Giri), as he did originally make a promise in his head when he believed Ryoga to be a stray dog he had found that he would keep Ryoga's curse a secret, noting it was the "warrior's code" to do so, only to then find out that Akane intended to take her new pet to bed and make an attempt to remove him from her bedroom.
  • Much of the main plot of Monster happens the way it does because Tenma tends to view his act of saving Johan in terms of giri -- he is chasing Johan to put right that which he did wrong, and is not interested in taking time off to prove his innocence until his obligation is fulfilled. The longer Johan remains alive, the more innocent people will die on account of it. On the same side, Tenma also holds the virtue of Ninjo as a core of his philosophy and will take a detour if it means saving innocents. On the counter-side one might say that Johan is acting out of a twisted sense of On.
    • However, it is emphasized that Tenma acts out of his innate goodness and not cultural compulsions. He is also thought to be rather strange for a Japanese man.
  • Giri is also a driving force behind Byakuya Kuchiki's character in Bleach. As a very high class nobleman, he's required to follow a very strict duty code, which he has broken twice by marrying a commoner woman for love and by adopting his dead wife's little sister, as he promised to his dying wife. So, by breaking another code rule in the Soul Society arc by stopping Rukia's execution, Byakuya would disgrace himself and the Kuchiki clan horribly... but if he does not break rules, his sister-in-law and pretty much the only living person he truly cares for would be executed, meaning he'd also break the promise made to his beloved dead wife and end completely alone for the rest of times. In few words, he's damned if he doesn't and damned if he does.
    • This is why there's a theory that he threw his fight against Ichigo. That way, his imprisoned sister is rescued without him breaking the laws. You also have to consider that, when he got married and later adopted Rukia into the family, he still was not the head of the family: that was his grandfather, Ginrei.
    • The cultural concepts of the Moral Pillars in Japanese culture also make one scene in an earlier episode seem odd to western viewers. Rukia tries to convince Ichigo to take over her duties as a Shinigami just as he'd taken her powers earlier by bringing him to see the ghost of a young boy being attacked by a Hollow, telling him he must either agree to protect All spirits while she's out of commission or let this little boy and all other spirits be devoured. Ichigo then rejects Rukia's proposal and rescues the ghost-boy anyway. To a Japanese audience Rukia is making an appeal to Gimu (since he is unable to simply give-back Rukia's power he is thus obligated to offer service to repay his debt to her) to gain Ichigo's cooperation but Ichigo rejects that in favor of doing so out of compassion for the spirits involved, making him look like a poster-boy for Chaotic Good Anti-heros; to a Western audience who might assume Rukia was appealing to Ichigo's compassion from the start his arguing the point after the fact just makes him look stubborn.
      • YMMV: Westerners can easily view Rukia's argument as a deontological, Kantian statement of duty, saying that if Ichigo will save one person, he can't logically take the stance that he won't save them all. Ichigo rejects this abstract notion of duty: To him, he is obligated to deal with concrete notions and act as his internal moral compass dictates, not reason. This juxtaposition underlies the entirety of both the Soul Society and Hueco Mundo arcs.
    • Komamura talks about a form of gimu toward Yamamoto, for accepting him when no one else would, and declares that he will stand by him no matter what he might think of Rukia's death sentence.
  • Vagabond has Miyamoto Musashi effectively owing his life to Yoshioka Denshichirou who told him to stay alive and train until they can duel again the next year, since their first fight is interrupted by a fire in the dojo. Musashi does just this and ends up cutting him down. Nevertheless, even when the remaining heir to the Yoshioka plots his death by having all of their seventy remaining members attack him, before the fight he thanks them silently for his being "raised in the bosom of the Yoshioka" (as in that year given to him by Denshichirou he greatly improved), then he kills them all.
  • Pillars of moral character are a surprisingly relevant story element in Black Lagoon, especially showcased in the Yakuza arc where the Yakuza act on these pillars while Balalaika very clearly has none.
    • Another running plot point is how much of Rock's Ninjo pillar will remain as he spends more time in Roanaopor, and how much will he rebuild Revy's Ninjo pillar.
    • On the other hand, the Russians clearly have extreme loyalty towards Balalaika and in a flashback we see her as a young girl talking to an older man about redeeming her family name, presumably by becoming a Spetsnaz.
  • In the subtitled track for Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward Elric comes off as unusually cold and Alphonse whiney and inept; this is because the primary motivating factors for Edward to restore his brother (and incidentally himself as well) are Giri (Obligation due to duty to his family) and On (Obligation due to the results of his screw-up). Making Edward seem distant emphasizes the weight of honor-debt he carries, while making Alphonse sound less sympathetic makes Edward's character all the more tragic. The dub goes above and beyond the call of Woolseyism to subtly change not just lines but also emotional tone to transform Edward's motivations from Duty into Brotherly Love.
    • It was brotherly love all the way in the manga.
  • Fist of the North Star features multiple variations on the same theme: Shuu blinding himself to save a young Kenshiro, Falco severing his own leg to convince Raoh to leave his village alone, Shachi plucking out his own eye to save Kenshiro, and Ohka throwing herself off a cliff to convince the Hokuto priests to spare her sister's son. In all of these, the party in question has essentially burdened their aggressor with a debt that can never be repaid.

Film

  • In The Yakuza (1975), the character of Tanaka Ken owes a debt of honor to Harry Kilmer for saving the lives of his family after the war:

 Kilmer: Giri? What is that, like, honor?

Ken: Burden. The burden that's hardest to bear.

    • This same phrasing would be used as the title of a Transformers (original series) episode built around the notion of leadership as an obligation to one's followers as well as one received from them, which Kup describes in terms of giri.
  • For a long time the central conflict in many Japanese movies was giri, what a character was expected to do vs. what he wanted to do. Film makers and old people lament that modern Japanese audiences don't care as much about this as they become more modernized. Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade by Yoji Yamada both aim to bring giri to the contemporary audience in a way that humanizes the struggles of one's obligation/duty. And on the subject of giri, the aforementioned scene in The Yakuza (giri as burden) is the closest thing in English to the spirit of the meaning of the word.

Tabletop Games

Real Life

  • Giri drives the story of The 47 Ronin.
  • Japan also has the concept of giri-choco on Valentine's Day (and the related holiday White Day). Literally "duty chocolate", it's what people give to Just Friends out of obligation for the fact that giving people chocolate is just something you do on those days.
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