Why do people do what they do?

I was in Kyoto in the last week of October 2012 to participate in a workshop on “Morals and ethics in business and the profession in Asia” organized by the Harvard Asia Center.  We looked at cases of individuals who are faced with a moral dilemma when they experience conflicts between their personal values and the requirements of the profession or work place.  This ties in neatly with my interest to understand the motivation of people – why do people do what they do?

I greatly appreciate Kyoto for its sense of harmony and order. This is the city that retains the nostalgia and legacy of its illustrious culture and history despite the encroachment of modern life. It still has some 2,000 religious sites comprising Buddhist temples and shrines.

JapanesegardenThe known history of Kyoto dates back to the 6th century AD. It became the seat of Japan’s imperial court in 794 and remained the capital city until 1869 with the transfer of the imperial court to Tokyo.  Kyoto was arranged in accordance with traditional Chinese feng shui following the model of the ancient Chinese capital of Xian. Kyoto was spared the bombing in World War II and it retains some beautiful pre-war buildings.

Aesthetics versus brutality

While meditating in a rock garden I wondered, perhaps like many others before me, how the people who created such beauty and harmony could commit some of the worst atrocities during World War II. While what happened at the Hellfire Pass (described in my earlier article) could be viewed as part of the harsh realities of war, there could be little justification for the events, known at the Nanking Massacre, that followed the capture of Nanking, the capital city of the Republic of China, on 13 December 1937.

japanese swordsDuring the Nanking Massacre, for six weeks Japanese soldiers, with no constraints from their superior officers, went on a rampage of horrific mass murder, raping and looting resulting in an estimated death toll of some 250,000 people, many of them non-combatants including women and children. Several of the key perpetrators of the atrocities, including the army commander and the foreign minister, were later tried and found guilty of war crimes and subsequently executed.

This brings me back to the question: how could the events like the Nanking Massacre have happened in the first place and perpetrated by the people who apparently valued highly harmony and order.

I don’t think anyone can truly understand the precise motivations and the circumstances prevailing at that time. I can only satisfy myself with a partial answer from the insights of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her 1946 study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture.

The Japanese, she wrote, are “both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways…”

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