Follow TV Tropes


Pillars of Moral Character

Go To

"Duty is heavier than a mountain; death is lighter than a feather."
Proverb from the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors (1882) quoted to death by Rand al'Thor

The neo-traditional Japanese moral character (at both the individual and societal level) is built upon four key elements, which can best be compared to the European Virtues: On, Gimu, Giri and Ninjō. All four of these touch upon the Japanese concept of 'honor', which combines elements of reputation, self-respect, and personal moral/ethical code.

The Pillars:

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 allegiance to the debt-holder in lieu of true payment.

Giri (義理)
"Duty". Much more complicated than the European 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.

While the Pillars do have roots in earlier Japanese culture, the specific codification and formulation explained here was created during the 19th-century Meiji Restoration in reaction to a perceived moral decay and loss of national identity in the wake of the opening of Japan to western influences. It is similar to the late medieval concept of chivalry, in that the system of feudal obligations it references had already been superseded in many areas...and in that it ignores many aspects of historical feudalism that contradict its vision of what Ye Goode Olde Days were really about. Despite some re-thinking of what a military-centric 'honor' code had contributed to in her post-war years, Japan still prizes obligation-based virtues more highly than Western note  cultures do.

Understanding the Pillars can often help clarify the motivations and drives of anime characters, and can sometimes explain significant differences in audience reaction in Japan vs. in 'The West'. In particular, Western audiences may find the emphasis on carefully tracking debts and obligations and putting societal obligations above personal fulfillment a jarring contrast to the Western love of spontaneity and focus on individual worth. Dissonance can also come from the other direction: some Japanese authors, including Rumiko Takahashi, are surprised by their series' international popularity as they assumed the underlying values to be uniquely Japanese with no parallel in other societies.

It's important to remember, however, that cultural differences are rarely absolute. While the West has often decried monarchism and 'honor' since the Enlightenment, it had its own long feudal history that still impacts its ethical systems. "Debts of conscience" and difficulties in balancing competing obligations and desires certainly still exist. Were it otherwise, the trope pages for It's Personal, The Atoner, and Undying Loyalty would be much shorter.

For those that reject or live without these pillars, see The Unfettered. See also Japanese Spirit, which is the method one uses to pursue these values, and I Gave My Word, a common verbal expression of adherence to the Pillars. The (pre-modern) European equivalents are the Seven Heavenly Virtues.


    open/close all folders 

    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.
    • The series is also partially a satire not only of this, but also a light deconstruction what could be considered character archetypes in Japanese media.
  • 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.
  • Bleach:
    • Giri is a driving force behind Byakuya Kuchiki's character. 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 the code yet again in the Soul Society arc by stopping Rukia's execution, Byakuya would disgrace himself and the Kuchiki clan horribly... but if he didn't break the rules, his sister-in-law and pretty much the only living person he truly cares for would be which case he'd break the promise made to his late wife and be left completely alone. He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. There's a theory that he threw his fight against Ichigo to resolve the situation by allowing someone to rescue Rukia without personally breaking the law, and it gets more credence when the Big Bad reveals he set the (unlawful) execution up and orders one of his subordinates to finish off Rukia, prompting the already-injured Byakuya into Taking the Bullet. It's also worth remembering that, when he got married and later adopted Rukia into the family, he was not yet the head of the family, so he wasn't in a position to say Screw the Rules, I Make Them!.
      • While it's not directly mentioned during Byakuya's fight with Tsukishima, this is presumably why Tsukishima didn't bother with his usual psychological ploys of "inserting" himself into people's past to make them think he's their best friend, instead only using his power to learn Byakuya's fighting style inside and out by retconning himself into being Byakuya's mentor. The knowledge he gained via his power made him realize immediately that Byakuya would kill his best friend if honor demanded it.
    • The Pillars can also make one early scene seem odd to western viewers. Rukia tries to convince Ichigo that receiving her Shinigami powers means he must also take up all her duties by showing him the ghost of a young boy being attacked by a Hollow and telling him he must either agree to protect ALL spirits or let this little boy be devoured. Ichigo rejects the choice presented and rescues the ghost-boy anyway. To a Japanese audience Rukia demands Ichigo's cooperation on the basis of Gimu note  but Ichigo claims that Ninjo is what compels him to act instead. To a Western audience, this may seem like a very poorly-timed argument about abstract vs. concrete moral obligations. To Japanese audience, it's clearly about which Pillar applies.
    • Komamura owes a form of Gimu to Yamamoto for accepting him when no one else would, and declares that he will stand by the Captain-General no matter what Komamura might privately think of Rukia's death sentence.
    • In the "Everything But The Rain" flashback arc, Ryuuken Ishida deals with a Giri conflict that in some ways parallels Byakuya's. As a high-ranking pure-blood Quincy, he's expected to uphold all The Clan's rules and set an example for others, but his duty to his Arranged Marriage fiancee Masaki requires him to try and make her situation more bearable. Ultimately, Ninjo seems to be more important to him as he errs on the side of protecting people rather than ideas. While he lectures Masaki about the importance of following the rules, when she goes ahead and breaks them anyway, he tries to mitigate the risk and covers for her when she gets caught.
  • 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.
  • While in Fullmetal Alchemist, everything Ed and Al do is out of brotherly love, in the subtitled track for Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), Edward comes off as unusually cold and Alphonse whiny 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.
  • In Tower of God Gimu is the reason Hatz wanted to help Rachel continue to climb the tower.
  • 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.
  • Of all places, High School Of The Dead has several scenes where - while not explicitly stated - giri plays a heavy role in the sense of following the rules and obligations of civilized society. Numerous characters are shown struggling with doing what is necessary for survival during the Zombie Apocalypse simply because it's the wrong thing to do; this extends even to things such as taking something that doesn't belong to them like a moped or food, despite the fact that the previous owners are visibly dead just a few feet away. The breakdown of ninjō also shows in the selfishness and decadence of several groups. Then there's the unsavory types who willingly throw away any sense of morals and use force or charisma to simply take what they want from the chaos.
  • Seems to be the main driving force for Future Trunks from Dragon Ball Z. Although he's a Combat Pragmatist most of the time, he's deliberately held back several times in deference to his father to fulfill his filial duty. But as soon as that came in conflict with his duty to the world (Vegeta allowing Cell to achieve his perfect form), Trunks attacked his father and attempted to destroy Cell on his own.
  • Mikasa, from Attack on Titan, is driven by On and Gimu. Having been saved as a child by Eren, and then adopted into his family, she feels a strong sense of duty to him. As such, she has used her strength to become his champion and stand with him on all things. She also considers him to be her last surviving family, and as such shows extreme devotion to him above all others — stating that she only has so much room in her heart, and making it clear even her allies are not safe if they get between her and protecting Eren. This has touches of Fridge Brilliance, as she is the lone character of Asian heritage in a Western society and her devotion is sometimes viewed by others as unreasonable.
  • In Fairy Tail, Mest, one of the candidates for Fairy Tail's annual S-Class Exam, takes advantage of On when he asks Wendy to be his partner, saying that he was a disciple of Mystogan, the person who took Wendy in when she was young and brought her to Cait Shelter. Wendy accepts, in spite of the fact that there's no benefit for her (only the candidate can be promoted) and her best friend Carla's opposition to it (since Carla's suspicious of Mest and thinks the exam is dangerous for Wendy). Carla argues that because Wendy helped Mystogan in Edolas, she should consider the debt repaid, but Wendy doesn't agree, though, and becomes stubborn enough that she doesn't talk to Carla for a week. Unfortunately for Wendy, it turns out that Mest is lying (Mystogan only showed up to take jobs and put everyone else to sleep while he did) and manipulated her into getting him on the island so that he can investigate it for the Council.

  • 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. The 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.
  • Pacific Rim touches very lightly on the duty that Mako Mori has to her adopted father; he saved her life and cared for her as she grew up, and she owes him her allegiance and respect even when he goes against her wishes (something the American protagonist has trouble grasping, at first because he isn't aware of the debt).
  • Kurosawa's film High and Low, based on the 87th Precinct novel King's Ransom revolves around theses concepts, and what a wealthy man owes to his employees/retainers in return for their service and loyalty.

  • In The Wheel of Time, there's a borderlander saying which is frequently quoted by Lan: "Death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than a mountain."

    Professional Wrestling 

    Tabletop Games 
  • In BattleTech, the Draconis Combine emphasizes the Five Pillarsnote especially giri and ninjo. Fitting with the entire Feudal Future and the Dracs pretending to be Feudal Japan IN SPACE. Their Culture Police are even called the Order of the Five Pillars.
  • In the first and second editions of the anime-inspired game Exalted, characters regain Essence by acting on any or all of four cardinal virtues: temperance, compassion, conviction, and valor. The first two are clearly connected to Giri and Ninjo, and encourage similar acts of heroism (doing one's duty despite fear or temptation, protecting the weak, acting in accordance with noblesse oblige, uplifting mortals spiritually, etc).

  • Gimu is directly referenced in Freefall as the debt an AI feels to humanity due to its creation.

    Video Games 
  • Mitsuru Kirijo of Persona 3 is made of this. Her grandfather, once head of her family's wealthy corporation, once discovered the key to starting the end of the world and went off his nutter in trying to start it, causing not only the deaths of hundreds of people but the Dark Hour—which is essentially a Regularly Scheduled Evil which happens every night at midnight. Her father spent the rest of his life trying to undo the mistakes of his father, and Mitsuru gained Persona powers (thus dooming herself to being a target of Shadows during the Dark Hour) simply to protect her father and help him. She feels greatly responsible for everyone who suffers as a result of the Dark Hour, and also for those whose families were broken apart or ruined by her grandfather's actions, and vows not only to protect them, but to find a way to repay her debt by ending the Dark Hour once and for all. However, her devotion to honoring a debt really shines (for better or worse) in The Answer chapter; when her father died earlier, Yukari (who lost her own father a decade earlier because of the Kirijo Group) helped Mitsuru get through her Heroic BSoD. As a result, when Yukari goes through her own Heroic BSoD and turns against the party in The Answer, Mitsuru stands by her side, even knowing that Yukari was in the wrong. Simply because she owed Yukari a debt, Mitsuru was willing to stand with her against every other one of her friends.
  • The cast of Senran Kagura are ninjas (if modern ones), so a lot of them actively try to uphold the Pillars. The Gessen girls' issues, in particular, stem from On; not only is their adoptive grandfather dead, but he was also their mentor/savior, so they don't know how to 'repay' his memory other than by beating the crap out of anyone who disrespects it. But even that doesn't resolve their grief, so they quickly find that Vengeance Feels Empty.
  • Giri is one of the core conflicts of Knuckles the Echidna's character, embodied by his struggle to balance his duty as guardian of the Master Emerald with his desire to lead his own life like Sonic does. Not that you'd know it, given that he's been the series' poster-boy for Flanderization, Motive Decay, Took a Level in Dumbass, and all around Character Derailment since the mid-2000's. It's still mentioned in all his character bios though.

    Visual Novels 
  • The pillars of moral character form the backbone of Soryu Oh's characterization in Kissed by the Baddest Bidder. A member of The Triads from birth, Soryu has little use for the law, which he says is made by the wealthy and powerful to serve their own interests. However, he has an extremely strong sense of giri which has caused him to spend most of his life convinced that he has no right to pursue or expect any kind of personal happiness, as his duty to his organization completely supersedes his own desires. He also has an equally strong sense of ninjo which gives him firm opinions about things like not involving innocent bystanders in his group's activities, which puts him in conflict with less scrupulous gangsters. On and gimu are of course important elements in all of his interactions within the Ice Dragons and with other organizations, and he invokes both in his initial approach to the protagonist - unlike Eisuke, who considers the protagonist his property if he's the one who purchased her from the auction, Soryu considers the $20,000,000 he paid a debt which the protagonist now owes him, and which he expects her to repay either in currency or, failing that, in service.

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of The Transformers touched on this. The 3rd season episode "The Burden Hardest to Bear" sees Rodimus Prime grow increasingly sick of the mantle of leading the Autobots and all the responsibilities that come with it. This leads him to basically abandon his post and ditch the Matrix of Leadership so he can revert back to his youthful and carefree Hot Rod persona. Kup explained Rodimus' grief to one of the group's human allies using the concept of Giri (his translation of which becomes the episode's title) and discusses that Optimus and other prior leaders learned how to integrate the duty into their lives and their leadership. By the episode's end, Hot Rod learns a similar lesson while taking refuge at a Kendo dojo (the episode taking place in Japan) and respects the responsibility he has to the other Autobots while re-assuming his leadership position. Somewhat ironically, this episode about the perpetually anxious and self-doubting Rodimus finally embracing his position as the Autobot leader was the last episode to air before the writers resurrected Optimus Prime and thrust him back into the spotlight and Autobot Commander role, making the entire moral/character growth pretty much unnecessary.

    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.