Understanding anime: Giri (Duty) versus Ninjo (Compassion)

Sometimes taking a look at the Japanese way of thinking makes understanding anime and manga a lot easier since cultural differences can cause a loss of translation. Today we focus on Giri, which means obligation or duty, and Ninjo, which means compassion or empathy. These terms and what they mean, holds the key to understand especially anime with samurai or yakuza in it.

Giri (Obligation)

Giri encompasses the obligations like taking care of you parents in their own age, or avenging your feudal lord’s death, or even taking your own life because a Shogun asked you to, or going to prison to protect your yakuza boss. Giri was a part of especially a yakuza and samurai’s life style. A modern spin on Giri is providing good service to customers if you work at a maid café as an example. You can say that Giri promotes a sense of social harmony.

Ninjo (Compassion, Empathy)

Ninjo is easier to understand because it means your personal sense of compassion and empathy, in other words human feelings.


Black Jack from the anime Black Jack is a great example. Black Jack who is a doctor (Doctor’s have certain obligations – Giri) is high in demand because he has almost ninja-like skills in surgery. He asks outrageous fees to rich people but out of compassion (Ninjo) he heals killer whales, dogs and poor people for free. Ninjo conflicts sometimes with Giri

The best example of the Giri/Ninjo conflict in anime is definitely the character Sagara Sanosuke from the anime Rurouni Kenshin. Sagarawa a former member of the Sekihōtai, a group of Japanese political extremists and when the group was destroyed he became a fighter-for-hire and hater of the Meiji Government that destroyed the Sekihōtai, that hatred stems from his Giri, his obligation of loyalty to the Sekihōtai. Then of course Sanosuke met Himura Kenshin and were defeated in a battle by Kenshin. Kenshin convinced Sanosuke to leave his mercenary ways appealing to Sanosuke’s ninjo and they join forced to protect people, which is also Giri! See how Giri and Ninjo conflicts and complements each other?

Now armed with a little more knowledge of Giri and Ninjo some anime series out there might make a lot more sense to us. Giri and Ninjo is an every day life situation in Japan and understanding it brings us closer to understand it in our own lives.

Here is a nice video treat. It is a character profile of Sagara Sanosuke from the 2012 Rurouni Kenshin live action movie. The movie was brilliant! To see the video, please follow the link: http://bit.ly/Sagara_Sanosuke_Video_Profile