Filial Piety as Devotion & Self-Sacrifice in the Film Tokyo Story

In one of my university classes we viewed the film Tokyo Story,1 which presents Noriko, one of the protagonists, as an admirable woman who lives out the virtue of filial piety to the parents of her deceased husband. Although my family tried to impress such ideals upon me in accordance with the Christian worldview, I did not have a deep belief in filial piety and deference to one’s parents. But as I’ve matured and grown in character, I’ve come to a better understanding of not only obedience to authorities, especially parents, but of special devotion to them. Noriko’s story and her display of the Japanese understanding of filial piety helped me see this virtue in a new light. 

Tokyo Story tells a beautiful tragedy about filial piety, family, and charity. Throughout the story, what distinguishes one’s character is not anything superficial, such as blood relation, nor merely actions, such as hosting a guest, but rather sacrificial giving and a cheerful disposition. It reminded me of the Confucian proverb, ‘What is difficult is to manage the expression on one’s face. As for the young taking on the burden when there is work to be done or letting the old enjoy the wine and the food when these are available, that hardly deserves to be called filial.’2 In this sense Noriko best fulfills the duty of filial piety, even though she has no blood relation to those she devotes her self to—her late husband’s parents. She cannot afford to provide a nice vacation or any such extravagance for her parents-in-law, Shukichi and Tomi, but she does much more by giving out of her poverty. And while Shige, Shukichi and Tomi’s biological daughter, has a larger home and can take them in, she does so with apparent annoyance, whereas Noriko keeps a cheerful attitude. After Tomi’s death, while Shige demands and takes Tomi’s clothes, Shukichi gives Noriko Tomi’s watch as a special gift. This suggests that family is determined not only by blood relation but by charity and self-sacrificial devotion. Thus Noriko, Tomi’s daughter-in-law, is shown as a better daughter than Shige, Tomi’s biological daughter. 

As a teenager I used to discuss with my friends the nature of what it means to respect one’s parents, and some of us emphasized that to respect or honour one’s parents does not necessarily entail obedience. Not only did we fail to recognize the virtue of humble obedience without any cause except that of respect for the other person, but we did not consider the virtue of devotion to one’s parents, which is filial piety. By devotion I mean what Noriko’s character presents: Care-taking, setting aside time for another, sacrificing for someone. 

While I grew up Christian, my faith—if it could be called that—consisted in little more than an academic interest and intellectual pursuit. I knew of God, but I did not know God, nor desire Him, nor love Him. But three years ago a fire was kindled in my soul, and such a thing must spread to the mind and to one’s whole life. Thus I want to better love God and others, for He is the Creator of all, and I look for any way to grow in love and obedience to Him through love of others. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I should not merely obey my heavenly Father outwardly, but through obedience I must love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.3 In short, I must devote myself to Him, which is the spiritual gift of piety. But if ‘I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name,’4 should I not devote myself to the people He used to give me life? If there’s a God who can create out of nothing, He didn’t need to give me parents. But He did, and in devoting myself to love and self-sacrifice for my parents, I serve my Father in Heaven. And for those whose parents have forsaken their precious gift of fatherhood or motherhood by abandonment, or by abuse, then even in the face of this great evil and sadness—especially in the face of it—children have can honour God by uniting themselves to the Cross of His Son, abused for the sake of our forgiveness and healing, by forgiving their parents. Reconciliation is not always possible: Sometimes one party does not desire it, and sometimes they are dangerous and reconciliation would be imprudent and impossible. But forgiveness—to cancel the debt others owe us because God cancels our debt if we repent—this is always possible with God alone.

Noriko’s example of filial piety did not so much introduce me to a virtue of which I had no prior knowledge, but rather helped me to understand the depth of such a virtue and to know better how to honour my parents. Noriko also displays the Christian virtue of giving out of poverty, and in such a way as to honour her parents. For Jesus says, ‘[Rich people] have contributed out of their abundance; but [the widow] out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’5 Her love, measured by sacrifice and devotion, is therefore the greater.

The film Tokyo Story presents Noriko as an admirable character, rewarded for her filial piety; and as this virtue appears in other novels I read for this class, such The Setting Sun by Dazai Osamu, I understand that it is ingrained in Japanese culture in a way I’ve not seen in American culture. This notion of filial piety as selfless love and devotion towards one’s parents as displayed by Noriko can help us to understand how we can love with greater love, greater self-sacrifice, more courageous and devoted self-gifting, and so live out this virtue in response to the great commandment of love.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sad′ducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.’

Matthew 22:34-40

Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure. . . . For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins; in the day of your distress it will be remembered in your favor; like frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away. Whoever forsakes a father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers a mother is cursed by the Lord.

Sirach 3: 3-4, 14-16
  1. I also appreciated the remake, Tokyo Family, but for the sake of simplicity I shall only refer to Tokyo Story
  2. Confucius, trans. D. C. Lau, The Analects, (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 64. 
  3. New Revised Standard Edition Catholic Edition, Luke 10:27. 
  4. Ephesians 3:14-15. 
  5. Mark 12:44. 

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