Japanese Neo-Confucianism
Japan Glossary
Bakufu
Bakuhan
Daimyo
Han


   Tokugawa Ieyasu's central concern was the restoration of peace and order to war-ravaged Japan; in order to accomplish this, he turned to China and Confucianism. In the bakuhan system of government, the bakufu, or military, government of the Tokugawa shogunate reserved the right to inspect the 250 or so autonomous territories, or han under the control of various daimyo. In order to oversee all these territories, about three-fourths of Japan, and autonomous daimyo , the Tokugawa shogunate established an elaborate bureaucracy modelled after the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. Although Confucianism had been rooted in Japan since the sixth century A.D., it had largely been confined to Buddhist monasteries; however, Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, as he began to build the bureaucracy which would eventually bring about over 260 years of domestic peace.



Fujiwara Seika   Tokugawa Ieyasu met Fujiwara Seika (1561-1619) long before he rose to the shogunate and still served under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Seika was a devoted student of China and Chinese poetry, and became convinced that the most important advance in China was the establishment of Neo-Confucianism as the official orthodoxy. Its great virtue was its secularity; it focussed on the rational understanding of the human and material worlds.

   There is a twist to Fujiwara Seika's influence over Tokugawa Ieyasu, however: he was primarily interested in commerce and trade in his study of Neo-Confucianism. Seika saw trade as the key to a prosperous nation, and believed that trade in Japan was seriously hindered by any internal or external standard in business dealings. So he turned to Neo-Confucianism to provide a basis for the rational conducting of business and commerce. This is an odd twist in the history of Confucianism, for Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism are deeply hostile to trade and commerce and instead value agriculture. In Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought, trade and commerce resulted in inequitable distribution of goods to the detriment of the majority of the population. Confucianism also takes as its working principle the central role that agriculture plays in the fortunes of a state; the county, as Confucianists and the Confucian tradition saw it, rose or fell based on the health of its agrarian enterprise. For this reason, China throughout its history, including the Nationalist Government of Chiang Kai-shek, has been deeply hostile to trade, commerce, and Western capitalism. Despite his influence over Tokugawa Ieyasu, Fujiwara Seika never ended up working for him, so the job of building a Tokugawan Neo-Confucianism fell to his most promising student.



Hayashi Razan   Known also as Doshun, Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) established a dynasty of Neo-Confucian philosophers in the Tokugawa court, as he, and then his son, and then his son, built the uniquely Tokugawan version of Chinese Neo-Confucianism; the Hayashi family would end up heading the State University (Daigaku-no-kami ) until 1906 and would establish Neo-Confucianism as the official teaching and orthodoxy of the Tokugawa period. Like Fujiwara Seika before him, Doshun was enamored of Chinese culture and devoted his life from a very early period to its study. Unlike Fujiwara Seika, Hayashi Razan focussed on transmitting the general philosophy of Neo-Confucianism to Japanese government. First, he brought the school of principle which stressed that the understanding of things can only be derived from an understanding of the principle (li ) operating behind them. This led to the development of an empirical science in China, a method of knowledge which stressed the close observation and study of material and human things. This empiricism would form the predominant characteristic of Japanese Neo-Confucianism and helps explain the rapid assimilation of Western science after the Meiji Restoration (1868). Secondly, Hayashi Razan stressed, as Confucianists did, the study of history and inaugurated several centuries of great Japanese history writing. And finally, he introduced the Confucian stress on loyalty and obligations which would provide a standard code of conduct with which the Tokugawa shogunate could govern autonomous territories and still maintain social order.



Kumazawa Banzan   An adherent of "the school of mind," in which the human mind is seen as embodying the principle (li ) of the universe, rather than the "school of principle," Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691) applied the introspectiveness of the school of mind to political theory. Kumazawa was an unemployed samurai , called a ronin . His goal was to reform Japanese government; he advocated the adoption of a political system based on merit rather than heredity and the employment of political principles to fit the situation. Although the Tokugawa regime reacted badly to these ideas—the shogunate, after all, depended on the principle of heredity—Kumazawa's ideas would greatly influence later Japanese government.



Yamaga Soko   Perhaps the most important cultural application of Confucianism in Japan was the invention of bushido or "the way of the warrior," an invention of Yamaga Soko (1622-1685). Like Kumazawa, Yamaga was a ronin , a samurai without allegiance to any specific lord. Now the samurai class was a rough and illiterate class in medieval Japan; their job was simply to fight. But Tokugawa Japan was a period of domestic peace, so the samurai class found themselves with little to do. In addition, the Tokugawa regime, in an effort to guarantee peace, rigidly enforced class distinctions and made the samurai class an important class in this system. The purpose was to prevent the large-scale arming of commoners by individual lords trying to raise an army; if you make the warrior class an exclusive class with certain privileges (only the warrior class could bear arms) and if you don't allow entrance by non-warriors into that class, you can keep territorial armies at a reasonable size. These two developments—the creation of warriors as an exclusive and privileged class and the lack of any productive labor for these warriors to do—led to a redefinition of the samurai: their purpose, their character, and their ethical standards.

   Both Kumazawa and Yamaga were deeply concerned about the constant inactivity of the samurai, and Yamaga went about defining what the samurai in times of peace should be doing with all that free time they found on their hands. The purpose of the samurai class according to Yamaga is to serve as a model for the rest of society; in School of Mind Neo-Confucianism it is not enough to understand moral behavior, one must put it into action for to be truly moral. The samurai would serve as a model of cultural, moral, and intellectual development; in particular, the samurai would exemplify a devotion to duties (giri ) and unswerving loyalty. The moral life of the samurai would center around the obligations he has willingly agreed to meet for his lord; his life would be one of temperance, self-sacrifice, high discipline, and fearlessness, particularly fearlessness in the face of death. In addition to these qualities, the samurai would cultivate intellectual, cultural, and political arts; the new role for the samurai, as Yamaga saw it, was to assume political and intellectual leadership. This new educated and politically savvy class would eventually tear down the Tokugawa bakufu and invent a new, centralized government around the figure of the emperor in the late nineteenth century. It is fitting that these samurai leading the Meiji Restoration and government also led the charge in adopting Western social and political models, for Yamaga Soko was one of the first Japanese intellectuals to call for the adoption of Western technology, a warning that went largely unheeded until Commodore Perry sailed up with his gunboats in 1853. The term, bushido would in later years be applied to Yamaga's writings on the role and character of the samurai, which he called shido (the way of the samurai) and bukyo (the warrior's creed).



The School of Prosperous Peace   The Tokugawa family ardently supported this new brand of learning, setting up an image of Confucius in Ueno and establishing the image as an object of religious worship and later, under the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (reigned 1680-1709), the renovation of the State University (Daigaku-no-kami ) into the School of Prosperous Peace (Shoheiko ). Tsunayoshi named Fujiwara Hoko (1644-1732), the grandson of Fujiwara Seika, as the head of the Shoheiko , and funtil the Meiji Restoration it would become the cultural and educational center of Japan.



Kaibara Ekken   Two great innovations are introduced into Tokugawa culture by Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714): the first is a systematic study of nature based on Neo-Confucianism, the beginnings of Japanese empirical science; the second is the translation of the abstruse and forbidding philosophy of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism into the language of the ordinary Japanese. His work in empirical science was confined to biology, and, like Western science, focusses on "natural law" (jori). It is fair to say that he occupies the same position in the history of science in Japan as the pre-Enlightenment scientists (such as Harvey, Bacon, and Newton) occupy in the history of science in Europe. But he is principally known for his manuals of behavior, translating the Confucian ethical system into easy "self-help" manuals, such as Precepts for Children and Greater Learning for Women. The imposing textbook of Neo-Confucianism was called The Great Learning , and the life of Kaibara Ekken revolved around making that book accessible to all Japanese; this project more than any other accomplishment incorporated Neo-Confucianism into the very fiber of Japanese culture.



Miura Baien   The eighteenth century saw an efflorescence of Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought, particularly the application of Neo-Confucian rationalism and science. Where Kaibara Ekken had paved the way for objective, empirical science, the eighteenth century saw the systematic application of this science and the principle of jori to human affairs. Just as in the Enlightenment, the mechanical world view led to a systematic reunderstanding of human society and human behavior, so Neo-Confucianism led to the invention of rational humanistic sciences in Japan in a way that didn't occur in China. Perhaps the most far-reaching application of Neo-Confucian science or rationalism occurred in the area of economics. The original impulse introducing Neo-Confucianism into Japan was, as we saw earlier, economic. However, the Japanese invention of economics—the science of the production and distribution of goods and services—was brought about by Miura Baien (1723-1789), at about the same time economics was independently born in Europe.

   Miura Baien wrote on a number of subjects: metaphysics, morality, and religion. But he is best known for Kagen , "The Origin of Price." Even though neither Miura or any of his contemporaries had any contact with the West and only the most passing knowledge of Western culture, Miura attempts to solve the same paradoxical question that Adam Smith made the subject of his investigation, the premier paradox in economics: the origin of value. Why do things come to be valued as they are? On what is value, or price, based on? Miura comes to the same conclusion as Smith does: value or price is based on labor and materials. And like Adam Smith, Miura posits that labor and production are the principle meaningful activities humans engage in.


Kaiho Seiryo   The other major figure in the Japanese invention of economics was Kaiho Seiryo (1755-1817), an itinerant wanderer from a warrior class family. It is from his wanderings that Kaiho developed his economic ideas; the entire system is based on the idea that government should regulate the production and distribution of goods. If the government fails to do this, famine, overproduction, robbery, strife, and so on, would be the natural consequences. Like the European economists, Kaiho believed that non-productive classes of people, such as literature professors and priests, should be strictly regulated, for an overpopulation of economically useless people would spell disaster. In this, we have one of the first theories of the nature of a "leisure class," though the idea originates with the Chinese Legalists of the second century B.C., who felt that all unproductive classes should be entirely eliminated. But for Kaiho, no-one was exempted from economic laws; all of society depended on human productive labor and the mercantile distribution of goods, all of society was founded on the exchange of goods and services. This latter idea, you may remember, is at the center of Smithian economics and the rationalist economics of Europe.

Chinese Philosophy
Legalism


   However, there are several important differences between Kaiho and Adam Smith. First, Kaiho did not believe that individual human beings, left to their own devices and looking out for their own interests, could successfully sustain a society; government regulation and enforcement—strict and merciless enforcement—was necessary. Second, both Kaiho and Smith believed that the production and distribution of goods followed "natural" laws, but the natural law animating Smith's argument is a kind of biological and morally neutral law. The "natural" law behind Kaiho's thought was the Confucian moral law that governed heaven and earth. In other words, labor, production, mercantile activity, etc. reflected and reproduced the moral law of heaven which governed the material world and the world of humans:
The realization of rice from the rice fields is no different from the realization of profit from gold. The realization of timber from mountain land, the realization of fish and salt from the sea, and the realization of profit from gold and rice are the natural principle of heaven and earth. 1 (Keikodan [Lessons from the Past ], page 11)


Chinese Philosophy
Neo-Confucianism (Principle)


This law of nature that governed everything was "principle" (li ); this single, unitary principle governed every natural and social event in the world.

   From this it can be understood that everything in society can be reduced to the status of economic principles: military service to a lord is an economic transaction: the soldier is the seller (offering military service) and the lord is the buyer (purchasing another person's military skills and efforts); legal punishment is an economic transaction: "To repay a capital crime offender with capital punishment is a matter of simple business arithmetic." 2


The Kansei Edict   The Kansei Edict. Neo-Confucianism was made the official philosophy of Japan in 1790, when the shogunate issued the Kansei Edict in 1790. This law forbade the teaching or propagation of "heterodox" studies, that is, anything in disagreement with the teachings of Neo-Confucianism. The edict established a post filled by two men to oversee all teaching to make sure it conformed to the law.






Endnotes1 Sources of Japanese Tradition , ed. Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), page 491
2 Sources of Japanese Tradition , ed. Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), page 493


Kokugaku: Japanese Studies

World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-31-97