Confucianism in Japan

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CONFUCIANISM IN JAPAN . The earliest Japanese chronicles tell us that Confucianism was introduced to Japan near the end of the third century ce, when Wani of Paekche (Korea) sent the Confucian Analects (Chin., Lun-yü; Jpn., Rongo ) to the court of Emperor Ōjin. Although the actual date of this event may have been a century or more later, it is also likely that continental emigrants familiar with Confucian teachings arrived in Japan prior to the formal introduction of Confucianism.

Japanese Confucianism to 1600

The Confucianism to which the Japanese were first exposed represented more than the humble ethical dicta of Confucius himself. By this time, those doctrines had been overlaid and to some extent obscured by the doctrines of Daoism and Yin-yang dualist speculation, which combined to form a sophisticated cosmology. Prior to the seventh century it is likely that these Confucian teachings remained a virtual monopoly of scribes and literati attached to the Yamato court where they probably assisted with quasi-diplomatic correspondence and record keeping.

Both supporting and being supported by the political forces of centralization in the nascent Japanese state, Confucian teachings first achieved prominence in Japan during the time of Shōtoku Taishi (573621), who served as regent to his aunt, the empress Suiko (592628). In 604, Shōtoku Taishi issued the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which was intended to centralize further the administration of Japan by emphasizing administrative efficiency and harmony among contending factions. The constitution reflected the Confucian cosmology that regarded the universe as a triad composed of heaven, earth, and man, with each element having specific and mutual responsibilities. Again under Confucian influence, the cause of centralization and unification was furthered by the Taika Reforms of 646, which asserted the Confucian imperial principle of unified rule, and by the introduction of a complex legal and administrative system patterned after the codes of the Chinese Tang dynasty during the eighth century.

The influence of Confucian principles in government administration declined during the ninth and tenth centuries along with the political power of the imperial court. Confucian advice on how to regulate the state and the affairs of man was secondary to the more superstitious uses to which the Confucian cosmology could be applied. The Korean monk Kwalluk (Jpn., Kanroku) had brought books on geomancy and divination as early as the year 602, and "Confucian" advice on where to build a home or when one might auspiciously marry was more familiar at the popular level than were other Confucian principles. Perhaps disillusioned by this trend, Japanese Confucians of the eleventh and twelfth centuries engaged more in textual analysis and criticism than in original thought or interpretation.

The Neo-Confucian doctrines of Zhu Xi (Jpn., Shuki, more commonly, Shushi; 11301200) were introduced to Japan, if the sources are to be believed, soon after Zhu Xi's death. Institutionally, the doctrines were taught in Zen monasteries where such Neo-Confucian practices as "maintaining reverence and sitting quietly" (jikei seiza ) were regarded as intellectually stimulating variations of what Zen practitioners already knew as "sitting in meditation" (zazen ). Though Neo-Confucian doctrines were from time to time favorably received at the imperial and shogunal courts, particularly during the reigns of the emperors Hanazono (r. 13081318) and Go-Daigo (r. 13181339), and despite the attempts of the Ashikaga Academy to propagate Neo-Confucian teachings, Neo-Confucianism would remain largely in the shadow of its Zen patrons through the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, since Neo-Confucianism originally arose in China as a secular and rational alternative to the teachings of Buddhism, it may have been inevitable that a rupture would eventually occur between the two, and it was out of that rupture that Neo-Confucianism achieved independent status in Japan.

Tokugawa Confucianism (16001868)

Perhaps the only positive result of the abortive Japanese invasions of Korea in the 1590s was the consequent introduction of new texts from the Confucian tradition into Japan. Fujiwara Seika (15611619) was made aware of this new tradition during his study in a Zen monastery. He had his first interview with Tokugawa Ieyasu (15421616), the future empire builder, in 1593, a decade before Ieyasu would be granted the title of shōgun. Regarding Neo-Confucianism as a possible basis for stable international relations, Ieyasu invited the philosophically eclectic Fujiwara Seika to join his government, but Seika declined and recommended in his stead a young student of his, Hayashi Razan (15831657).

Like his teacher, Hayashi Razan had studied Zen but was soon drawn to the orthodox teachings of Zhu Xi. With his appointment to Ieyasu's government, a degree of official attention was conferred on these teachings, and his descendants would serve as official Confucian advisers to the Tokugawa government throughout the period. Known for the quality of their scholarship and their initial fidelity to the teachings of Zhu Xi, Hayashi Razan's descendants succeeded in securing further official recognition for their doctrines. Tokugawa Yoshinao (16001650) erected the Seidō (Sages' Hall) near the Hayashi residence in Edo (Tokyo), and the fifth Tokugawa shōgun, Tsunayoshi (r. 16901709) endowed the Hayashi school, the Shōheikō (School of Prosperous Peace) alongside the Seidō. Nonetheless, after Hayashi Razan the most important Tokugawa Confucians all came from outside the Hayashi family.

The final important champion of fidelity to the teachings of Zhu Xi in Japan was Yamazaki Ansai (16181682). His school, the Kimon, had as its goal the popularization of the ethics of Zhu Xi. Like other Neo-Confucians, this school generally took a dim view of human emotions and feelings, regarding them as potentially disruptive to the delicate balance that must lie at the heart of both man and the cosmos.

Another center for seventeenth-century Confucianism was the domain of Mito, where the daimyo, Tokugawa Mitsukuni (16281701), began a major historiographical enterprise seeking to reinterpret the Japanese polity in terms of Confucian imperial principles. He was assisted in this venture, titled the Dainihonshi (History of Great Japan), by the Chinese Ming loyalist and refugee Zhu Shun-shui (Jpn., Shushunsui; 16001682).

During the second half of the seventeenth century, Neo-Confucian assumptions and vocabulary penetrated the new popular culture of Japan, but what has been called the "emotionalism" of the Japanese at this time made the puritanical Neo-Confucian stance on emotions and feelings incompatible with the mainstream of Japanese culture. These teachings had dominated long enough, however, to leave a lasting legacy of humanism and rationalism that enriched later Tokugawa thought.

In China, the most compelling Confucian alternative to the orthodox teachings of Zhu Xi were the teachings of the fifteenth-century figure Wang Yang-ming (Jap., Ōyōmei). His teachings, known in Japan as Yōmeigaku, were first propagated by Nakae Tōju (16081648), who emphasized the Wang school's teachings on intuition and action. Kumazawa Banzan (16191691), a pupil of Tōju, interpreted these activist teachings in terms of their relevance to the samurai class. These teachings would have their greatest impact in Japan during the nineteenth century when such leaders as Sakuma Shōzan (18111864) and his disciple Yoshida Shōin (18301859) became ideological leaders of the Meiji restoration. Both tried to stow away on one of Commodore Perry's vessels in 1854 but were caught and imprisoned. Sakuma's advocacy of "Eastern ethics and Western science" inspired generations of later reformers. Yoshida went so far as to plan to assassinate a shogunal emissary to the imperial court who was seeking the emperor's approval of a treaty with the United States. His plot was exposed, and he was beheaded in 1859, but he continued to serve as a model for loyalist activism.

In Japan, however, the most intellectually compelling alternative to Neo-Confucian teachings was presented by a succession of schools known collectively as Ancient Learning (Kogaku). Yamaga Sokō (16221685), the first proponent of Ancient Learning, argued that if the goal of Confucian exegesis was to find the true message of the sages, then that end might better be served by reading the works of Confucius and Mencius (Meng-tzu) directly rather than by reading the commentary on those works by Zhu Xi or others. Yamaga was drawn to the relevance of Confucian teachings in a military age, and he is regarded as the modern founder of the teachings of Bushidō, the Way of the Warrior. His publication in 1665 of a frontal attack on the orthodox teachings of Zhu Xi resulted in his banishment from Edo during the years 16661675. He insisted that Japan, and not China, was the true "central kingdom" and repository of Asian culture.

Itō Jinsai (16271705) and his son Itō Togai (16701736) further developed the fundamentalist assumptions of Ancient Learning. In their school, the Kogidō (School of Ancient Meanings), located in Kyoto, Confucius was revered as the supreme sage of the universe, and the school openly showed disdain for the metaphysical explanations of the Sung and Ming Confucians in China.

The most important Ancient Learning figure, however, was Ogyū Sorai (16661728), whose methodology was known as Kobunjigaku (School of ancient words and phrases). An ardent Sinophile, Sorai regarded ancient Chinese writings as the repository of intellectual resources for establishing the organization of social institutions, the performance of ancient rituals, and principles of governmental administration. He revolutionized Confucian teachings in East Asia by insisting that the principles of the Confucian way were not a priori principles but were, rather, the products of the sages' own inventive wisdom. Sorai thus insisted that aspiration to sagehood was at the least irrelevant to, and at worst destructive of, the polity.

With the decline of the school of Ogyū Sorai during the mid-eighteenth century, Confucianism as a whole began to decline. After Hayashi Razan, the most influential Confucian adviser to the government was Arai Hakuseki (16571725), who served as mentor to the sixth shōgun, Ienobu, and as adviser to the seventh, Ietsugu, during the years 17091715. He was instrumental in revising the Laws Governing Military Households and was known as an able administrator who sought to tighten fiscal policy and management. Known for the high degree of rationalism in his thought, he was also a gifted historian.

Aware of and concerned over the decline of fidelity to the Neo-Confucian teachings in the official bakufu (military government) college of the Hayashi family, Matsudaira Sadanobu (17581829), head of the Council of Elders (rōjū ), promulgated in 1790 the Prohibition of Heterodox Studies (Kansei igaku no kin ). This attempt at ideological reform enjoyed some measure of success in the bakufu college, the edict had limited effect on the more important regional schools scattered throughout Japan.

Confucianism in Modern Japan

During the mid-nineteenth century, the historical, emperor-centered nationalism of the Mito school came to find points of agreement with the xenophobic, Shintō-influenced patriotism of the nativist (Kokugaku) schools. Spurred into action by the philosophy of Yōmeigaku, Confucian activists took the lead in restructuring the Japanese polity in the Meiji restoration of 1868, in which direct rule was returned to the imperial court. Nonetheless, Confucianism as an independent doctrine declined during the decades immediately following the restoration, in part because Confucian teachings had been identified so strongly with the previous Tokugawa government. Further, most prominent Tokugawa Confucians died during the first twenty-five years of the Meiji period, and only a scant handful had satisfactory successors to carry on the teachings. Still, the Confucian ideals of loyalty, duty, filial piety, and harmony persisted well into this period.

Motoda Eifu (18181891), Confucian tutor and adviser to the Meiji emperor, was the last important Japanese Confucian. He regarded Confucianism as a remedy for excessive infatuation with Western methods and served as Confucian lecturer in the Imperial Household Ministry from 1871 to 1891. Concerned over the lack of ethical teachings in the new public school curriculum, he was responsible for issuing in 1890 the Imperial Rescript on Education that introduced Confucian teachings on loyalty and filial piety into the standard curriculum.

Confucianism played a relatively passive role through the end of World War I. By this time the originally Confucian notions of loyalty and filial piety had come to be regarded as native Japanese virtues, and in 1937 these virtues were propounded in a work entitled Kokutai no hongi (Essentials of the national polity) as the cardinal principles of Japanese national morality. Confucianism served Japanese imperialist aims in Korea after its annexation in 1910, in Manchuria after 1932, and in the Japanese-controlled portions of North China after 1937. Japanese militarist rulers in these territories regarded Confucian teachings as one way to emphasize a common cultural heritage in East Asia. They felt that the survival of such teachings in Japan indicated not only that Confucian civilization was superior to Western civilization but that Japanese civilization was the primary form of civilization in East Asia.

After World War II, Confucian teachings were removed from the Japanese curriculum by the occupation authorities, and Confucianism has not yet recovered from this blow. Nonetheless, to the extent that an abiding emphasis on education and such ideals as harmony and loyalty can be said to belong to Confucianism, these qualities may be fundamental to Japanese culture and society and are likely to survive.


A most valuable source book of materials on Japanese Confucianism is Sources of Japanese Tradition, 2 vols., compiled by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene (New York, 1958). Joseph J. Spae's Itō Jinsai (New York, 1967) is helpful for information on the Ancient Learning school, as is John Tucker's Ito Jinsai's Gomo Jigi and the Philosophical Definition of Early Modern Japan (Amsterdam, 1998). Other helpful studies of individual Tokugawa Confucians include Mary Evelyn Tucker's Moral and Spiritual Cultivation in Japanese Neo-Confucianism: The Life and Thought of Kaibara Ekken (Albany, N.Y., 1989), and Kate Wildman Nakai's Shogunal Politics: Arai Hakuseki and the Premises of Tokugawa Rule (Cambridge, Mass., 1988). From a methodological point of view, an important work is Maruyama Masao's Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan, translated by Mikiso Hane (Princeton, 1975). See also the volume that I have edited, Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture (Hawai'i, 1997). Herman Ooms's Charismatic Bureaucrat: A Political Biography of Matsudaira Sadanobu, 1758-1829 (Chicago, 1975) is a superb account of this important late Tokugawa figure. Finally, two helpful studies of the modern fate of Confucian thought in Japan, are Confucianism in Modern Japan, 2d ed. (Tokyo, 1973), by Warren W. Smith Jr., and Wei-Ming Tu's (ed.) Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity: Moral Education and Economic Culture in Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).

Peter Nosco (1987 and 2005)