Itō Jinsai (1627–1705)

views updated May 14 2018


Itō Jinsai, a Japanese Confucianist of the kogakuha ("school of ancient learning"), was born in Kyoto, the son of a poor merchant, and spent his life there as an educator. After studying the official Zhu Xi Confucianist doctrine, he rediscovered ancient Confucianism and became its systematizer and, through the Kogidō, a school he founded in 1680, its propagator. The novelty of his teaching aroused the suspicion of the central government in Edo (Tokyo). However, it was not suppressed although his kogigaku, or "learning-of-the-ancient-meaning," was gaining a large following. Through the able guidance of his scholarly son, Tōgai, and of his grandson the school was operated until 1871, when all Confucianist schools were abolished in favor of the new Western system.

Itō's philosophy, stemming from a great admiration for Confucius and Mencius, is quite contrary to the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi. Itō is clearly a monist in the sense that he does not admit any priority of ri, the principle (reason), over ki, the material force, which for him is material energy. A primordial material energy (ichi genki ), having neither beginning nor end, is the root of everything. Ri is but a pattern of ki; ki, through the motion of the yin-yang, or passive-active, elements, forms the great living organism (dai-katsubutsu ), the universe itself.

Itō holds with Mencius that human nature is originally good, and he does not make the usual Zhu Xi distinction between physical and original nature, which he treats as a spurious Daoist influence. Evil in physical nature need not be explained as if it arose from lack of cultivation of the potentialities of human nature. The four sources of virtue (in Chinese, ssu tuan ; in Japanese, shitan ) according to Itō are righteousness, humaneness, ritual or propriety, and wisdom. Righteousness is the pivotal virtue of Itō's ethics. Humaneness is benevolent love, or condescension from the superior to the inferior, for in Confucianism universal equalitarian love is practically nonexistent. Morality, the natural Way of things, has a cosmological meaning in addition to the ethical one. The material energy of the universe is manifested in humankind through humaneness or love. Itō's principles of education centered on forming moral character rather than on imparting knowledge; will is above the intellect.

Itō did not make much of astronomy and mathematics, but he was very fond of history. However, unlike most other Confucianists of the "ancient learning" school, he did not become a nationalist through the study of history. For him China remained the fountainhead of culture. Itō's outstanding merits as a Sinologist were the result of painstaking research in ancient texts, yet he patiently bore the faultfinding of his gifted son and the criticisms of his best pupil, Namikawa Temmin (16791718).

See also Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Human Nature; Mencius; Wisdom; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


Itō's chief works can be found in collections in Japanese, including Inoue Tetsujirō, ed., Nihon rinri ihen (Library on Japanese ethics; Tokyo: Ikuseikai, 1901), Vol. V, pp. 11181, and Dai Nihon shisō zenshū (Collected works on the thought of great Japan; Tokyo, 1934), Vol. XLI, pp. 7249. See also Ishida Ichirō, Itō Jinsai (Tokyo, 1964), which is in Japanese.

For works in English see J. J. Spae, Itō Jinsai: A Philosopher, Educator and Sinologist of the Tokugawa Period (Beijing: Catholic University of Beijing, 1948), and W. T. de Bary, Ryusaku Tsunoda, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 410422. The second work contains selections in translation with introductions.

Gino K. Piovesana, S.J. (1967)

Itō Jinsai

views updated May 23 2018


ITŌ JINSAI (16271705) was a Japanese kangakusha (Sinologist), educator, and Confucian philosopher. In 1681 Jinsai opened a private school, the Kogidō, in Kyoto and thus founded the Kogakuha, the school of Ancient Learning, a school of thought opposed to the Shushigakuha and the Yōmeigakuha, based on the thought of the Chinese thinkers Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, respectively. The Kogidō, where Jinsai educated hundreds of students from the upper classes, continued uninterruptedly under Ito family management until 1871, when it gave way to the modern curriculum adopted from the West.

Jinsai, known for his personal modesty, forgiving nature, and broadmindedness toward other convictions, such as Buddhism, deserves credit not only as an outstanding moral teacher of the Tokugawa period but also as a scholar whose interests lay beyond his country's boundaries. Unlike the kokugakusha, the scholars of National Learning (Kokugaku), he prepared Japan for the assimilation of Western ideas in the mid-nineteenth century. He was highly appreciated by the Imperial House, and his main works were presented to the throne. His achievements were publicly recognized by the Meiji emperor in 1907, and those of his gifted son Tōgai (16701736), by the Taishō emperor in 1915. Jinsai's grave can still be seen at the Nison'in, a Buddhist temple in the Saga district, northwest of Kyoto.

Based on two books, the Analects of Confucius and the Mencius, Jinsai's thought has several features that are rare, if not unique, for a Japanese Confucianist. Jinsai resolutely discards all Buddhist and Daoist accretions to authentic, pre-Han Confucian doctrines. His cosmogony ascribes the origin of all things to a single cosmic yet anthropomorphous force. He honors the classic yinyang theory, which explains change and motion, but sees the origin of both yin and yang in one supreme ultimate, in turn equivalent to the moral concept of a supreme law governing all things. This law is benevolent and free from defects. Jinsai takes his monism one step further in his definition of Heaven, whom he calls ruler, conserver, supreme judge, and benefactor of humanity. Heaven is personified, although it is not always clear whether it is distinct from nature. In daily life, Jinsai showed the utmost respect for spiritual beings. With great forbearance he trusted in Heaven as a witness to his sincerity.

Jinsai's moral system flows from his anthropomorphic cosmology: Humankind is originally good and bent toward perfection. There is no need for Daoist or Zenlike abstention and meditation. There is balance between intellect and will, although freedom remains undefined beyond the pregnant phrase "Will means directedness toward good." Practically, virtue is manifest in the four cardinal virtues: humaneness or love, justice, propriety, and wisdom. These are reducible to two, humaneness and justice, whose apex unites in the supreme virtue, humaneness.

Jinsai's life was a paean to that virtue, even though he stood, with the dignity befitting a scholar, somewhat aloof from his surroundings. His educational principles paralleled his character, holding the middle between an exaggerated intellectualism and an unenlightened voluntarism. He was confident that a pupil, launched on his own way, runs no risk of being swept off his feet as long as he stands on the bedrock of classical learning and takes to heart the great lessons of history.

Among Jinsai's works, the following are best known and have gone through several editions: Dōjimon (1707), a question-and-answer presentation condensing his philosophical doctrines for classroom use; Go-Mō jigi (1683), a commentary on the Analects and Mencius; and the Kogakusensei bunshu (1717), an anthology prepared by Tōgai from his father's unpublished papers. Jinsai's originality has been challenged, but without success. Whether he came in contact with Ricci's Tianzhu shi yi, written to prove the existence of a unique God, remains a moot point.

The measure of Jinsai's influence must be found not only in his life and writings; even more, it lies in the lives and work of his many pupils. He imparted to them a critical spirit, for he doubted where others blindly believed, and he formed his own conclusions when it was still fashionable to follow the Song masters. His philosophy has a peculiar human appeal. The moral order is not a mere haphazard rule, but a providential guide, based upon the inherent nature of things.

Jinsai's legacy is still highly regarded in Japan, because he penetrated to the very core of the national spirit. To no mean extent, Jinsai could claim to be an educator of his people. Not only did he stir in his followers something that they felt was deeply embedded in their national way of life, but he impressed on them that Confucianism is inherently associated with the good that lies between two extremes. Jinsai's lasting success is explained by the fact that, in his efforts to accomplish the ideal that he contemplated, he found a way to blend two seemingly paradoxical qualities: equanimity of mind and passionate devotion to a cause. In this, he found a way that is Japan.


The only monograph available in English is my own, Itō Jinsai: A Philosopher, Educator and Sinologist of the Tokugawa Period (1948; reprint, New York, 1967).

Joseph J. Spae (1987)

Itō Jinsai

views updated May 14 2018

Itō Jinsai (1627–1705). A Japanese Confucian scholar from the movement called Ancient Learning (kokugaku). He opened his school in Kyo̱ where he taught that the true message of the Confucian sages could only be apprehended by reading their ancient writings directly, without reliance upon the later Neo-Confucian commentaries of Chu Hsi (1130–1200) and others. His school, known as the Kogidō or ‘Hall of Ancient Meanings’, was continued by his son, Itō Tōgai (1670–1736), with students drawn from all over Japan. See also Ogyū Sorai.