Ogyu Sorai

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OGYŪ SORAI (16661728), Japanese Confucian of the Ancient Learning school (Kogaku). Sorai was born in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the son of Ogyū Hōan (16261705), personal physician to Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (16461709), lord of the Tatebayashi domain and later the fifth Tokugawa shogun. As a child Sorai began studying classical Chinese and at the age of seven entered the academy headed by Hayashi Gahō (16181680), the son of the academy's founder, Hayashi Razan (15831657). He progressed quickly in his studies and by the age of nine was able to write simple compositions; he even kept a diary in classical Chinese.

Sorai's otherwise conventional education and upbringing were disturbed in 1679, when he was thirteen. For reasons that are not clear, in that year Tsunayoshi banished Sorai's father to the village of Honnō in Kazusa, sixty miles from Edo. The exile was understandably difficult, as the family was denied the amenities of urban life and the company of its social equals. While these unfavorable conditions forced the adolescent Sorai to study on his own, it also gave him firsthand knowledge of rural life. In 1690 his father was pardoned and the family returned to Edo, where Hōan once again served as Tsunayoshi's physician. Sorai established an academy in Shiba, near the Zōjōji, the imposing Pure Land temple. Here he attracted the attention of the temple's abbot, Ryōya, who helped him secure a position in the house of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (16581714), the shogun's chamberlain and confidante. Sorai served Yoshiyasu for fourteen years and performed a variety of tasks: he lectured on the Confucian classics, wrote formal Chinese-style histories, punctuated and annotated Chinese texts, and taught Yoshiyasu's retainers. In 1709 he resigned his position and in 1710 opened a school called the Ken'enjuku (Miscanthus Patch Academy) in Kayabachō, not far from Nihonbashi.

Sorai's personal life was rather tragic. In 1696 he married a woman named Kyūshi who bore him five children. She died in 1705, and in time all of their offspring died as well. In 1715 Sorai married the daughter of the Mito Confucian, Sasa Rikkei (16391698?), but she too died, sometime between 1717 and 1718, without bearing any children. The deaths of his wives and children, together with his own repeated bouts with tuberculosis, among other personal tragedies, made Sorai deeply religious. He came to believe that his survival was the work of an omniscient and omnipotent Heaven. He also attributed his scholarly successes to Heaven and believed that Heaven had chosen him to reveal to the world the long-obscured meaning of the Chinese classics. Although modern scholars have seen Sorai's belief in a sentient Heaven as a reaction to the neo-Confucians' more rationalistic view of Heaven, there seems little doubt that his beliefs had much to do with the unhappy circumstances of his personal life.

Sorai is best known for his dictum, "return to the past." The first manifestations of this neoclassicism in his work were literary. Inspired by the work of the Ming dynasty (13681644) literary critics Li P'an-lung (15141570) and Wang Shih-chen (15261590), he distinguished "ancient" and "modern" Chinese literary styles and urged his contemporaries to model their poetic and prose compositions on the former.

After his retirement and the opening of his school in 1710, Sorai turned from literary matters to the more conventional Confucian issues of self-cultivation and statecraft. He became a staunch critic of neo-Confucianism: in Bendō (Distinguishing the way) and Benmei (Distinguishing names) Sorai recommended that his contemporaries abandon the commentaries written by Zhu Xi (11301200) and his followers and instead study classical literary styles, etiquette, ceremonial practices, and forms of dress.

In 1721, Sorai was asked to advise the shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (16841751), and in this capacity he proposed countless institutional reforms, most of which survive in his Seidan (A discourse on government) and Taiheisaku (A proposal for a great peace). His most ambitious recommendation was his plan for the rustication of the warrior population of the cities and castle towns, which was designed to liberate warriors from the urban commercial economy and thus from the cycle of consumption, indebtedness, and poverty. His aim here was not to return the country to a natural economy, as is often thought, but to make warriors self-sufficient. He believed that classical Chinese institutions could solve the problems of his day, and so he recommended the adoption of the well-field, rank-in-merit, Six Office, and Six Ministry systems. He also suggested the introduction of supplementary salaries to allow talented individuals of low rank to serve in high positions, and the use of copper cash as a standard for determining the value of gold and silver.

Although Sorai's ideas and proposals seem to be the product of his profound sinophilia, they had more complex and diverse sources: first, his deep, personal belief in Heaven and its agents, the sages and early kings; second, his confidence that the culture and institutions created by the sages and early kings of Chinese antiquity were sufficiently universal to occasion their adoption in his time; third, his belief that social and cultural conditioning would eventually counteract the strangeness of Chinese culture and institutions; and finally, his belief in the value, even superiority, of classical Chinese civilization.

See Also

Confucianism in Japan.


de Bary, Wm. Theodore. "Sagehood as a Secular and Spiritual Ideal in Tokugawa Neo-Confucianism." In Principle and Practicality: Essays in Neo-Confucianism and Practical Learning, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, pp. 127188. New York, 1979. An important revision of Maruyama Masao's interpretation that considers Ogyū Sorai's thought in the larger context of neo-Confucianism.

Lindin, Olof G. The Life of Ogyū Sorai, a Tokugawa Confucian Philosopher. Lund, 1973. The only biography of Sorai in English.

Maruyama Masao. Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan. Translated by Mikiso Hane. Princeton, 1974. A classic study of Tokugawa intellectual history that focuses on Sorai.

Yamashita, Samuel Hideo. "Nature and Artifice in the Writings of Ogyū Sorai, 16661728." In Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture, edited by Peter Nosco, pp. 65138. Princeton, 1984. This essay represents current thinking on Sorai's thought.

Yoshikawa Kōjirō. Jinsai, Sorai, Norinaga. Tokyo, 1975. An important and highly regarded study of Sorai and two other seminal Tokugawa thinkers by a leading Japanese Sinologist. Translated into English by Kikuchi Yuji as Jinsai, Sorai, Norinaga: Three Classical Philosophers of Mid-Tokugawa Japan (Tokyo, 1983).

Samuel Hideo Yamashita (1987)

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Ogyū Sorai, or Butsu, was a Japanese Confucianist of the kogakuha ("school of ancient learning"), and famous as a political thinker. Ogyū was born in Edo (Tokyo). He was a gifted pupil and soon mastered classical Chinese; the classical style is characteristic of his writings. Proud by nature, Ogyū distinguished himself in the defense of official Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism in polemics against Itō Jinsai. In 1716, however, his views changed, and in Bendō (Defining the way) and Bemmei (Definitions of terms) he supports most of Itō's ideas. All of Ogyū's other works were inspired by the ancient sages in accord with the maxim "back to antiquity," a maxim applicable to many of his innovations. These innovations were expressed in Taiheisaku (A policy for great peace) and Seidan (Discourses on government). Ogyū's cosmological views differ little from Itō's; Ogyū, too, rejects the dichotomy of ri, the principle, and ki, the material energy.

Ogyū holds a positivist and historicist conception of the Way (dō ); it became for him the factual order of society, with its positive laws and institutions. He rightly points out how Confucius stressed the societal implications of the Way. Ogyū goes much further, excluding personal ethics until only "rites," that is, propriety and social behavior, combined with obedience to the government, remain. In this sense he comes very close to the Chinese Legalists in utilitarian ethics. Although he was apparently inspired by Xunzi c. 295c. 238 BCE), he does not mention the name. For Ogyū, human nature cannot be much corrected; in this only social institutions are of any use. The sole meaning of "humaneness" is the giving of peace and prosperity to the people, and "virtue" is the virtue of the ruler in discerning able men. His political and economic ideas have little in common with Confucian moralizing. Government is a practical technique (jutsu ), and the economy is not based on thrift but on sound social policies. He was against the idea of fanatic loyalty to the lord and advocated some social mobility, believing that the lower samurai but not the common people should be allowed to improve their status.

Ogyū's views of history are distinguished by the same practical approach. The founder of a dynasty plays a great role because of the public institutions he has to establish, yet rulers often fall because of the difficulty of preventing economic decline. Living under the Tokugawa shogunate, Ogyū rejected even the nominal sovereignty of the emperor (an opinion his best pupil, Dazai Shundai [16801747], concurred in). Shintoism for Ogyū was an invention of Yoshida Kanetomo (14351511). Ogyū's stand in favor of the Tokugawa government and his rejection of Shintoism explain why he was not repressed for his daring ideas and anti-Zhu Xi doctrine.

See also Chinese Philosophy; Itō Jinsai; Japanese Philosophy; Xunzi; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


The principal works of Ogyū Sorai can be found in several collections. See Nihon rinri ihen (Library on Japanese ethics), edited by Inoue Tetsujirō (Tokyo: Ikuseikai, 1902), Vol. VI, pp. 11203; Nihon keizai taiten (Classics on Japanese economics), edited by Takimoto Seiichi (Tokyo: Shishi Shuppansha, 1928), Vol. IX, pp. 3375; Ogyū Soraishū (Collected works of Ogyū Sorai; Tokyo, 1937).

Two secondary sources in English are J. R. McEvan, The Political Writings of Ogyū Sorai (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962) and W. T. de Bary, Ryusaku Tsunoda, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 342343, 422433.

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

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Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728). Japanese Confucian scholar who laid, indirectly, the foundations for the School of National Learning (Kokugaku). When 25, he started to give free lectures in Edo, in front of the temple of Zōjō-jī. Itō Jinsai (1627–1705) had already argued for a return to the classic Confucian sources, in a school known as Kogidō, ‘School for the Study of Ancient Meaning’. Ogyū followed him at first, but concluded that Itō had not gone far enough in making his study of the past serve the needs of society: he was right in criticizing the neo-Confucians, but he had remained, like them, too concerned with individual ethics and self-improvement. In his view, Hsun Tzu was a better guide. Ogyū had a profound effect, because it was realized by his pupils that the antiquity of Japan could equally be studied and established as a court of appeal against the domination of Chinese thought.