Yamazaki Ansai

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YAMAZAKI ANSAI (16181682), Japanese Confucian and Shintō scholar of the early Tokugawa period. The son of a samurai who lost his position in the turbulence of the early Tokugawa period, Ansai was set at a young age on a career as a Zen priest. However, in his twenties he became acquainted with the anti-Buddhist writings of the Song Chinese Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi. Inspired by them, he rejected Buddhism in favor of Confucianism, left the monastery, and devoted himself to the study and explication of the ideas of Zhu Xi. He attracted many disciples, drawn primarily from the samurai class, and developed close relations with a number of important political figures. He thus played a significant part in the spread of Confucian learning among the Tokugawa samurai class. Ansai was also deeply interested in the fusion of Confucianism and Shintō that had been developed by contemporary Shintō scholars such as Yoshikawa Koretaru. From Yoshikawa, Ansai received the Shintō religious name of Suika Reisha, and Ansai's own version of Confucian-flavored Shintō is known as Suika Shintō.

Insisting that, like Confucius, he sought only to transmit, not to create, Ansai wrote little of a systematic, interpretive nature. His preferred method was to compile selections of excerpts from the writings of Zhu Xi and to express his own views on Zhu Xi's teachings through lectures on these excerpts and a few chosen texts. Ansai's ideas were thus conveyed primarily in the form of lecture notes taken down by his disciples. As reflected in these notes, Ansai's lectures, delivered in a forceful, colloquial style, sought both to come to terms with the complexities of Zhu Xi's metaphysics and to deliver them to a relatively uneducated audience in a simple, direct fashion. This approach was undoubtedly an important factor behind the popularity and influence of his school.

Similarly, Ansai stressed mastery of a few basic texts rather than wide reading. Whereas other Tokugawa Confucian scholars, such as Hayashi Razan, emphasized the importance of erudition and thereby presented Confucian learning as the special province of the professional scholar, Ansai decried the pursuit of erudition as encouraging dilettantism and as counterproductive to the development of a firm sense of moral priorities. Confucian scholars of other schools criticized his position as narrow and rigid, but it did serve to offer a large audience entry into the forbidding body of Chinese Confucian literature.

Ansai insisted that his selection of the core teachings of Zhu Xi constituted the orthodox tradition. In fact, however, he modified Zhu Xi's ideas in several important ways. For instance, he gave added emphasis to the moral importance of the relation between lord and vassal, depicting the obligation of the vassal to the lord in absolute terms comparable to that between parent and child. The Ansai school position on this subject contributed to the growth of the idea, found widely in the late Tokugawa period, of the absolute, eternal nature of the obligation of loyalty to the imperial line.

Another area in which Ansai deviated significantly from Zhu Xi was in emphasizing the importance of "reverence" over "investigation of the principle of things" in the process of the individual's cultivation of his innate moral nature. The resulting stress on cleaving to the norms of Confucianism and on rigorous introspection to ensure that one's behavior conformed to those norms contributed to the characteristically stern and dogmatic tone of the Ansai school.

Ansai's linking of Confucianism and Shintō was another distinctive feature of his teachings. Unlike other Confucian scholars such as Hayashi Razan, who sought to equate Shintō and the Confucian way, Ansai presented them as two distinct manifestations of a universal truth, each particular to the country in which it originated. Ansai's joining of Shintō and Confucianism added a note of mystery and religious authority to Confucianism that furthered its acceptance in Tokugawa society, while his insistence on the particularly "Japanese" character of Shintō endowed his school with a nationalistic flavor that tended to increase with the passage of time. However, many of the connections Ansai made between Shintō and Confucianism were forced and far-fetched, and his leading disciples, although declaring themselves faithful to the essence of Ansai's teachings, broke with him over the question of the relationship between Confucianism and Shintō. This break led in later years to the division of the Ansai school into two major branches, one Confucian and one Shintō.


An introduction in English to Yamazaki Ansai's major ideas can be found in Okada Takehiko's "Yamazaki Ansai," in Principle and Practicality: Essays in Neo-Confucianism and Practical Learning, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom (New York, 1979). For an account of the ideological orientation of his school, see Herman Ooms, Tokugawa Ideology: Early Constructions, 15701680 (Princeton, N. J., 1985). Bitō Masahide's Nihon hōken shisōshi kenkyū (Tokyo, 1961) presents an incisive treatment of Ansai's place in the development of Tokugawa thought and of the points where Ansai diverges from Zhu Xi.

Kate Wildman Nakai (1987 and 2005)

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Yamazaki Ansai, the Japanese Confucianist notable for his ethical bent and Confucian rationalization of Shintoism, was raised at Kyoto in a Buddhist monastery. He was so unruly that he was sent to Tosa (now the city of Kōchi) on Shikoku Island, where he came under the influence of Tani Jichu (15981649), the originator of the southern branch of the Zhu Xi school of Confucianism in Japan. Having discarded Buddhism, Yamazaki taught Zhu Xi Confucianism in Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) from 1648. Uncompromising in character, he condescended in 1665 to become the official scholar of Hoshina Masayuki, lord of Aizu (in northeast Japan). At Hoshina's death in 1672 Yamazaki returned to Kyoto and developed his Confucian Shintoism.

Though a stern Confucianist teacher he gathered around him more than six thousand students; among the best were Asami Keisai (16521711), Satō Naokata (16501719), and Miyake Shōsai (16621741). They formed the Kimon or Ansai school. However, Yamazaki's Shintoism held the seed of disharmony; before his death this school split into four. He urged the ethical formula keinai gigai, that is, "Devotion within, righteousness without." By "devotion" he meant not simply Confucian self-cultivation but rather a religiously rectified mind related to cosmic reason. By "righteousness" he meant virtue toward others. His maxim, "Learning is knowing and practice," suggests a middle way between overemphasis on mastery of the mind and overemphasis on social virtues.

Yamazaki's Shintoism deserves attention because of its Confucian rationalism and the influence it had in the revival of Shintoist studies in Japan. It is called Suika Shintō and elaborates on Confucian cosmogony to explain Japan's mythological creation chronicles. Trying to see a rational core in these legends, he developed the Shinto creed, borrowing from neo-Confucianism. His best pupils, however, did not follow him in his Shintoist phase; and the kokugakusha, the "national learning scholars," did not become the purveyors of a rationalized Shintoism. His most lasting impact was made through his popularization of Confucian ethics and indirect fostering of loyalism toward the emperor. This last trend was exemplified in Asami Keisai, Yamagata Daini, and in the school of Mito historians. Yamazaki is, however, given credit for later loyalist and nationalist trends.

See also Buddhism; Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Japanese Philosophy; Loyalty; Nationalism; Rationalism; Virtue and Vice; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


For Japanese sources, see Yamazaki Ansai zenshu (Yamazaki Ansai: complete works), 5 vols. (Nagoya: Hatsubaijo Matsumoto Shoten, 1937), and Bitō Masahide, Nihon hōken shisōshi kenkyu (Studies on the history of feudal thought in Japan; Tokyo, 1961), pp. 4099. An English source is W. T. de Bary, Ryusaku Tsunoda, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 363371.

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

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Yamazaki Ansai (1618–82). A leading Japanese advocate of Shushigaku during the Tokugawa (1600–1868) period. His school stressed Chu Hsi's moral and ethical teachings, with an emphasis on memorization and moral rigour. Eager to reconcile neo-Confucian metaphysics with Shinto theology, Yamazaki Ansai also formulated his own school of Shinto called Suika Shintō; in the end, Shinto is in control.