Andō Shōeki was a critical thinker in the Tokugawa period of Japan. All that is known of his life is that he was born in Akita toward the end of the seventeenth century and died in the second half of the eighteenth century, that his profession was medicine, and that he went to Nagasaki, the first Japanese port to receive Western trade, where he learned about conditions in foreign countries. He is described as a man of stern character who in his teaching never quoted, except to criticize, the Chinese classical books, meaning that he followed only his own ideas, a very unorthodox way of teaching for Tokugawa Confucianists. Very fond of the peasant class, he insisted that his pupils, and he had very few, should do manual work to be in contact with nature, the greatest master of all. Until recently he was virtually unknown, because of his nonconformist ideas, although nowadays he is overpraised. His manuscripts were found only in 1889, and only in part. They were published with difficulty. The better-known are Shizen shin-eidō (The way and activity of nature, written in 1755) and Tōdō shinden (A true account of the ruling of the way). They are the most devastating critique ever made of Tokugawa society and of every kind of Japanese ideology.
Andō's iconoclasm was directed first of all against Shintoism and Buddhism. He sharply attacked Shinto mythology and Prince Shōtoku (574–622) for his role in spreading Buddhism. Other rulers, too, and priests of all sects came under his critical scrutiny, which is too negative. Nor had he a better appreciation of the different schools of Confucianism, for he accused them of perverting the teaching of the old sages in their interpretation of nature.
Nature for Andō is an eternal ki, or material energy, in perpetual motion. Nature is not to be conquered but to be known; and in following nature man attains the ideal. More positive were his ideas about society; he was the only genuine equalitarian of Tokugawa Japan, arguing against the evils of a system which oppressed the peasant. He cannot be considered completely iconoclastic, since he was not against authority as such, nor was he an atheist, and even his alleged materialism has to be qualified.
See also Japanese Philosophy.
For a guide to primary sources, see bibliography in the Japanese Philosophy entry. See also E. H. Norman, "Andō Shōeki and the Anatomy of Japanese Feudalism," Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 3rd series, 2 (1949): 1–340; and Y. B. Radul-Zatulovskij, Andō Shōeki, Filosof Materialist XVIII Veka (Moscow, 1961).
Gino K. Piovesana, S.J. (1967)