Yamaga Sokō (1622–1685)

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Yamaga Sokō was a Japanese Confucianist of the kogakuha, or "school of ancient learning," and codifier of the ethics of the military class, Bushidō, the "way of the warrior." He was born in Aizu, Fukushima prefecture. At nine he entered the school of Hayashi Razan in Edo (Tokyo), where he learned the official Zhu Xi doctrine. Interested in military science, he became a master of it. He taught it first at the castle of Lord Asano of Akō (Hyogo prefecture) and later in Edo, where the novelty of his advocating the use of firearms attracted many followers. In 1666 he wrote Seikyō yōroku (The essence of Confucianism), a blunt critique of Zhu Xi's ideas. For this and for his innovations in military science, he incurred the wrath of his two former teachers, Hayashi and the military expert Hōjō Ujinaga, and was exiled from Edo. For the rest of his life he lived under mild confinement at the castle of Lord Asano, instilling into the samurai of Akō the loyalty that was to make forty-seven of them famous for revenging their lord by slaying the man who had disgraced him and dutifully committing hara-kiri. Their deed and death was immortalized in the drama Chūshingura.

In the preface to Seikyō yōroku, Yamaga clearly states the program of the "school of ancient learning," adding that the doctrine of Confucius and the ancient sages had been obscured by interpreters and commentators. He dismisses Mencius, Zhu Xi, and Wang Yangming easily; he rejects the "great ultimate" (taikyoku ) of Zhu Xi as a later Buddhist interpolation in Confucianism. The universe, he holds, is explained by the movement of yin and yang, the passive and active elements, and it has no beginning or end. Human nature is neither good nor bad, but ethically neutral. He stresses self-interest, but he urges that common utility take precedence over it.

The term Bushidō is a recent one, coined long after his death, but its meaning is clearly traceable to two of his books, Shidō and Bukyō shōgaku. His "way of the warrior" consists of ethical norms and practical means of fostering in oneself a sense of loyal duty (gi ) toward one's lord. Mental training is paramount; serenity, sincerity, magnanimity, introspection, and self-restraint are the virtues to be cultivated. Yamaga praised the ancient Chinese sages but he was a strong nationalist who extolled Japan over China.

See also Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Hayashi Razan; Human Nature; Japanese Philosophy; Mencius; Wang Yang-ming; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


For Yamaga's works see Yamaga Sokō zenshū (Complete works of Yamaga Sokō), edited by Hirose Yutaka, 15 vols. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1940). For discussion, see Hori Isao, Yamaga Sokō (Tokyo, 1963) and W. T. de Bary, Ryusaku Tsunoda, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 394410, which contains selections in translation.

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