A HISTORY OF JAPANESE POLITICAL THOUGHT, 1600-1901, by Hiroshi Watanabe. Translated by David Noble. LTCB International Library Trust, International House of Japan, 2012, 543 pp., ¥3,000 (hardcover)

“The evolution of political thought in this relatively isolated island nation during the period in question is unique to the point of being somewhat freakish,” writes political thought scholar Hiroshi Watanabe of the University of Tokyo. This book, first published in 2010, has been newly translated into English.

Maybe all ideas are inherently strange, given the nonsense time tends to make of them. Imagine how odd our thinking will seem 100 years from now — or would have seemed 100 years ago. Is “freakish” too strong a word? Whether it is or not, the ideas Watanabe discusses here with such clarity and vigor are the ones that animated two of the most astonishing phases of Japanese and, arguably, world history: the 2½ centuries of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867) and the subsequent national transformation of backwater Japan into superpower Japan.

What were these ideas? You could, simplifying just a bit, divide them into two categories: Confucian and anti-Confucian. For pre-modern Japan, China was civilization itself, and Confucianism was what made it so — “perhaps the most powerful political ideology yet conceived by the human race,” writes Watanabe. To devotees, its “rites and music,” “five relationships” and “five virtues” are what separate us from the beasts and make us human. To doubters — and the doubts grew as Japan’s stagnation became more evident — it was a retarding force. “Ours is a world in which living things are confined and regimented as if dead things,” wrote one exasperated samurai-scholar in 1838.

The “freakishness” under discussion, then, lies in Confucianism and what the Japanese made of it. Certainly the modern mind, restless, striving, acquisitive, forward-looking, has little patience with the Confucian yearning for a long-past, long-lost Golden Age ruled by sages whose virtue alone made the people good, happy and prosperous. That thinking resonates no longer and isn’t likely ever to again. The trouble was, it rang a little false even under the early Tokugawa when neo-Confucianism was promoted as an official ideology.

Japan was a warrior society; China was not. To a Chinese proverb asserting “Good men do not make soldiers just as good iron does not make nails,” a Japanese one counters, “As the cherry among blossoms, so the warrior among men.” True, Tokugawa Japan was a warrior society “at peace,” but warrior peace is not Confucian peace. Pax Tokugawa, writes Watanabe, amounted to “waiting for a battle that never seemed to come.” He quotes a samurai’s poem: “What a waste!/ Born into times so fortunate/ That I must die lying at home on the tatami!”

Self-sacrifice on the battlefield having become an unrealizable ideal, other ways took shape of showing devotion to one’s lord. One was junshi — committing suicide upon the lord’s death. “It was an odd form of ‘love suicide,’ “writes Watanabe — outlawed in 1663 but to little avail. If a form of filial piety, it was hardly one a Chinese Confucian would have recognized.

What becomes of a warrior society in the absence of war? “Domination by force inevitably devolved into domination by the image of force,” writes Watanabe. Government became theater, and etiquette became the script: “The entire country was a vast chain of those who were bowed to and those who did the bowing.”

Discontent simmered. “Japan is a martial nation,” fumed samurai-scholar Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714). “The path of a soldier is a deceitful one … It would be impossible to triumph here following the undissembling and soft customs of the Chinese, for those are not the customs of Japan.”

The warrior spirit was bursting its Confucian bonds. “Preaching that all people within the four seas should have prosperous and bountiful households and that everyone should be protected from poverty and suffering is the idle talk of vulgar Confucians,” wrote another military scholar, Tsugaru Kodo (1682-1729).

How long can proud but stagnant isolation endure in a busy, changing, expanding world? The incursions in 1853 and 1854 by the American “black ships” make a convenient historical boundary between old and new, but were “a comparatively minor external blow,” says Watanabe — the old order had long been crumbling. Leading the charge against it were warrior clans rallying under the cry “Joi” — “expel the barbarians.” But, overthrowing the shogun and seizing power in the name of the Emperor Meiji, they didn’t expel the barbarians; they imitated them, and turned Japan into the Westernized, industrialized nation we know today.

The Meiji Era (1867-1912) was many things to many people, but decidedly it was a revolution — political, economic, technological, military. It had all the modern virtues and vices except one — democracy. And yet even democracy’s seeds were sown — by activist rebels like Nakae Chomin (1847-1901), cofounder of Japan’s first ever political party and author of books with titles like “Awakening the Common Man.” Nakae, like many of the figures Watanabe introduces us to, is little known today but of endless interest. (He was enough of a liberal to translate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” yet enough of a Confucian to translate it not into Japanese but into classical Chinese.) Nakae’s optimism at the close of the period covered by this book is touching and inspiring: “Although our 19th-century society, as reflected in the pure looking-glass of philosophy, cannot escape being darkened by a variety of evils, in comparison with previous eras it is moving gradually in the direction of the victory of reason and the defeat of injustice.”

Michael Hoffman’s latest novel is “The Naked Ear.”

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