A man in the soul of Japan


This story is part of a package on Confucius. The introduction is here.

“The Analects” and other Confucian texts were brought to Japan by the Korean envoy and scholar Wani in the fourth or fifth century A.D., some 800 years after Confucius’ death. Buddhist sutras were also among the gifts he bore.

What kind of pupils Wani found the courtiers of preliterate Japan to be is not recorded. But the first fruits of Japan’s early education were summarized two centuries later in the 17 articles of the “Constitution” of Prince Shotoku, dated 604. Its very first words, “Harmony is to be valued,” are Confucian to the core. So is the exhortation in Article 4: “The ministers and functionaries should make decorous behavior their leading principle, for the leading principle of the government of the people consists in decorous behavior. If the superiors do not behave with decorum, the inferiors are disorderly: if inferiors are wanting in proper behavior, there must necessarily be offences.”

A palace revolution in 645, known as the Taika Reform, aimed to fuse Japan’s loose assemblage of rival clans into the centralized Confucian state envisioned by Prince Shotoku in Article 12: “In a country there are not two lords; the people cannot have two masters. The sovereign is the master of the people of the whole country.”

Japan’s cultural and political infancy, then, bears a strong Confucian stamp. A Chinese visitor to Nara at the height of the Nara Period (710-784) would have seen a model in miniature of his own society.

The Heian Period (794-1185) was a different story Ea purely Japanese cultural flowering that had little use for Confucianism. In Murasaki Shikibu’s classic “Tale of Genji,” the masterpiece of the age, Confucian scholars are figures of fun, their stuffy solemnity and stilted language provoking “gusts of laughter” among the guests at Genji’s son’s matriculation ceremony.

Chinese recasting

The close of the Heian Period coincided with a Chinese recasting of the Confucian legacy by a group of scholars known to posterity as neo-Confucianists. The outstanding figure among them as far as Japan is concerned is Chu Hsi (1130-1200), for whom the quality of benevolence, very dear to Confucius’ heart and central to his doctrine, is not only a human quality pertaining to society, but a natural force underpinning the physical universe: Man learns virtue by contemplating the natural order.

It is only a short leap from here to the notion that the given social hierarchy is ordained by nature itself.

Perhaps we need look no further for an explanation of why Chu Hsi’s thinking was so attractive to the ultraconservative regime of the Edo Period (1603-1867). The Tokugawa shoguns closed Japan to all but the most limited foreign intercourse and froze, to the greatest extent possible, the social system in its 17th-century mold. Throughout this period, Chu Hsi’s neo-Confucianism was the official state dogma.

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“Many Japanese Confucian scholars are truly frogs who know nothing outside their own small wells,” wrote the satirist Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779). “They slavishly copy everything Chinese and refer to Japan as a nation of ‘Eastern Barbarians.'”

Hiraga was a jack-of-all-trades, an accomplished dabbler in Western arts and sciences whose impatience with the hidebound Confucian scholar-officials is understandable in view of the festering social problems Epoverty, peasant riots, the first hints of dangerous foreign resentment over Japan’s isolationism Eto which they had no solutions beyond pedantic appeals for greater Confucian rectitude.

“The fact that people today will frivolously walk down a road from which there is no return is due to the existence of the ‘Tale of Genji’ and the [more overtly erotic] ‘Tales of Ise,’E huffed the orthodox Chu Hsi scholar Yamazaki Ansai (1618-1682). “It is said that the ‘Tale of Genji’ was written as an admonishment for men and women. It is extremely doubtful, however, that such frivolity could serve to admonish anyone.”

But the Confucian camp was less united than its outward ceremonial gravity made it appear. Had not Confucius himself treasured the “Book of Odes,” a poetry and song collection from the ancient golden age he longed to recreate? Was it not one of the five Confucian classics? Did that not suggest there was a place for literature dealing with human emotions as well as with moral rectitude?

Disgust with the sanctimony of the Chu Hsi scholars drove other Confucianists back to their original sources.

Had Confucius really been such a stuffed shirt? On the contrary, “The Analects” show him to be a warm and at times passionate man, whose Way is rooted less in the Cosmos, as it was for Chu Hsi, than in the ordinary feelings of ordinary people Efamily sentiment in particular.

The endorsement of “ordinary feelings” had dangerous implications for a regime that survived by suppressing those feelings. Everything about the Tokugawa Shogunate was unnatural Ethe closed country, the social immobility, the very structure of the regime. “In a country there are not two lords,” Prince Shotoku had admonished, but in Tokugawa Japan there were Ethe shogun and the emperor. Which of them had the sanction of heaven?

In Japan, hereditary official Confucian historians like Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and his son and successor, Hayashi Gaho (1618-1680), bent over backwards to justify the overshadowing of the emperor by the shogun.

“Evildoers and bandits were vanquished,” wrote Gaho in 1664 of the epoch-making Battle of Sekigahara, won by the Tokugawa in 1600, “and the entire realm submitted to Lord [Tokugawa] Ieyasu, praising the establishment of peace and extolling his martial virtue. That this glorious era that he founded may continue for ten thousands upon ten thousands of generations, coeval with heaven and earth!”

Powerful state apparatus

The tone is bombastic, but Gaho himself seems to have had his doubts, for he wrote elsewhere, “In a book intended for the shogun’s eyes it is incumbent upon one to be circumspect.”

Tokugawa rule withered, but not Confucianism. In the succeeding Meiji Era (1868-1912) it merged with the native Shinto religion to buttress the most powerful state apparatus that had ever oppressed the Japanese people. Loyalty, duty, filial piety and harmony were the virtues to be cultivated Eby force if necessary. Confucius would have been appalled, but he had long since ceased to matter, his name having been co-opted as a symbol, his teachings reduced to slogans and commands.

After World War II, the Occupation authorities removed Confucian teachings from the Japanese school curriculum. “Nonetheless,” comments MacMillan’s “Encyclopedia of Religion,” “to the extent that such ideals as harmony and loyalty can be said to belong to Confucianism, these qualities may be fundamental to Japanese culture and are likely to survive” Eas Hiraga had known all along they would. “In Japan,” he wrote, tongue-in-cheek as always, “benevolence and righteousness have been spontaneously followed. Peace has prevailed even without sages.”

For other stories in our package on Confucius, please click the following links:
East and West echo the sage: ‘The ideal society is like a family’