National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Absolutism: an acceptable price to pay for order

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

His contemporaries hardly knew what to make of him. Their bewilderment is reflected in the name by which he is best known to us: the “dog shogun.”

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, born in 1646, became shogun by accident. He ruled from 1680 until his death in 1709. If global politics in his day had been what they are in ours, he would no doubt have met and conferred with his contemporary, King Louis XIV of France — and found, though professing Confucianism as against Louis’ Christianity, that they had much in common: absolutism, most notably.

But there were no global politics back then — Japan was 40 years into a self-imposed isolation that was to last deep into the 19th century — and neither is likely to have known of the other’s existence.

Absolutism is much damned today. It’s undemocratic — damnable for that reason alone, even if its modern exemplars did not include genocidal tyrants the likes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. But Tsunayoshi and Louis were shaped by different times. A danger more dreadful than oppression loomed — anarchy. Absolutism, to many, seemed an acceptable price to pay for order.

There are strange parallels between early modern Europe and early modern Japan. Both had been slaughterhouses. Europeans slaughtered each other for God, Japanese for territory. The 17th century in both places marks the beginning of the end of the carnage as, from its ashes, there arose absolute states powerful enough to impose peace. Louis tamed his unruly nobles, Tsunayoshi his unruly samurai.

Little loved in his own day, Tsunayoshi is not fondly remembered in ours either. His lasting fame rests mainly on his “Laws of Compassion” — “the worst laws in the feudal history of mankind,” wrote historian Shinzaburo Oishi in 1970, summing up the general consensus.

How bad in fact were they? The legend has Tsunayoshi following to perverse extremes the advice of a Buddhist monk named Ryuko, who attributed the shogun’s failure to beget an heir to killings committed in past lives. Atonement, said Ryuko, should take the form of compassion towards all living things — dogs especially, Tsunayoshi having been born in the Chinese Year of the Dog.

Thus the notorious laws — good news for dogs, who subsequently ran wild and unmolested, but disastrous for human beings, prohibited on pain of death from taking measures to protect their persons and harvests from the proliferating and ravenous beasts. “Men were killed for the sake of dogs,” is a characteristic complaint of the time.

Nonsense, protests historian Beatrice Bodart-Bailey in “The Dog Shogun: The Personality and Policies of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.” The contemporary documents on which subsequent historians based their biased judgments, she argues, were written by the very samurai whose power Tsunayoshi curbed; they pursued such revenge as malicious chronicling affords. In fact, Bodart-Bailey asserts, the Laws of Compassion, grounded in Confucianism, amounted to Japan’s first ever recognition that what we today call “human rights” extended even to commoners.

Dogs were protected, and living things generally, but the prime beneficiaries of the unprecedented official “compassion” were low-status human beings whom custom had left utterly at the mercy of the 7-odd percent of the population constituting the samurai class — as cruel and unrestrained a breed, in early 17th century Japan, as ever roamed a civilized nation in peacetime.

“The people,” decreed Tsunayoshi, “are the foundation of the state. Each and every one of the (officials) must be attentive to the hardships of the people, and is hereby ordered to see that they do not suffer misfortunes such as hunger or cold.”

He’d had an unusual childhood. His father was the ineffectual third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu; his mother, a Kyoto grocer’s daughter who entered the shogun’s castle as a servant and rose to concubine. Not destined for power but more gifted than the elder brother who was, Tsunayoshi, to keep him harmlessly occupied, was fed on Confucian studies as a child. His elder brother succeeded to the shogunate but died young, clearing the way for the unintended reign of a Confucian ruler who took his Confucianism seriously.

Confucianism is a richly ambiguous doctrine that down the centuries has spawned a vast body of interpretive literature — but the basic prescription for Confucian-style government boils down to: absolutism plus benevolence.

Citing a contemporary chronicle, Bodart-Bailey tells the story of a high official who, seeing two wretched street urchins, wanted to help them but repressed the impulse — “it not being the duty of the shogun’s highest minister to attend to such a trifling matter.”

Tsunayoshi rebuked him: “Why should a truly benevolent man ask whether a matter is great or small? The rays of the sun and moon light up even the smallest object.”

At Tsunayoshi’s instigation, signboards were posted throughout the land, admonishing the people to “diligently practice loyalty and filial piety. Be close to your husbands and wives, siblings, and relatives and show compassion and forgiveness even toward your servants. Those who are disloyal and unfilial,” he added ominously — benevolent absolutism baring its absolute fangs — “should be severely punished.”

And so they were. Tsunayoshi was an autocrat; his rule would not pass muster among us, educated as we are to despise autocracy of all stripes, even benevolent autocracy. But then, we don’t live with the conditions that had prevailed in Tsunayoshi’s childhood, conditions portrayed — idealized — in the “Hagakure,” an early 18th-century military treatise by a samurai named Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was far from alone in regarding peace as spiritual death. “A real man,” he wrote, “does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death.”

That’s the spirit against which Tsunayoshi, for better and/or worse, brought his autocracy to bear.

Michael Hoffman will speak about his latest book, “In the Land of the Kami,” at 18:15 p.m. on June 20 at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Pay in cash for the entry ticket at the reception desk (¥3,500, including tax and a set dinner). Reservations are not accepted by phone or email.