Famine raged; the poor starved. Inept and corrupt, the government looked on, unmoved.

That describes many places and times. It describes Osaka in 1837. In Europe, socialist consciousness was dawning. In Japan, shut tight for two centuries against the outside world, revolt against the established order was more likely to be Confucian.

This is strange. Confucianism was the established order. Rival doctrines were banned. The “mandate of heaven” justified — or was held to — the ruler’s rule. The subject could but submit. This was as natural — or held to be — as a son’s submission to his father.

“Each of us,” wrote Confucian scholar Nakae Toju (1608-48), “possesses a spiritual treasure unique under heaven” — filial piety. “This treasure is fully in accord with the Sun above us and is fully apparent to the Four Seas below.” When it “order(s) the realm under Heaven, all under Heaven are pacified;” when it “govern(s) the state, the state is in order;” when it “organize(s) your household, your household is regulated.”

Hunger is one of history’s most appalling commonplaces. War is another — but the Tokugawa (Edo) Period (1603-1868) was a time of unbroken peace. Japan was officially closed. It had locked itself in — against foreign aggression; also against foreign stimulus. The samurai ideals, the rice economy, the samurai-dominated social hierarchy, were dying, with no compelling alternatives in view. Corruption flourished, poverty spread. The poor, hungry always, starved in times of famine. Periodic famines are inevitable in a closed economy. A substandard harvest becomes a blanket death sentence. Substandard harvests wracked the 1830s.

So what? said the wealthy and powerful. “The people are a tool for the extraction of the rice tax” — such was the official attitude, not even papered over.

The starving, naturally, thought otherwise. They rebelled frequently. Historians count some 4,000 peasant and proletarian uprisings during the Tokugawa shogunate. Rioters smashed, burned, looted and murdered while the rage was on them. When it petered out they subsided — or were suppressed and imprisoned or killed, the ringleaders tortured for maximum deterrent effect. And yet the deterrent effect was minimal. Possible death by crucifixion evidently paled beside certain death from hunger.

The Osaka rebellion of 1837 is a baffling, bewildering affair — as Confucian in inspiration as the order it defied. Its leader, Oshio Heihachiro (1793-1837), was a Confucian scholar, a disciple of Nakae’s, a filial piety fundamentalist. Samurai-born, he inherited at age 23 his late father’s post as an Osaka police commissioner. The first victims of his self-righteous zeal were secret adherents of outlawed Christianity. He sealed their doom, then turned his moral wrath on bribe-taking fellow officials. Their numbers gave him a wide field to work in, but success did not make him popular. In 1830, he abruptly retired — to study, write and teach. He founded an academy. He was an inspiring teacher. Pupils flocked to him. They listened, rapt.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) said many things; his disciples down the centuries said many more; Tokugawa Confucianism was one of many interpretations, to which Oshio’s was radically, violently opposed. Filial piety, officially construed under Tokugawa as blind submission to arbitrary authority, to Oshio meant virtuous revolt against evil.

“What is this thing called death?” he demanded (as Ivan Morris explains in “The Nobility of Failure”). “We cannot possibly begrudge the death of the body; but the death of the spirit — that indeed is to be dreaded.”

“To know and not to act,” he said, “is not to know.”

Could a knowing sage stand idly by while people starved and rulers did nothing? If so, what was the point of sagehood? He appealed to city officials to open government granaries and feed the poor. They laughed at him. He sold his treasured library, distributing the bulk of the proceeds among the needy, using the rest to procure arms. He’d made up his mind. He would “save the people” — the motto inscribed on his banner as he led his ragtag troops into battle.

His plans were vague. Let the cunning and calculating plan. The virtuous, trusting virtue, sprang into action. Virtue, Oshio taught, “would rectify evil in a moment.”

March 25, 1837. First thing that morning Oshio set his house on fire, signifying the start of the revolt and the selflessness of its aim. By mid-afternoon it was over — a dismal failure by all worldly standards. The virtuous army, drunk on its own violence — on spirits too, as they raided the sake shops — did much damage. People were killed, warehouses looted, buildings torched. An estimated one-quarter of the city burned down.

One hates to say “So what?” — but that is history’s verdict. It was all for naught. The social order was unshaken. Evil was unrectified. Government troops, caught briefly off guard, soon rallied. There were mass arrests and heroic suicides. Oshio and a handful of followers fled, hoping to fight another day.

It was not to be. Two months later, as police closed in, Oshio set fire to the building in which he’d been hiding. He died in the flames. In September that year he was posthumously crucified, along with 20 of his living followers. “Let virtue have its reward,” the triumphant regime seemed to be sneering.

The regime’s own reward was coming. In 1853 the famous American “black ships” penetrated Japan’s sclerotic seclusion, forcing on the nation one of the most drastic course changes in history. Perhaps it’s fortunate Oshio didn’t live to see it. Western industrial capitalism was hardly the reform the Confucian sage had in mind.

What to make of this strange, elusive, simultaneously fascinating and repellent character? Among his posthumous admirers have been ultra-left revolutionaries and ultra-right nationalists. His selfless, if misguided, sincerity transcends politics. It has inspired idealists of all stripes. The left made of him the ultimate defender of the poor and downtrodden. To the right he was Japanese spirit (yamatodamashii) personified.

Those burdened with neither orthodoxy may, in contemplating his life, find themselves recalling another hero he in some ways resembles: a certain gentleman of La Mancha called Don Quixote.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is the essay collection “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.