Nuclear crisis lowers curtain on Japan’s Confucian politics


Special To The Japan Times

Around 25 years ago it was fashionable to portray Japan’s economic system as an alternative to Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Japan’s success, it was said, was based on its unique business models, its state-guided capitalism — and on the Confucian values it had inherited from China.

So for the leading Chinese philosopher Tu Weiming, Confucian values such as filial piety, loyalty, deference to age and authority, educational excellence and social harmony and a Confucian-like guidance of economic development by elite bureaucrats also underlay Japan’s phenomenal postwar growth.

This story of Confucian inspirations does ring true, in spite of the arguments of scholars like Chalmers Johnson who downplay such “cultural” influences. But there are historical twists and some unpleasant revelations in the wake of 3/11 which complicate this story when we think about it more deeply.

Confucianism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century and enjoyed some political influence before it was overshadowed by the rise of Buddhism. It finally came into its own in the Tokugawa Period during the 17th to 19th centuries. Yet in the diverse intellectual climate of that time, Japanese Confucians advocating moral self-cultivation, harmonious society and benevolent governance had to compete with Shinto and Buddhist scholars for the patronage of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Modern scholars such as Maruyama Masao and Herman Ooms have found that the more successful Confucians in this competition blended together Confucian and Shinto ideas. By the late 18th century, they had popularized Shinto beliefs that the Japanese imperial dynasty was descended from the goddess Amaterasu and that it enjoyed the unwavering support of Heaven. Somehow, the shogun was supposed to share in this divinely sanctioned mandate.

There is a tension here with the ancient Chinese Confucian doctrine of “the mandate of Heaven,” according to which Heaven bestows legitimacy on only one ruler, who must be just, and withdraws it from unjust rulers. There were historical stories of unjust emperors who had lost this mandate; their dynasties had been overthrown and some had even been executed by righteous ministers. Ideally, if not always in practice, ministers could invoke this doctrine to remonstrate with wayward princes.

While some Japanese Confucians endorsed this ancient doctrine, most were ambivalent, or rejected it. The idea of breaking Japan’s imperial line was unimaginable, while deposing the shogun was almost unthinkable until the mid-19th century.

The Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century was not the end for Japanese Confucianism. Modernizing statesmen cherry-picked Confucian ideas for Japan’s new State Shinto ideology, conceiving the idea of a “family state” (kazoku kokka) in which filial piety for parents merged with loyalty to the emperor as the head of the nation’s greater family.

In 1941, with a “Holy War” under way against the homeland of Confucius and militarism on the rise, Education Ministry bureaucrats distributed to schools a booklet titled “The Way of Subjects,” which proclaimed that “the first prerequisite of filial piety is to fulfill the duty of subjects” — not to parents, that is, but to the emperor.

In the postwar shock of defeat and occupation, this distorted Shinto-Confucian ideology was no longer sustainable and Confucian education ceased. In today’s democratic Japan, few politicians, bureaucrats, let alone filial children or loyal workers consciously observe Confucian values. However, Tu Weiming is right to say that these values are still present in the lives of Japanese as “habits of the heart.”

In particular, there are two important habitual attitudes in postwar Japanese and East Asian governance that are arguably Confucian. There is paternalism on the part of governments, legitimized by the efficiency of a highly educated, meritocratic bureaucracy; and (until recently) reciprocating loyalty from citizens, grounded in a faith in the moral and intellectual ability of their leaders to work for their good.

Japan’s nuclear power policy since the 1960s must represent the high point of this residual Confucian politics. Bureaucrats, government, the captains of industry and scientists joined hands in a “nuclear village” to develop an energy policy that would loosen Japan’s dependence upon a volatile fossil fuels market, and deliver high quality power to growing export industries.

Under the government’s paternalistic guidance, the Japanese public and mass media were rallied to believe in a vision of prosperity partly driven by nuclear power, and to trust in the prudence of bureaucrats and the expertise of scientists to manage this energy source safely. In Japan’s quiescent post-1960s civil society, “disharmonious” critics of nuclear power were marginalized or co-opted.

Public faith in political leaders and bureaucrats was on the wane well before 3/11. Widespread dismay at the tsunami inundation and meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and contempt for official reactions to this crisis, signaled a further collapse in public faith.

As news media belatedly probed the affairs of Japan’s nuclear village after 3/11, what came into focus was a parody of Confucian moral practice. If the ideal was harmonious cooperation between benevolent elites for the public good, the reality was a stupendous network of cronyism and patronage, connecting bureaucrats, politicians, electricity utilities, regulators, “rent-a-scientists” (goyogakusha), power plant host communities and the mass media. Particularistic values such as loyalty and deference to seniority merely cemented collusive ties, and muted dissent.

The results of this collusion are too well known to repeat here. One thing can be said though: the nuclear village paid dearly for sidelining its critics. As John Stuart Mill once said, if dissenters are right, errors can be corrected. Even if they are wrong, their outspokenness can test mainstream beliefs, and stop them from turning into inflexible dogmas. The “myth of nuclear safety” turned out to be one such dogma.

Yes, there are ill-informed and alarmist critics of nuclear power in Japan, but that is beside the point. The lesson to draw from all those antinuclear demonstrations and discontented rumblings on social network services is this: that after the Fukushima crisis it is no longer sustainable to believe that governments can act paternalistically for the public good, without civil society monitoring or input.

Japan’s increasingly articulate publics are moving into lockstep with their contemporaries in South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This does not spell the end of Confucian “habits of the heart”; they will live on, tinged with growing egalitarianism. But in governance, Confucian paternalism is under siege from demands for transparency and democratic consultation. Any attempt to restore public trust in nuclear power must acknowledge this reality.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University. He is currently researching modern Confucian thought.