The Japanese are an often misunderstood people. Arising from a land of paddy fields and feudal landlords about one hundred and fifty years ago, the Asia-Pacific has since come to experience Japan as an imperial aggressor in the Second World War and later an ‘economic miracle’ rising from the rubble of defeat. The cultural component of this miracle has been associated with Japan’s Confucian values of a strong work ethic and obedience to the government (Little & Reed, 1989), but other factors in Japan’s cultural history are – as we will see – also of interest. Japan became the world’s second largest economy until overtaken by China in 2010, and remains strong as the world’s third largest.
In the West, the idea of Japan has often been simplified and eroticised, with patronising and exotic nineteenth-century images of doll-like geishas, farmers with rice hats, and fearless samurai soldiers (Henshall, 2004). After the war, the images still remain strange, fantastical, and even repulsive– from sex robots and whale-culling to the widespread experience of loneliness resulting in rent-a-friend business across Japan.
Among Asian societies, in addition to the wartime atrocities of rape and mass murder, there is an acceptance that Japan has created a reputation for quality mass-produced goods in the global market. In many ways though, Japan is still a ‘fragile power’ as the country remains vulnerable to fluctuations in foreign policies and unpredictable natural disasters. Japan also imports 80 per cent of its energy and is dependent on value added exports for its wealth. This reality has moved the country into imperialism, war, and global trade at various times over the last century. It also calls into question who exactly are the Japanese: Are they peace-loving or war-like? Isolationist or expansionist? Open to other cultures or fearful to engage with others? To understand such a complex picture of Japanese society, it is important to examine the history, myths, and culture of Japan beyond the feudal nineteenth century where most history textbooks begin. This article will briefly examine the pre-Confucian, pre-Buddhist history and mythology to highlight how Japan’s fundamental characteristics have changed and developed over time.
Japanese Anthropology: A Mixture of Influences
According to archaeological accounts, there is evidence that humans existed around modern-day Japan at least 30,000 years ago, but it is unclear who these people were and how they survived (DeFelice, 2010). For Sergey Lapteff (2006), a specialist in the history of cultural exchange, there can be no doubt that the Japanese Palaeolithic period (kyūsekki jidai, 旧石器時代) derived from the larger Asian continent. It is known that around 10,000 years ago, there were gradual changes from the Palaeolithic to the “Jomon” cultural period (Jōmon, 縄文,translated as “rope pattern”), where the last clearly Palaeolithic phases are distinguished by the use of knife-shaped stone tools and stone points, while the first Jomon cultural phases started using punctuate-marked and nail-impressed pottery (Keally, 2009). Although migration from the larger continent never stopped during this period according to Hanihara Kazurō’s 1927 anthropological studies, the Japanese archipelago was already separated from the continent by the sea during the Jomon cultural period. This geographic factor would have had a significant influence on Jomon culture and as Lapteff (2006) notes, many of the pottery found in the sites that are believed to have belonged to the Jomon show features and distinct markings that have not been found anywhere else in north and south-east Asia.
However, in terms of Japanese ethnicity, there is no biological validity to the idea that the Japanese consist of one Jomon-type ethnicity since by the fourth century BCE, a new cultural period emerged (弥生時代, Yayoi jidai) when the Yayoi people, who are named after the neighbourhood in Tokyo where their homes were first found, began to grow rice and use metals like copper, which the earlier inhabitants did not use (Roberts, 2010). According to researchers like Curtis Andressen (2010) and Jim DeFelice (2010), the introduction of new technologies made of iron and bronze as well as artefacts such as mirrors, weapons, and coins suggest that the Yayoi would have come from China and Korea, or at least traded and interacted with people who did. While the exact nature of this migration pattern is still being investigated, Lapteff (2006) points out that during this period the highly developed and organised cultures of the Hemudu河姆渡and Liangzhu 良渚, located in the Yangtze River Delta of China, already had an established rice farming society and the same storage pits that they used were spreading into what is now the Korea peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and southwards into Indochina.
The presence of wet rice agriculture in uncultivated areas of Japan had a significant impact on Japanese society. For one, rice provided the locals with a high level of food production, which led to an increase in population and expansion of the Yayoi to eastern parts of Japan. Although the Yayoi had no written records, the presence of agriculture would have resulted in high levels of cooperation to build large rice paddies and irrigation systems. This would have influenced Japan’s communal culture and possibly led to specialisation in labour and social stratification with the introduction of social classes and land ownership (Kanaseki & Sahara, 1976). Some of the earliest descriptions of Japan appear in Chinese historical records called “The History of the Kingdom of Wei”, produced around 300 CE, with an extended account of Japanese society (called “Wa” peoples) in a section that chronicles the various “barbarian” peoples on China’s borders. What is known from these accounts is that Japanese society experienced years of warfare under a shaman queen named Pimiko (or Himiko, 卑弥呼, 170–248 CE) over the Yamato people in today’s Nara prefecture. The presence of large burial mounds (called kofun, 古墳) from the extended battles during this period were a key sign that the Yamato clan was gaining power and influence over western and central Japan (Henshall, 2004).
Between the Yayoi peoples and the emergence of the Yamato clan, Japanese society had established a dependency on rice and fish, which forms the basic diet of Japan even today. While there are clear links between Chinese continental cultures and Japan, not all elements of the continental culture were adopted. For instance, Kanaseki and Sahara (1976) state that while there was an extension of the Jomon pottery techniques by the Yayoi, continental developments such as animal domestication, walled cities, and writing was not introduced right away or at all. A key factor to explain this phenomenon could be the different geographic realities of the Yayoi peoples compared to continental cultures. For example, the Yayoi people settled in areas along the coast, where villages were built on hilltops and mountainsides more than 100 metres above sea level. This would make building walled city structures and domestic farms difficult to maintain. Survival priorities during this time would have also limited the creation of a writing system since food production techniques were still being developed.
Early Mythology and Moral Attitudes
The origins of the Japanese writing system can be traced back to Chinese continental culture which codified largely pictographic glyphs into a unified writing style. These were further transformed over many centuries, and by the time the writing system was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea, Japanese scholars started experimenting and adapting the kanji(漢字) into their own language (Heisig, 1977). It was during the period of the Yamato rulers that a dominant Japanese culture was being established and with the emergence of the writing system came various written mythologies and creation stories. Mythology plays an important role in constructing civilisations and cultural movements and from a historical-ethnographic perspective, allows groups to face problems and adapt to changing situations marked by temporality and human fragility against the natural elements (Morales, 2013). In other words, myths allow humans, both individually and as a collective, to transition“from chaos to cosmos” (Duch, 2002, p. 37). As the Yamato rulers gradually extended their rule over the archipelago through warfare and diplomacy, they justified their control by associating their clan with a story about the beginning of the world, linking the ruling family to creator gods. Eventually, such stories became central to the Shinto (Shintō, 神道, translated as ‘the way of the gods’), a belief system that involves worshipping kami, which can be understood as sacred spirits that take the form of things important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, and fertility (Hammer, 2018). Once writing was introduced to Japan, the Yamato oral traditions were recorded in the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon Shoki(日本書紀, “Chronicles of Japan”), compiled in the eighth century.
One of the myths describes the beginning of the universe as a ‘chaotic mass like an egg’, where there was no division between heaven and earth. Once the purer part separated into heaven and the heavier, impure part of the mass became earth, a number of deities came into existence and they stood on the floating bridge of heaven, thrusting a jewelled spear (a phallic symbol) down into the ocean. As they raised the spear, some water dripped from it and two of the deities, Izanagi (‘He Who Invites’) and Izanami (‘She Who Invites’), turned this liquid into land. The two deities descended and began to populate earth. Numerous divine offspring were produced, not only by vaginal birth but from other bodily parts and even from bodily waste. The God of Fire is one deity born vaginally, and Izanami was burned to death during his birth. Distraught, Izanagi travelled to Yomi (the Land of the Dead), to try to bring Izanami back to the Land of the Living. However, Izanami became ashamed and angered when he saw her maggot-riddled body, and she chased him out of Yomi. As Izanagi bathed himself in a river to wash away the stench of death, deities emerged from his body parts, including the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (‘Light of Heaven’) and the Sea God Susano-o (‘Wild Male’). Izanagi sends Amaterasu to Takamagahara to rule over the heavens, while Susano-o is given the sea to rule. Susano-o, however, disobeys Izanagi, and ends up being banished. Before heading into exile, Susano-o visits Amaterasu in Takamagahara and at his suggestion they produce a number of children. Susano-o then torments Amaterasu by destroying her rice-paddies and smearing excrement on the walls of her palace. Amaterasu retreats into a cave, plunging the universe into darkness. The other deities try to lure her back out with a mirror and jewels. One goddess begins performing a lewd dance, exposing herself and making all the other deities laugh. Intrigued by the laughter, Amaterasu comes out from the cave and the other deities seize her and block the entrance to the cave with a boulder. In another tale, Susano-o finds a sword, which he later presents to his sister Amaterasu as a token of remorse. The sword, mirror, and jewels still form the imperial regalia of Japan in modern times. Susano-o’s son, Okuninushi, is credited with calming the wild land. A hero, he becomes the victim of numerous treacherous acts by his jealous father. Susano-o murders Okuninushi several times, but he is restored to life each time. Okuninushi’s sons eventually agree to let Amaterasu’s descendants rule the land. Her great-great grandson, Jimmu, becomes the first ruler of Japan.” (see Henshall, 2004, chapter 1).
The specific nature of this mythology provides an interesting commentary on life in ancient Japan, a world which was characterised by violence and death, where it was not uncommon for parents to kill or abandon their children.While cruelty and violence are seen in myths and early histories throughout various culture, what is distinctive about Japanese myths is the lack of moral judgement or education. For example, Susano-o, who plays the role of the deceiving, power-hungry trickster, is simply exiled by his father rather than condemned as evil. In that case, behaviour is accepted or rejected depending on the situation, not according to a set of universal principles that should guide all human interaction. For commentators like Yamamoto (1990), such an approach to morality is still present in contemporary Japan where there is extreme context dependency of judging moral actions. This context dependency is believed to be “governed by a morality based on mutual trust…[existing] in its most secure form, among intimates, among those who share a familiarity with one another’s concerns” (p. 451).
The use of these myths for political purposes shows up periodically in Japanese history, especially during the Meiji period in the nineteenth century. In the last century before the Pacific War, it was used to bind the Japanese together by appealing to ultranationalism. The current emperor, Akihito, is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Amaterasu (Jordan, 1996), and the worship of the sun by ultranationalists comes from associating the name ‘Japan’ with the corrupted forms of the Chinese word Jih-pen, which means ‘the place where the sun comes from’ or ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’. Such associations are linked with myths that explain the divine origins of the islands, and the geographic separation of the archipelago from the continent has led to the self-perception that the Japanese are very different from other nationalities, an attitude that still partly endures today, although younger people are increasingly much more internationalised.
The revival of Confucianism, spread of education, emergence of nationalism, and promotion of conformism and obedience, are all important factors in the formation of modern Japan. However, it is clear that from early times, Japan has always had unique cultural developments, often because of its diverse population origins and the racial mixture of its indigenous populations. The process of adapting outsider cultural elements is also what led to the development and success of today’s Japan, with the adoption of technologies such as agricultural techniques to writing systems. From its early stages, Japan was strongly influenced by China as were other countries in the regions further south, and while the idea of ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian cultures’ was later developed by outside influences like Jesuit missionaries during the sixteenth century, Japan interacted with the continent for most of its trade, communication, and cultural contact, meaning that many Asian cultures and societies developed similar basic characteristics. It was this cultural similarity that led a number of intellectuals and politicians to argue for “Asian” solidarity– a theme that is still prominent, particularly in China’s “common destiny” slogans.
Japan’s isolated and rugged geographic reality had a direct influence on the current social values of mutual respect and cooperation, especially since survival is relatively difficult in places with few natural resources and frequent natural disasters. The avoidance of social conflict is matched with the historical struggle of power between clans, and while Japan is a democracy today, the centralised hierarchical ruling is still a factor in Japanese political culture and decision-making. As American anthropologist Ruth Benedict noted, the dichotomy between the chrysanthemum and the sword and the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects of Japanese culture are part of the nation’s historical development, and without these mutually complementary sides of its culture, Japanese society would have not been able to survive to this day.
By Cindy Minarova-Banjac
Part 6 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Countries such as Korea and Japan were historically under the cultural and political influence of China, which brought Confucianism to these countries. In this video, it is discussed whether Confucianism is just as important to the economic and social development of Asian countries outside of China.
While most of the literature on Confucianism focuses on the application of Confucian philosophy in China, little attention has been paid to the development of Confucianism in Korea and Japan. One Religion, Two Countries: Classical and Neo-Confucianism in Korea and Japan with Dr. John Goulde explores the different adaptions of Confucianism to Japan and Korea’s bureaucratic, government and educational institutions.
“Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience” World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures, Kyoto, November 3-4 2017
It was in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, in the season when maple trees were turning elegantly red, at the time when the once-a-year exhibition of imperial treasures from Shōsō-in (正倉院) was open, that the 2017 conference of the “World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures” took place. As this Conference focused on “Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience in an East Asian context”, scholars from all over the world shared views and visions on the potential and challenges of Confucian Philosophy. Seen as a model for our contemporary world, the conference itself eloquently manifested the Confucian key value “harmony in differences” (hé ér bù tóng 和而不同).
Discussing topics on “Confucian Cultures” in this context certainly acquired a subtle “Japanese” flavor. Kizou Ogura 小倉紀藏 (Kyoto University) presented a brief history of 1,300 years of Japanese Philosophy, from which he deduced a Japanese national spirit as neither materialistic, nor purely spiritual, but what he referred to as “animistic” (more precisely, a kind of “humanistic animism”), constructing an “in-between” world that is both sensuous, and aesthetically ethical. It was Motoori Norinaga本居宣長 (1730-1801) who first appealed for an awareness of Japanese Philosophy that would not simply adopt Chinese Neo-Confucianism. Based on his critical work on The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari源氏物語), Norinaga developed his idea of “mono no aware” (物の哀れ, pathos of things) through a sensuous and sensible touch and feeling towards nature and surroundings, which completely ran against the abstract concept of lǐ 理 (principle) of the Chinese Neo-Confucian tradition. According to Ogura, when Japan adopted Neo-Confucianism as a national agenda in the progress of modernization, which did not truly speak to the Japanese spirit, it was “turmoil and covered with blood”. This perspective was echoed by the presentation on Ōkawa Shūmei’s大川周明(1886-1957) commentary on the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhōng Yōng中庸), by Viren Murthy (University of Wisconsin-Madison). Shūmei was condemned as “Class-A” war criminal in his Tokyo trial in 1945, the only convicted war-criminal who was not a military official.
However, the hybridization of Chinese and Japanese ideas was not always disastrous. As Thomas Kasulis (Ohio State University) addressed in his keynote speech, like combining raspberry and blackberry can produce loganberry, and combining loganberry again with raspberry can produce the most delicious boysenberry, in Japanese history, the philosophy of Inoue Tetsujirō井上哲次郎(1855-1944), for example, is such a “boysenberry”. Tetsujirō did not only adopt the Confucian ideal of “accomplished person” (jūn zǐ 君子), but also transplanted this ideal into the context of Japanese culture, such as “Shintō-based reverence”. The result was a moral system that could be loosely called “Confucian”, but in reality was a uniquely interesting hybrid that has been partially accepted and partially lost.
Contrary to the Japanese reaction to Confucianism, which manifested the necessity of renovation, the Korean experience of Neo-Confucianism was one of cultural reinforcement, which was even used to develop anti-Japanese attitudes in colonial times. For example, the second keynote speaker, Kim Tae-Chang金泰昌 (Tonyang Forum/Tongyang Newspaper Co.), argued from his personal experience of being brought up in a Confucian cultural environment, to promote the “public” dimension of learning and education. According to Kim, a Confucian is, first of all, a learning person, and learning is not simply a private matter, but tends to transform the domain of “heart” (xīn 心) to that of “spirit” (líng 靈).
The official language of this Conference was English but there was a panel that was exclusively for presentations in Chinese with on-spot English translation, which included Lǐ Cún Shān 李存山 (Chinese Academy of Social Science) and Kǒng Dé Lì 孔德立 (Bei Jing Jiao Tong University), who is in fact the 77th descendent of Confucius. Quoting from the Analects and other canons, both talks supported the Confucian moral values that are based upon self-cultivation and human-heartedness especially manifested in loyalty (zhōng 忠) and forgiveness (shù 恕), the conditions upon which “harmony in differences” can truly be realized.
Confucian ideology is, however, strongly challenged by the feminist point of view. Wu Shiu-Ching (National Chung-Cheng University, Taiwan) argued against Confucian misogynistic tendencies, not only in the words of Confucian canons, but also in the etymology of Chinese characters. For example, when one adds the “woman” (女) glyph to rén 仁 (human-heartedness), it becomes nìng 佞, which means “hypocritical” and “flattering”. The President of the Consortium, Roger Ames (Bei Jing University), confirmed that the 2020 conference will be held at Ewha Womans University in Korea, in order to confront and address specifically these questions from a perspective of contemporary Confucian Philosophy.
After the conference, the committee performed a small but sincere “ritual”, on occasion of the birthday of Takahiro Nakajima 中島隆博 (University of Tokyo), featuring sake that was secretly bought from Nakajima’s wife’s brewery! What an amazing surprise for him!
Perhaps, such a little “not-knowing” surprise, a contemporary play on ritual-propriety (lǐ 禮) is indeed an example and celebration of the immediacy and intimacy expressed in “mono no aware”, where we find a thread of convergence with the Confucian key concept rén 仁 (human-heartedness). Etymologically, rén could also mean “kernel”– the innermost part of life which inheres all potential of growth, most vulnerable, yet open and in anticipation of encounters. In this sense, the Japanese tradition does not proscribe, but describes and illuminates Confucian concepts through its subtle reflections of everyday life, i.e. through establishing an aesthetic ethics that focuses on the simple and often overlooked gestures of this life and at this very moment.
A good point to depart from, for our next Confucian journey…
Written by Yi Chen
Assistant Professor of Confucian Philosophy, Bond University
In the last two decades, the Chinese government has been developing an international media network that reports from the Chinese perspective on stories relating to China. Although there is debate about whether promoting Chinese traditions, values, and culture can increase understanding and empathy from audiences around the world, large funds have been invested into enhancing the country’s image. However, despite these efforts, there is still a lack of reporting on Confucian-related stories. Here are three recent news items that feature Confucianism.
- Technology and Confucianism– ‘Get ready for Chinese AI with a Confucian bias’
Image: China’s Rise in Artificial Intelligence. The Atlantic.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the possession or exercise of thought by machines such as computers. The main question that many scientists and philosophers have been asking is whether a machine thinks. The concept of AI becomes an issue as the capacity to think or reason was previously thought to be unique to the human species. Extending this capacity to machines, who are unable to experience the world like a real human, means that as AI develops, this new technology will have increased moral, religious, and legal significance. It also means that as it stands now, AI is one of the most important and misunderstood sciences of modern times.
Intelligence technologies rely on a binary logic as they are based on yes/no or true/false algebraic formulations. Like the classical Chinese text, the I Ching (The Book of Changes), there is no ‘maybe’ option unless maybe is based on another probability or likelihood (“if I get a raise, then I will buy a new car”). Options can be weighed, but there is never an indefinite answer to a question. While the binary logic in all AI systems is standardized and universal, each AI technology is also created with intent, and this intent is culture-specific. So, it is expected that AI in China will operate differently to Indian AI, AI in the United States, or in Russia.
The expectation is that calculators will replace the old abacus as children around the world will come home from school, show a photograph of their maths homework to the home robot, and receive an immediate answer. But in China, AI will be “biased” towards the ancient Chinese way of reconciling binary opposites. So, answers will be pre-programmed to align with the classical texts of the Dao De Jing, the Analects, and the Great Learning. In the Chinese way of thinking, users should expect given answers to be more wholesome:
One should not be progressive or conservative; one should be both
One should not be materialistic or spiritual; one should be both
One should not be idealistic or realistic; one should be both
When asking for advice, Chinese AI will also be known to emphasise the importance of traditional values such as family honour, loyalty, harmony, and honesty. Students will be expected to ask how Confucian wisdom can be applied to solve current social problems, using AI machines as a platform to test their ideas before extending their discussions in the classroom.
With China’s 1.3 billion population expected to stay relatively stable in the next 40 years, the country will continue to generate huge amounts of data. This includes consumer preferences, to the highly personal and sensitive, such as medical records and social attitudes. The power that comes from having extensive data available on nearly a quarter of the world’s population and the world’s largest manufacturer is unprecedented. This raises questions as to how AI will be used by government agencies, what security measures will be put in place to protect civilian privacy, and in what way will intelligence robotics be programmed to respond to civilians who sympathise with ideas that the government censors, such as democracy or the Falun Gong movement.
- A Weaponised Philosophy? – ‘Confucianism and Market Reforms–Ancient Coils, Modern Reforms’
Image: Kim Jong Un and wife. Newsweek.
An issue that continues to be a cause for concern regarding global peace and security is the 2017 North Korean nuclear crisis. Since North Korea has fired missiles into the Japanese sea, world leaders have announced the need for diplomatic talks to calm the ongoing tensions in the region. What is little discussed in contemporary analyses is the role of Confucianism in Korean culture.
Confucianism has had far-reaching influence over the Korean peninsula. Whether used for its emphasis on self-sacrifice and blind obedience in the North, or as a social norm in the modern and more liberal South, Confucian ideals continue to determine how Korean societies are organised. For example, in Seoul, it is a general custom that an adult would never address an older family member on a first name basis out of respect for seniority. The high standing given to bureaucrats has also created a social tier of first-class elites made up of diplomats, trade negotiators, and industrial planners. Even globalized multinational companies like LG and Samsung are organised as conglomerate ‘chaebols’ based on hereditary ownership, employing life-long partners who become ‘family members’.
Korea’s history with Confucianism dates back to the Chôson dynasty in the 15th century. Even though Buddhism constituted an essential part of the social fabric of Chôson society and was heavily interwoven into the lives of rulers and peasants, Buddhist thought became associated with corruption and superstition as its political influence diminished. With the state’s policy to “uphold Confucianism and oppress Buddhism” (崇儒抑佛), the economic power of Buddhism declined and Buddhist institutions were driven out of the capital and into the mountains. This led to a state where Buddhism was removed from the city’s centre. To fill this social gap, the Chôson foundersestablished Confucianism as the state religion. Within a few years, Korean state rituals, philosophy, ethics, and social norms were being influenced by Chinese Confucian thought. As in China, government-sponsored examinations were compulsory to enter the state bureaucracy, and a position in the government was considered a mark of high status for an individual and their family. Chôson dynasty Korea was organized by strict social divisions according to status and occupation, where the close observance of Confucian rituals, separation of male and female interaction, and self-imposed isolation were reinforced by social expectations and standards.
These practices became part of Korea’s national character. Over the centuries, Confucianism continued to define Korean national identify as it symbolically stood against Chinese assimilation and Japanese occupation. During the post-war period, the North used Confucianism to justify its increasing isolation from the rest of the world, while the South’s martial rule under General Park Chung-hee pursued an export-led growth strategy. Even though merchants were considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy according to Confucian norms, Chaebol family heads were able to escape incarceration by donating their profits to the military regime in exchange for keeping their factories.
Even as the South’s martial rule was replaced by free trade and democracy, it is no surprise that Confucian attitudes continued to persist. During the Asian financial crisis in 1997, for example, many Koreans gave in to government pleas to donate their gold to central banks. Citizens ended up melting family heirlooms and wedding rings, donating over US$2 billion worth of gold to meet IMF payments on the due date.
When a philosophy is ‘weaponised’ or interpreted to justify policy objectives, it is all the more important to understand and study the classical texts to see how political elites are using the philosophy for the country’s (or their own) ends. Leaders on the Korean peninsula have shown how Confucianism can be used in a variety of ways: from training workers to be obedient to increase trade surpluses, to perfecting nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles that show the strength of the ruling family. So what will Confucianism be used to justify next?
- A Battle over Ideas– ‘Who Was Saigo Takamori, The Last Samurai?’
Image: The Japanese state cavalry led by Saigo Takamori. National Geographic.
Samurais were a caste of warriors in Japanese society from the 12th to the 19th century. Respected for their military strategy, swordsmanship, and discipline, they were known to value courage, loyalty, and honour. While political change led to their decline, the samurais, led by Saigo Takamori (西郷 隆盛), both embraced and fought against modernisation.
The restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868 was much more than just a change in the system of government. The nation was militarily weak and had little technological development. As a result, the leaders saw modernisation and reform as the answer to strengthening Japanese security. “Enrich the country, strengthen the army” was the slogan of the Meiji restorationists. The new regime began dismantling the old feudal system and building a modern fighting force. But not all Japanese welcomed these changes. The reforms deeply split the samurai. Although some supported a modern vision of Japan, to others, modernity threatened their way of life. Saigo Takamori, a samurai hero who helped lead the Meiji revolt, represented the conflict between old and the new.
Born in 1828, Saigo came from Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima), a fiefdom in southwestern Japan. Saigo was not only a skilled warrior but also dedicated student to the ideas of neo-Confucianism and Zen Buddhism. As well as admiring dedication and piety, taking his own life after his master passed away, Saigo was convinced that Confucianism was universal rather than culturally-specific. He stated that Confucian principles of good governance, loyalty, benevolence, and filial piety could be found even in the West, and that Japan could learn Confucian values by critically evaluating Western institutions. Studying the Confucian classics, Saigo argued that Confucianism was a common human heritage that could allow Japan to maintain its traditions and emerge as a stable power.
Saigo played a leading role in the political and military struggles of the mid-19th century. By 1868, Saigo’s troops occupied Edo and defeated the shogunate forces. As part of the package of reforms later introduced by Meiji, Japan’s ancient feudal system of military government was abolished. However, once he returned to Tokyo as the head of the Imperial Guard, Saigo was disillusioned. Corruption and the desire for Western products symbolised greed and everything that he feared about the West. Abolishing the Han system also affected the samurai way of life. The stipends paid to them had disappeared and the creation of the Japanese Imperial Army and military conscription removed the need for their military service. With no income or status, the samurais became common peasants.
The extent of the defeat suffered by the samurais was total. But Saigo’s dignity and courage in following his duty and defeating the Shogunate while facing the reality of modernisation made him a national hero. His work on Confucianism also provides a new perspective on how Confucianism can be translated into a global code of ethics that extends beyond China’s political system.
Image: Paramore, K. (2016). Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History (Front Cover). Retrieved June 22, 2017, from here.
The Development of Japanese Confucianism through Zen
Confucianism continues to be a significant philosophical tradition in East Asia, along with Daoism and Buddhism. Collectively, these three schools of thought are known as the “three teachings” of Chinese tradition. The adoption of the three teachings across East Asia was partly due to travel and trade on the Silk Road. As the Asia Society (2017) notes in their series on East Asian communication, for over two thousand years the Silk Road acted as a transmitter of people, goods, ideas, beliefs, and inventions, where networks of travel spread intersecting religious beliefs and traditions across China, Japan, and Korea. What is unknown to many is that Zen Buddhist monks played a key role in bringing Chinese culture into Japan which contributed to the development of ‘Japanese Confucianism’.
With the territorial and cultural expansion of the Han dynasty throughout the Korean peninsula, the ruler of the Korean kingdom of Paekche (18 B.C.- 660 A.D.), Keun Ch’ogo, sent instructors named Wang-In and A-Chikki, along with a copy of The Analects and the Thousand Character Classic, to the ruler of Yamato (in Japan’s Nara Prefecture) around 404-405 AD. Literate Chinese and Korean migrants were highly valued in early Japan and many of them taught Confucianism as a way of strengthening the imperial institutions and centralising the Japanese state. An example of how Confucianism influenced Japanese politics can be seen in Prince Shōtoku’s Seventeen-Article Constitution, where in the late 6th century Japan’s clan chieftains developed into monarch-type rulers following the Chinese model of rule. In the constitution, an emphasis is placed on harmony and proper behaviour in human relations as well as the Han Confucian three-tiered cosmology in which human obedience is a requisite for Heaven to provide its blessings on Earth:
Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature. But if the Earth attempts to take the place of Heaven, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. That is why the vassal listens when the lord speaks, and the inferior obeys the superior acts. (Article 3)
For Tsukahira (1966) however, there is little evidence that Japan consciously sought to model their system on ancient Chinese feudalism. Instead, even during the later Tokugawa shogunate, scholars and statesmen wanted to enhance the dignity and prestige of state institutions by identifying the regime as a Confucian, not Chinese, state.
However, as Confucianism developed in Japan’s political structure, Japanese monks who went over to China brought back both Zen and Confucian thought to the masses. In the book Zen and Japanese Culture (1959), D.T. Suzuki highlights that not only did Zen monks edit and print Confucian textbooks, “instilling fresh blood into Confucianism” (p. 42) through Zen idealism, the monks also compiled these books for popular education in their monasteries. In academia, it was Zen monks like Keian (1427-1508) and Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728) who emphasised the connection between Buddhist teachings and Confucian philosophy by studying the foundational texts, including the Book of Changes (I-Ching), the Book of Odes (Shih Ching), the Book of Annals (Shu Ching), the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch’un Ch’iu), and the Record of Rites (Li Chi). By following a long line of Confucian thinkers who shaved their head like Buddhist priests, these monks made a combined effort to propagate orthodox Confucianism as it suited the political and intellectual situation in Japan after the country suffered many years of conflict. By promising to “yield practical solutions to the problems of government” (Tsukahira, 1966, p. 109), Confucianism stood against corruption and the growing influence of money in society.
Anti-Buddhism and Neo-Confucian Scholars
Although Confucianism came to Japan in the sixth century, it had largely been confined to Buddhist monasteries. By the late sixteenth century, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, as he began to build the bureaucracy which would eventually establish over 250 years of domestic peace (Hooker, 1997). As a result, anti-Buddhist perspectives in many Neo-Confucian texts became influential throughout the seventeenth century. For instance, a well-known critique of Zen Buddhism was articulated by the Confucian scholar Itô Jinsai (1627-1705). In the text The Meaning of Words in the Analects and Mencius (Gomô jigi), Jinsai states that the Buddha believed that emptiness was “the way” (dao), and that mountains, rivers, and land masses were all unreal. However, given that for all ages heaven and earth have sustained life, the sun and moon have illuminated the world, and beings such as birds, fish, insects, and trees live as they do now, it makes no sense to say that all is emptiness or nothingness. Instead, this emphasis on emptiness derives from the Buddhist practice of retiring in the mountains and sitting silently while emptying the mind. Emptiness or nothingness exists neither in this world nor outside it, only in the minds of the Buddhists.
Jinsai argues that in real life the principles of harmony, love, and order are found in every aspect of life: from human relations to even the grains of sand (Tucker, 2013). In this sense, the ‘Confucian way’ refers to how people should conduct themselves in their daily lives. As a universal and natural truth, the Confucian way can simply be called dao. By contrast, the teachings of Buddhism exist only because a small group of people follow them. According to Jinsai, with no practical benefits or ways of contributing to social reality, Buddhism becomes completely irrelevant.
Following on from Jinsai’s comments, Confucian scholars also criticised aspects of Zen that were renowned for their anti-intellectualism. Affirming the uselessness of texts and words on the path to realising one’s Buddha-nature, Zen Buddhism puts forward the idea that the universe is a constantly changing state and that the core of being and non-being cannot be captured by fixed meanings of conventional language (Lieberman, 2006). Japanese Neo-Confucianism, on the other hand, was defined in opposition to assertions of semantic emptiness by reasserting the integrity of language, meaning, and discursive truth. As Tucker (2014) notes, “without the crucial role of language, most especially the words of sages, Confucius and Mencius, humanity would hardly be different from beasts” (p. 33). As a result, words and their correct usage were essential to self-cultivation, governance, and bringing peace to the world.
For all the criticisms on Buddhist thought, it should be noted that the role of ancient history cannot be omitted or underestimated. While the Chu Hsi school throughout the Korean peninsula rejected Zen Buddhism “decked out in Confucian grab” (Kalton, 1988), Confucianism became very strong in Japan because it was originally influenced by and combined with Zen as well as Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. For Hiroyuki (2006), philosophical theorizing in Japan usually took the position that Confucianism, Shinto, and Zen were three versions of the same ultimate truth (shinjubutsu sankyō-itchi), especially since Confucian scholars actively promoted ‘Confucian Shinto’ (Juka Shintō).
Confucianism in Modern Japan
Because of the assertion that these three philosophies did not contradict absolutely and could coexist, the legacy of Japanese Confucianism continues to influence Japan today. As Professor Reischauer states in his book The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (1977), “almost no one considers himself a Confucianist today, but in a sense almost all Japanese are” (p. 214). Many studies have noted the influence of Confucian ethics in education, the workplace, and the role of the government bureaucracy (Ornatowski, 1996), where harmony and right conduct coincides with hierarchical leadership as major characteristics of Japanese organizational culture. However, Confucianism is also understood as being a ‘feudal’ ideology of the past. For example, the work by Japanese sinologist Hattori Unokichi is often criticised for defending Confucian teachings by relying on “Emperor-centered nationalism”, when linking filial piety with Japanese self-sacrifice (Nakajima, 2004). In this way, the relationship between the emperor and the people as compared to that of father and son is criticised as forming right-wing nationalism. With most philosophical departments in Japanese universities also preferring to focus on western philosophy rather than Confucian thought, it would seem that Confucianism currently suffers from a setback in Japan.
An exception to this is the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy (UTCP). Since its founding in 2002, the UTCP has sponsored discussions addressing issues relating to the status of Confucianism in Japanese philosophy. Some academics and journals have also published papers on Confucianism, including Sakamoto Hiroko’s (2009) feminist critique of Confucianism and Azuma Jūji’s (2008) translation of new Confucian documents. For now though, it is unclear whether Japan will relive a Confucian renaissance as China currently has.