“Confucian Modernity: The Japanese Experience” World Consortium for Research in Confucian Cultures, Kyoto, November 3-4 2017

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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 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 ( 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

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