Japanese culture

“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

Zen, Confucianism, and Modern Japan 禅宗,儒家,现代日本

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Japanese Confucianism
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.