A Brief History of Confucianism in Edo-Period Japan

I spent part of last year reading a fascinating collection of essays under the title of Confucianism and Tokugawa Culture by Peter Nosco and other contributors. The book and the essays examine the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate, and how religion played a role during this long and influential era. It showed a fascinating evolution of thought from the early Edo Period, when the country was finally united, and later with the rise of the Mito School of Neo-Confucian scholars, who ironically created a system of thought that helped create a sense of nationalism that led to the Meiji Restoration. This post is an effort to summarize some of the interesting points explored in the book. Religion in the Edo Period, or any period of history is a complex subject, but there were some really interesting things I’ve learned while reading the book.

Herman Ooms’s essay (chapter 2 in the book) shows how during the Warring States Period, there was little in the way of ideology, apart from practical matters. War was constantly unfolding, and the focus was on practical knowledge and administration. However, as research shows, the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa clan, though successful was met with considerable resistance by peasants and other groups. Writings from the time show many had felt either a strong devotion to the Emperor, to the Buddha (in the case of Buddhist sects) or to Jesus Christ in the case of Japanese Christians. The warrior class were unwanted overlords in a sense. The Tokugawa, after winning the security of the nation had to build a new image for themselves as a way of obscuring the raw military power behind a sense of ideology and legitimacy.

For this reason, the early Tokugawa Shoguns, especially the 3rd Shogun, Iemitsu, attracted a number of scholars, priests and others who would help proselytize the new Tokugawa-era of peace. Many of these scholars were Neo-Confucians, influenced by the Chinese Confucian master Zhū​ Xī​ (朱熹, pronounced “Joo Shee”), who sought to broaden Confucius’s rational and ethical teachings long ago into a rational world-view. Oom’s article shows that a number of the Neo-Confucian scholars who were employed by the Tokugawa clan were ex-Buddhist monks. The first was Fujiwara Seika, followed by his student, the famous Hayashi Razan (another ex-monk) and his son Hayashi Gahō.

Hayashi Razan is among the most well-known Neo-Confucian scholars in the Edo Period, but Ooms article shows how his influence was smaller than many people believe. Razan competed with a number of rival Neo-Confucian scholars also employed by the Tokugawa government (bakufu), particularly another ex-Buddhist monk Yamazaki Ansai. Also, Razan and Ansai, like many of his rivals, attempted to synthesize Neo-Confucian ideas with Shinto religion in various ways. As Ooms writes:

Traditional Shinto, needless to say, makes available mythologizing strategems, whereas Neo-Confucianism provides the other kind of reasons most appropriate for this situation: arguments constructed from principles. (pg. 45)

The Yoshida sect of Shinto, previously attempted to explain Shinto teachings and the world in a grand unifying theory (all kami and all nature were manifestations of a particular, single great kami) as a counter to Buddhism’s dominance in Japan for centuries, and Neo-Confucian scholars borrowed a lot of its ideas to present a picture of the world unified by nature, man, the kami and so on with the Shogun as the “pole-star”.

By the time of Razan’s son, Gahō, things were starting to change though. Gahō served the Lord of Mito Domain, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, and as Gahō’s diary shows, scholars in Mito domain were having further doubts about how to define their role. In tradition Confucian thought, the Emperor or king unified everything militarily, politically, religiously, etc. However, in Edo Period Japan, the Emperor still “reigned”, but the real power was with the Shogun. The Shogun wasn’t a “prince” of the Emperor, even though he did have a rank in the Imperial court, but his power wasn’t dependent on the Emperor either. So, where did the Shogun fit into Confucian teachings?

The Mito Domain was the smallest of the three “collateral” domains that supported the Tokugawa Shoguns, and Mitsukuni was deeply influenced by Confucian teachings, so much so that he made his older brother’s son heir instead of his own son, as a matter of selflessness and Confucian principle. Mitsukuni recognizing Mito Domain’s smaller role compared to the other two domains of Owari and Kii, sought to prove Mito Domain’s worth to the Shoguns by becoming trusted defenders and advisers. Thus Mitsukuni invested considerable resources into gathering scholars, including Gahō, to compile Neo-Confucian treatises, historical records and so on. This gave rise to the Mito School.

But as mentioned previously, the role of the Shogun in Japan was a very tricky issue in Confucian thought because the Emperor of Japan should be entrusted with all the power, with the Shogun as a loyal retainer. Even Mitsukuni himself, was torn by this contradiction. According to one account, Mitsukuni would put on clothes appropriate for the Imperial Court and his rank there every New Year morning and bow to Kyoto where the Emperor lived and tell his close vassals, “My lord is the emperor. The present shogun is the head of my family. One must take care not to misunderstand this situation.”

And yet, people still did. Gahō was among many scholars at the time who tried to explain the history of Japan in such a way that fit traditional Confucian models, but without criticizing his employers the Tokugawa Shoguns. This proved surprisingly difficult, and Mitsukuni approved of Gahō’s efforts, but then commissioned a huge work called the Dai Nihonshi (大日本史, “Great History of Japan”). The huge volume was edited, compiled and extended long after Mitsukuni passed away, but it’s continued reverence to the Emperor as the true sovereign of Japan helped undermine Tokugawa rule which had become less effective in later centuries. Questions about returning power to the Emperor gained greater and greater over the generations until the final Meiji Restoration.

Meanwhile, some felt that Neo-Confucian scholars in Japan had gone too far in relying on Neo-Confucian thought and not enough on Confucius’s original teachings. Ogyū Sōrai led a movement to study the original Confucian teachings and apply them to Tokugawa society while returning to Confucianism’s “roots” before Neo-Confucianism. The Confucian Classics were no longer readable by people at that time so Sorai spent considerable time learning how to read ancient Chinese and conveying the teachings as close to the original as possible. He pointed out that Confucius never considered himself a sage, but rather someone who faithfully transmitted the teachings of the Ancients. Likewise, Sorai intended to do the same.

Additionally, many scholars, of the Edo Period sought to link Shinto religion with Confucian thought, which eventually led to the “National Studies” movement or kokugaku (国学) led by Motoori Norinaga. The National Studies movement was centered around Japanese nationalism and Shinto religion first, while actively opposing Buddhism and Confucianism as foreign imports that dampened Japanese spirit, but ironically Confucian influence could be seen in the way it expressed devotion to the Emperor and such.

This small post attempts to summarize 260 years worth of Confucianism that took on a deeply complex and intertwined nature, and constantly evolving. So the details here are pretty scant, but it shows how Neo-Confucian thought served as a new religious model for the Shoguns,1 and as a mean of not just preserving the State, but also elevating society.

P.S. One-off reference post that I have wanted to publish for a while. 🙂

1 Similar events happened around the same time in Korea under the Joseon Dynasty, though Neo-Confucian thought took a somewhat different course. I hope to explore this in an upcoming post soon.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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