Neo-Confucianism in Japan

Neo-Confucianism in Japan
Neo-Confucianism in Japan

Neo-Confucianism was the revival and reinterpretation of the thoughts and principles of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 b.c.e.) in China in the 11th century. Neo-Confucianism was used as state policy by the Tokugawa Ieyasu Shogunate (1603–1867) as a means of social control.

It emphasized paternalism and promoted a strong central government. The studies promoted by Neo-Confucianism also led to an increase in the practice of traditional Shintoism and the study of Japanese historical texts.

Its central tenet was that harmony could be established and maintained in society only through creating and nourishing proper relationships between superiors and inferiors. Superiors have the duty to behave in a wise and benevolent manner toward social inferiors, who in return should behave with restraint, propriety, and, above all, obedience toward their superiors.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu rose to prominence, Japan was decentralized and power was divided among feudal domains. It was questionable whether the shogunal government would be able to enforce its will over the outlying regions. Tokugawa drew from the teaching of Fujiwara Seika (1561–1619) in utilizing Neo-Confucianist ideas to draw the country together.

Though ultimately successful it required a long and complex struggle over the regional nobility. The promotion of Bushido, or the Way of the Warrior, also reinforced the bonds between patrons and followers in a code of honor as a meaningful objective in life.

Three Schools of Thought

There were three schools of Neo-Confucianist thought in Japan. They were the Kogaku, the Oyomeigaku, and the Shushigaku schools. Of these, the most influential was the Shushigaku, which was promoted by the Tokugawa Shogunate; it was based on the work of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi 1130–1200).

Zhu Xi was the principal founder of Neo-Confucianism in China. He emphasised the role of the thought of Confucius and his follower Mencius. He also integrated the concept of human nature (li) with matter (chi) as the essence of the nature of humanity.

Zhu and his followers stressed the need for the rigorous investigation of ethical conduct and personal actions as part of the systematic evaluation of the universe. This was found to be of great use in Tokugawa Japan and helped to support the bakuhan system of social hierarchies because it was interpreted to promote stability.

The Oyomeigaku school was based on the thought of the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming (Wang Yang-ming 1472–1529), who combined an idealistic interpretation of Confucianism with a career of military and governmental service. Wang stressed the need for the intuitive understanding of the world and the importance of self-knowledge and self-study.

This strongly contradicted Zhu’s attempt to understand the world through the study of existing, external texts. The Kogaku school was dedicated to resurrecting the original thought of Confucius and Mencius, which its proponents held had been contaminated by the interpretation of Neo-Confucianists.

The return to “Ancient Learning,” which is central to Kogaku, would bring a return to a better time than the present. The person most credited with formulating the Kogaku school was Ito Jinsai (1627–1705), who established the School for the Study of Ancient Meaning, which has lasted into the 20th century.

Ito Jinsai established a reputation for a humanitarian approach to the world and promoted a life of selfless diligence. These contending schools of thought in Japan conflicted with each other. However Neo-Confucianism provided a means of legitimation for the shogunate established by Tokugawa Ieyasu and ensured its success as the central control of Japan.