Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G117-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

Article Summary

Kaibara Ekken was a leading Japanese scholar in the school of neo-Confucianism established by the renowned twelfth century Chinese synthesizer, Zhu Xi. As a thinker and a scholar Ekken, embraced a wide variety of topics from highly specialized neo-Confucian philosophy to the need to popularize Confucian ethics and to assist the society through practical learning (jitsugaku).

Born in Fukuoka in southern Japan, Ekken studied for seven years in Kyoto with the principal scholars of the period. He spent much of his life as an advisor and teacher to the Kuroda daimyō family in Fukuoka, but traveled frequently to Kyoto and the capital, Edo (Tokyo). Although Ekken did not establish his own school as did other neo-Confucian scholars, he became through his writings one of the most influential figures in early modern Japan. He lived during a period when Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world while developing a rich complex of Confucian, neo-Confucian, Shintōand Buddhist schools of thought. Neo-Confucianism in particular made a significant contribution to education during this period with the spread of schools and a curriculum largely based on Confucian and neo-Confucian texts and commentaries (see Confucian philosophy, Japanese; Neo-Confucian philosophy). It was in this context that Ekken’s ideas had a particular impact in both their breadth and depth of concerns.

Ekken was especially concerned to spread neo-Confucian moral teachings and self-cultivation to society at large, and he encouraged the education of all classes. He felt that neo-Confucian ideas could contribute to harmony of both self and society. To accomplish this, he wrote numerous popular treatises on learning for women, for children and for the family. Many of these treatises were reprinted frequently throughout the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). He also wrote on such practical subjects as healthcare, botany, agriculture, topography and history. His work on healthcare is still consulted, and his botanical studies and classification earned him the title of ‘the Aristotle of Japan’.

These broad interests in both education and practical learning were based on a carefully developed philosophical position. By the age of thirty he had rejected Buddhism as tending toward quietism, and Wang Yangming’s neo-Confucianism as potentially antinomian (see Wang Yangming). He argued for the importance of Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism (see Zhu Xi) but with some significant adaptations. Philosophically, Ekken embraced the unity of principle (li) and material force (qi) (see Li; Qi). His position, which was indebted to the Chinese neo-Confucian Luo Qinshun, is described as a monism of qi. In a significant treatise, the Taigiroku (Record of Grave Doubts), Ekken demonstrated strong support for Zhu Xi while taking issue with Zhu Xi’s apparent dualism of principle and material force.

Ekken’s position came to advocate a dynamic naturalism that was both the basis of his studies of nature and medicine as well as of moral self-cultivation. His monism of qi in his philosophical writings was paralleled by a position of filiality in his popular treatises. Ekken suggested that just as reverence and respect are due to parents for their care and support, so also because humans are ‘children of heaven and earth’ they should encourage a filial response to heaven’s mandate and care for nature’s abundance.

Citing this article:
Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G117-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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