Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 21, 2017, from

6. Neo-Confucianism, the samurai code and Tokugawa society

Following the Kamakura period there were more periods of intermittent warfare and internal strife. A long lasting, nationwide peace arrived only with the establishment of the Tokugawa family’s regime as shoguns. For nearly all of the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) Japan closed itself off from most interaction with outside world. For example, Christianity, which had been introduced by missionaries in the sixteenth century, was formally proscribed. The Tokugawa shoguns established a highly bureaucratic government, giving them unprecedented control over Japanese society from its system of education to its business practices and religious institutions. In this context, much of philosophy turned to the interests of the state and the definition of social responsibility.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Japan had again received a strong infusion of foreign thought. In particular, Zen Buddhist monks who had visited the mainland brought back to Japan texts of the neo-Confucian traditions established in China by Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming. Since Japanese Buddhist philosophy taught little about social responsibility in secular contexts, the ethical dimension of these texts attracted increasing attention. Neo-Confucianism went further than traditional Confucianism by adding a metaphysical level to explain the natural world and how it could be known (see Neo-Confucian philosophy).

From ancient times Confucianism had played a major role in the social, bureaucratic and ethical structures of Japanese culture. In trying to organize and stabilize the government after centuries of warfare, the Tokugawa shoguns were naturally intrigued by this new and more comprehensive form of the social philosophy that had already served Japan in the past. Furthermore, wary of Buddhism’s popularity, they probably welcomed neo-Confucianism’s challenge to the near hegemony that Buddhism had established in Japanese philosophy. In any case, from early in the seventeenth century, the Tokugawa shoguns gave special status and support to neo-Confucianism, especially to the school called Shushigaku, the Japanese school of Zhu Xi.

With the increased peace and prosperity of the Tokugawa period, there was a new market for philosophical education, especially in the great urban centres of Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). The rising merchant class wanted the social polish of an upper class education. Furthermore, because it was peacetime, many unemployed samurai wanted a classical education to qualify for positions in the government bureaucracy. The result was an increase in independent schools and a proliferation of teachers with different philosophical approaches.

Generally we find major philosophical development during the Tokugawa period in two areas: naturalistic metaphysics and social philosophy or ethics. The Shushigaku school introduced a theory of reality or metaphysics foreign to the Buddhist theories so entrenched in Japanese thought. In particular, it analysed reality in terms of the dynamic between ‘configuration’ or ‘principle’ (ri; in Chinese, li) and ‘material energy’ or ‘vital force’ (ki; in Chinese, qi) (see Li; Qi). According to Shushigaku, ri gives the universe its structure and, since ri is also in the mind, it is the foundation of knowledge. By ‘investigating the nature of things’ we come to know ri, both in ourselves and in the things we study. Ki, on the other hand, was considered the basic stuff that is ordered by ri.

Although the notion of ri was known to the Japanese through Tendai and Kegon Buddhism, the neo-Confucians gave the term a distinctive emphasis. They embedded it into the broader enterprise of understanding of the natural world. During the Tokugawa period there was a practical interest in better understanding nature; in the sixteenth-century traders, and missionaries from Europe had introduced some Western science. With the closure of Japan this contact was severely limited, although the occasional Dutch treatise on practical science or medicine did find its way into Japan.

For the most part, Japanese philosophers found the Shushigaku emphasis on ri to be overly abstract. To many, it seemed that ri was an unnecessary transcendent realm behind physical reality that could be known only through some mysterious half-contemplative, half-empirical study. In response, many Japanese thinkers took a more phenomenalistic approach. Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714), for example, argued for the primacy of ki. To him, ki was the basic constituent of reality and should be studied directly; ri was no more than the name for the patterns one could abstract from the behaviour of ki. Certainly from the perspectives of both medicine and the martial arts, ki became the more important category in Japan.

Other naturalistic philosophers such as Miura Baien (1723–89) developed intricate systems of their own for categorizing natural phenomena. Such indigenous concerns for observation and classification of the natural world may not have developed into a full-blown science in the Western sense, but the orientation did show an increasing Japanese concern for observing and understanding the natural world. This phenomenalist tendency would serve Japan well in the nineteenth century when Western science and technology were reintroduced.

In the field of social or moral philosophy, an important development was the emergence of the school of ‘Ancient Learning’. Led by Yamaga Sōkō (1622–85), Itō Jinsai (1627–1705) and Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728), these philosophers rejected the metaphysical speculations of the neo-Confucianists and tried to return to the early classics of the Confucian tradition, especially the Analects (see Chinese philosophy; Confucian philosophy, Chinese; Confucius). They developed sophisticated philological and exegetical skills as tools for attempting to discover the original meanings of those texts. Their goal was to clarify traditional Confucian social philosophy so that it could become the basis for Japanese society. In this regard, the school of Ancient Learning put its emphasis on the nature of virtue and the development of character. Ogyū Sorai had an especially broad impact on society for his theories about education and moral training.

Some philosophers, like Yamaga Sōkō of the Ancient Learning School, mixed Confucian values with warrior values about loyalty and honour. Yamaga tried to develop a warrior mentality for service to the state that would be appropriate to peace time. Furthermore, in their unemployment, many samurai entered the various Buddhist orders, especially Zen, where they found a familiar emphasis on discipline and regimentation. The combined result was an idealized code of the warrior (bushidō) as a way of life, even for non-samurai and even in times of peace (see Bushi philosophy).

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. Neo-Confucianism, the samurai code and Tokugawa society. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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