Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 01, 2023, from

2. The importation of Confucianism and Buddhism

The Chinese writing system was introduced into Japan at about the beginning of the fifth century ad, but it was not until the eighth century that a viable adaptation was devised for rendering Japanese in written form. Therefore early Japanese thought was expressed in Chinese, and in fact many philosophical intellectuals continued to write in Chinese (or a Japanized version of Chinese) as late as the nineteenth century.

When the Chinese writing system was first introduced, the various clans had begun to form a central government under the leadership of what would become the imperial family. The government coalesced in Yamato, a large plain adjoining what is today Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. With the introduction of Chinese literacy, the Japanese elite gained access to more than a millennium of Confucian and Buddhist philosophy. These ideas were immediately put to use in organizing the state.

Confucianism gave Japan a hierarchical model for social and political order. It focused on personal interaction, explaining the responsibilities and duties relevant to the five basic dyadic relations: master–servant, parent–child, husband–wife, elder sibling–younger sibling and friend–friend. When the dyadic relationships are hierarchical, the person in the superior position is to care for the person in the lower and the person in the lower position is to be loyal to the superior. The imperial family used this system to institute a vertical bureaucracy. Although Confucianism supplied a social structure to the state, the ancient Japanese showed little interest in developing Confucian philosophy per se (see Confucian philosophy, Japanese).

Buddhism, on the other hand, was initially most attractive to the Japanese for its aesthetic and thaumaturgic qualities. Buddhist artisans, often immigrants from Korea, brought new techniques of grand architecture, painting, sculpture and music. Using these elegant accoutrements in its rituals for healing, prosperity and protection of the state, Buddhism sometimes competed with the indigenous religious practices addressed to the kami.

From the philosophical perspective, however, the most important impact of Buddhism was its psychology. Through its meditative techniques and advanced analyses of the human predicament, Buddhism heightened the Japanese awareness of the workings of heart and mind. Buddhism teaches that egoism is the primary cause of human anguish and dissatisfaction. The ego seeks permanence and control in a world of continuing flux. By controlling the desires and eliminating egoism, one can achieve peace and inner harmony. These Buddhist teachings brought a dimension of inner awareness and psychological analysis to a culture that had formerly operated only within the concepts of taboo, purification and animistic appeasement (see Buddhist philosophy, Japanese).

At the same time, the indigenous religion began to define itself in relation to its rival, Buddhism. It took the name kami no michi or shintō, the ‘way of the kami’. The state helped to systematize a series of myths in the eighth century, explaining the relationships among the tutelary kami of the various powerful clans and, presumably, the political relationships among the clans themselves. Most critically, through its familial relation with the chief kami, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the throne established itself as the blood tie between the celestial kami and the Japanese people (see Shintō).

A major goal of philosophy in the seventh and eighth centuries, therefore, was to integrate the available ideas, both foreign and native, into a systematic worldview in the service of political stability. In this light the Seventeen Article Constitution of ad 604 is one of the first philosophical documents of ancient Japan (see Shōtoku Constitution). Attributed to Prince Shōtoku (574–622), the Constitution is really more a set of guidelines for bureaucrats than a set of laws defining political structure. In it, however, we find the early impact of Chinese thinking and its adaptation to the Japanese context of the time.

The Constitution’s first article opened with a quotation from Confucius about the importance of maintaining ‘harmony’. As noted already, in traditional Confucianism one achieves harmony primarily through performing actions appropriate to one’s relationships in the society. Rather than discussing such Confucian principles, however, a large portion of the Constitution discussed human frailty and the need to develop a sympathetic attitude. The Constitution admonished against hypocrisy, preferential treatment, envy and egocentric motives. On the positive side, it advocated consensus and open-mindedness. In short, while the document aimed for a harmonious Confucian social order, it also drew on Buddhist psychology to explain the obstacles to harmony and to suggest an introspective understanding of personal motivations. Although the Constitution itself lacked any detailed philosophical argument, it marks an early attempt to draw on multiple philosophical traditions in a coherent manner. In effect, it advocated a Confucian social and government order (see Confucian philosophy, Japanese) supported by Buddhist practice and the insights of Buddhist psychology. This philosophy of government remained dominant in Japan for at least a millennium.

In the Nara period (710–94), Japanese scholar-monks secured court support to accumulate and study more texts in Buddhist philosophy. They organized themselves loosely around major traditions from the mainland, and became the Six Nara Schools of Buddhism: Ritsu, Kusha, Jōjitsu, Hossō, Sanron and Kegon (see Buddhist philosophy, Japanese). The first primarily concentrated on the study of Vinaya, the precepts and regulations for ordering monastic life. The Kusha and Jōjitsu were schools of Abhidharma Buddhism emphasizing the detailed analysis of dharmas, the basic constituents of reality or consciousness (see Buddhism, Abhidharmika schools of). The Hossō was primarily based in the Indian Yogācāra tradition and Sanron in the Mādhyamika (see Buddhism, Yogācāra school of; Buddhism, Madhyāmika: India and Tibet). Kegon represented the tradition known in China as Huayan. Although the Six Nara Schools played an important role in both education and court politics, there is little evidence that they were philosophically creative centres. Their historical role was mainly to introduce Buddhist analysis and doctrine into Japanese culture. They provided the intellectual raw material for the later philosophical developments of the Heian period.

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. The importation of Confucianism and Buddhism. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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