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Confucian philosophy, Japanese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G103-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Confucian philosophy is said to have arrived in Japan as early as the third century ad, but it did not become a subject of meaningful scholarly inquiry until the seventh century. The ‘Confucianism’ to which Japanese elites and scholars were first attracted represented fields of knowledge concerned more with ontology and divination than with social ethics and politics. Because of the priority given to birth over talent in official appointments, Confucianism in Japan remained more a gentlemanly accomplishment and never approached the status it had in China, where mastery of its teachings represented a gateway to officialdom. Intellectually, Confucian philosophy was overshadowed both in Japan and on the continent at this time by the teachings of Buddhism, which provided answers both to spiritual and metaphysical concerns.

Confucianism in China was refashioned in the eleventh and twelfth centuries by a number of scholars, of whom Zhu Xi was the most prominent. He revised the curriculum, restored social and ethical concerns to positions of centrality within the tradition and formulated a new rationalistic ontology. His teachings won a broad following among intellectuals in China and eventually earned the government’s endorsement as the official interpretation for China’s examination system.

From the seventeenth century onwards, Zhu Xi’s teachings reached a comparably distinguished position within scholarly circles in Japan, though the government’s endorsement of the Hayashi family as official interpreters of Zhu Xi’s teachings was the limit of the official authorization of that philosophy in Japan. Though the idealistic Wang Yangming school challenged Zhu Xi’s teachings in Japan as it had in China, the more effective challenge was mounted by the classicist teachings known as Ancient Studies. These scholars, of whom the best known was Ogyū Sorai, sought the ‘true message of the sages’ by emphasizing direct study of the ancient core texts of Confucianism rather than the exegesis on those classics by Zhu Xi and others.

Confucian philosophy contributed to the rationalism, humanism, ethnocentrism and ‘historical mindedness’ of Tokugawa Japan. The teachings were also responsible for changing fundamental ontological and epistemological assumptions, while also opening intellectual circles to unprecedented pluralism and diversity. Towards the end of the Tokugawa period in the mid-nineteenth century, Confucian philosophy (particularly in the variety fashioned by Wang Yangming) also provided inspiration and justification for those activist reformers who succeeded in overthrowing the old order.

During the modern period, Confucian philosophy has been identified with the Tokugawa tradition which has been at times idealized and and at other times vilified. Nonetheless, a number of the assumptions central to Confucian philosophy continue to characterize much popular and intellectual thought in contemporary Japan, as well as those ethics that tend to be most admired, even though actual knowledge of Confucian philosophy does not appear to be widespread any longer in Japan.

Citing this article:
Nosco, Peter. Confucian philosophy, Japanese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G103-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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