Ancient History & Civilisation


Confucius reaches Japan—A critic of religion—The religion of scholarship—Kaibara Ekken—On education—On pleasure—The rival schools—A Japanese Spinoza—Ito Jinsai—Ito Togai—Ogyu Sorai—The war of the scholars—Mabuchi—Moto-ori

Philosophy, like religion, came to Japan from China. And as Buddhism had reached Nippon six hundred years after its entrance into the Middle Flowery People’s Kingdom, so philosophy, in the form of Sung Confucianism, awoke to consciousness in Japan almost four hundred years after China had given it a second birth. About the middle of the sixteenth century a scion of Japan’s most famous family, Fujiwara Seigwa, discontent with the knowledge that he had received as a monk, and having heard of great sages in China, resolved to go and study there. Intercourse with China having been forbidden in 1552, the young priest made plans to cross the water in a smuggling vessel. While waiting in an inn at the port he overheard a student reading aloud, in Japanese, from a Chinese volume on Confucius. Seigwa was overjoyed to find that the book was Chu Hsi’s commentary on “The Great Learning.” “This,” he exclaimed, “is what I have so long desired.” By sedulous searching he obtained a copy of this and other products of Sung philosophy, and became so absorbed in their discussions that he forgot to go to China. Within a few years he had gathered about him a group of young scholars, who looked upon the Chinese philosophers as the revelation of a brave new world of secular thought. Iyeyasu heard of these developments, and asked Seigwa to come and expound to him the Confucian classics; but the proud priest, preferring the quiet of his study, sent a brilliant pupil in his place. Nevertheless the more active-minded youths of his time made a pathway to his door, and his lectures attracted so much attention that the Buddhist monks of Kyoto complained, saying it was an outrage that anyone but an orthodox and practising priest should deliver public lectures or teach the people.100 The matter was simplified by Seigwa’s sudden death (1619).

The pupil whom he had sent to Iyeyasu soon outranked him in fame and influence. The first Tokugawa shoguns took a fancy to Hayashi Razan, and made him their counsellor and the formulator of their public pronouncements. Iyemitsu set a fashion for the nobility by attending Hayashi’s lectures in 1630; and soon the young Confucian had so filled his hearers with enthusiasm for Chinese philosophy that he had no trouble in winning them from both Buddhism and Christianity to the simple moral creed bequeathed to the Far East by the sage of Shantung. Christian theology, he told them, was a medley of incredible fancies, while Buddhism was a degenerative doctrine that threatened to weaken the fibre and morale of the Japanese nation. “You priests,” said Razan, “maintain that this world is impermanent and ephemeral. By your enchantments you cause people to forget the social relations; you make an end of all the duties and all the proprieties. Then you proclaim: ‘Man’s path is full of sins; leave your father and mother, leave your master, leave your children, and seek for salvation.’ Now I tell you that I have studied much; but I have nowhere found that there was a path for a man apart from loyalty to one’s lord, and of filial piety towards one’s parents.”101 Hayashi was enjoying an old age of quiet renown when the great fire of Tokyo, in 1657, included him among its hundred thousand casualties. His disciples ran to warn him of the danger, but he merely nodded his head, and turned back to his book. When the flames were actually around him he ordered a palanquin, and was carried away in it while still reading his book. Like countless others, he passed that night under the stars; and three days later he died of the cold that he had caught during the conflagration.

Nature sought to atone for his death by giving Japan, in the following year, one of the most enthusiastic of Confucians. Muro Kyuso chose as his patron deity the God of Learning. Before Michizane’s shrine he spent, in his youth, an entire night in prayer; and then he dedicated himself to knowledge with youthful resolutions strangely akin to those of his contemporary, Spinoza.*

I will arise every morning at six o’clock and retire each evening at twelve o’clock.

Except when prevented by guests, sickness or other unavoidable circumstances, I will not be idle. . . .

I will not speak falsehoods.

I will avoid useless words, even with inferiors.

I will be temperate in eating and drinking.

If lustful desires arise I will destroy them at once, without nourishing them at all.

Wandering thought destroys the value of reading. I will be careful to guard against lack of concentration, and over-haste.

I will seek self-culture, not allowing my mind to be disturbed by the desire for fame or gain.

Engraving these rules on my heart I will attempt to follow them. The gods be my witness.102

Nevertheless, Kyuso did not preach a scholastic seclusion, but with the broad-mindedness of a Goethe directed character into the stream of the world:

Seclusion is one method, and is good; but a superior man rejoices when his friends come. A man polishes himself by association with others. Every man who desires learning should seek to be polished in this way. But if he shuts himself away from everything and everybody, he is guilty of violating the great way. . . . The Way of the Sages is not sundered from matters of everyday life. . . . Though the Buddhists withdraw themselves from human relations, cutting out the relation of master and subject, parent and child, they are not able to cut out love from themselves. . . . It is selfishness to seek happiness in the future world. . . . Think not that God is something distant, but seek for him in your own hearts; for the heart is the abode of God.103

The most attractive of these early Japanese Confucians is not usually classed among the philosophers, for like Goethe and Emerson he had the skill to phrase his wisdom gracefully, and jealous literature claims him for her own. Like Aristotle Kaibara Ekken was the son of a physician, and passed from medicine to a cautious empirical philosophy. Despite a busy public career, including many official posts, he found time to become the greatest scholar of his day. His books numbered more than a hundred, and made him known throughout Japan; for they were written not in Chinese (then the language of his fellow philosophers) but in such simple Japanese that any literate person might understand them. Despite his learning and renown he had, along with the vanity of every writer, the humility of every sage. Once, says tradition, a passenger on a vessel plying along the Japanese coast undertook to lecture to his fellow travelers on the ethics of Confucius. At first every one attended with typical Japanese curiosity and eagerness to learn; but as the speaker went on his audience, finding him a bore who had no nose for distinguishing a live fact from a dead one, melted swiftly away, until only one listener remained. This solitary auditor, however, followed the discourse with such devout concentration that the lecturer, having finished, inquired his name. “Kaibara Ekken,” was the quiet reply. The orator was abashed to discover that for an hour or more he had been attempting to instruct in Confucianism the most celebrated Confucian master of the age.104

Ekken’s philosophy was as free from theology as K’ung’s, and clung agnostically to the earth. “Foolish men, while doing crooked things, offer their prayers to questionable gods, striving to obtain happiness.”105 With him philosophy was an effort to unify experience into wisdom, and desire into character; and it seemed to him more pressing and important to unify character than to unify knowledge. He speaks with strangely contemporary pertinence:

The aim of learning is not merely to widen knowledge but to form character. Its object is to make us true men, rather than learned men. . . . The moral teaching which was regarded as the trunk of all learning in the schools of the olden days is hardly studied in our schools today, because of the numerous branches of study required. No longer do men deem it worth while to listen to the teachings of the hoary sages of the past. Consequently the amiable relations between master and servant, superior and inferior, older and younger are sacrificed on the altar of the god called “Individual Right.” . . . The chief reason why the teachings of the sages are not more appreciated by the people is because scholars endeavor to show off their learning, rather than to make it their endeavor to live up to the teachings of the sages.106

The young men of his time seem to have reproved him for his conservatism, for he flings at them a lesson which every vigorous generation has to relearn.

Children, you may think an old man’s words wearisome; yet, when your father or grandfather teaches, do not turn your head away, but listen. Though you may think the tradition of your family stupid, do not break it into pieces, for it is the embodiment of the wisdom of your fathers.107

Perhaps he deserved reproof, for the most famous of his books, the Onna Daikaku, or “The Great Learning for Women,” had a strong reactionary influence on the position of women in Japan. But he was no gloomy preacher intent on finding sin in every delight; he knew that one task of the educator is to teach us how to enjoy our environment, as well as (if we can) to understand and control it.

Do not let a day slip by without enjoyment. . . . Do not allow yourself to be tormented by the stupidity of others. . . . Remember that from its earliest beginnings the world has never been free from fools. . . . Let us not then distress ourselves, nor lose our pleasure, even though our own children, brothers and relations, happen to be selfish, ignoring our best efforts to make them otherwise. . . . Sake is the beautiful gift of Heaven. Drunk in small quantities it expands the heart, lifts the downcast spirit, drowns cares, and improves the health. Thus it helps a man and also his friends to enjoy pleasures. But he who drinks too much loses his respectability, becomes over-talkative, and utters abusive words like a madman. . . . Enjoy sake by drinking just enough to give you a slight exhilaration, and thus enjoy seeing flowers when they are just bursting into bloom. To drink too much and spoil this great gift of Heaven is foolish.108

Like most philosophers, he found the last refuge of his happiness in nature.

If we make our heart the fountain-head of pleasure, our eyes and ears the gates of pleasure, and keep away base desires, then our pleasure shall be plentiful; for we can then become the master of mountains, water, moon and flowers. We do not need to ask any man for them, neither, to obtain them, need we pay a single sen; they have no specified owner. Those who can enjoy the beauty in the Heaven above and the Earth beneath need not envy the luxury of the rich, for they are richer than the richest. . . . The scenery is constantly changing. No two mornings or two evenings are quite alike. . . . At this moment one feels as if all the beauty of the world had gone. But then the snow begins to fall, and one awakens the next morning to find the village and the mountains transformed into silver, while the once bare trees seem alive with flowers. . . . Winter resembles the night’s sleep, which restores our strength and energy. . . .

Loving flowers, I rise early;
Loving the moon, I retire late. . . .
Men come and go like passing streams;
But the moon remains throughout the ages.109

In Japan, even more than in China, the influence of Confucius on philosophic thought overwhelmed all the resistance of unplaced rebels on the one hand, and mystic idealists on the other. The Shushi school of Seigwa, Razan and Ekken took its name from Chu Hsi, and followed his orthodox and conservative interpretation of the Chinese classics. For a time it was opposed by the Oyomei school, which took its lead from Wang Yangming,* known to Nippon as Oyomei. Like Wang, the Japanese philosophers of Oyomeisought to deduce right and wrong from the conscience of the individual rather than from the traditions of society and the teachings of the ancient sages. “I had for many years been a devout believer in Shushi says Nakaye Toju (1608-48), “when, by the mercy of Heaven, the collected works of Oyomei were brought for the first time to Japan. Had it not been for the aid of their teaching, my life would have been empty and barren.”110 So Nakaye devoted himself to expounding an idealist monism, in which the world was a unity of ki and ri—of things (or “modes”) and reason or law. God and this unity were one; the world of things was his body, the universal law was his soul.111 Like Spinoza, Wang Yang-ming and the Scholastics of Europe, Nakaye accepted this universal law with a kind of amor dei intellectualis, and accounted good and evil as human terms and prejudices describing no objective entities; and, again strangely like Spinoza, he found a certain immortality in the contemplative union of the individual spirit with the timeless laws or reason of the world.

Man’s mind is the mind of the sensible world, but we have another mind which is called conscience. This is reason itself, and does not belong to form (or “mode”). It is infinite and eternal. As our conscience is one with (the divine or universal) reason, it has no beginning or end. If we act in accord with (such) reason or conscience, we are ourselves the incarnations of the infinite and eternal, and have eternal life.112

Nakaye was a man of saintly sincerity, but his philosophy pleased neither the people nor the government. The Shogunate trembled at the notion that every man might judge for himself what was right and what was wrong. When another exponent of Oyomei, Kumazawa Banzan, passed from metaphysics to politics, and criticized the ignorance and idleness of the Samurai, an order was sent out for his arrest. Kumazawa, recognizing the importance of the heels as especially philosophical organs, fled to the mountains, and passed most of his remaining years in sylvan obscurity.113 In 1795 an edict went forth against the further teaching of the Oyomei philosophy; and so docile was the mind of Japan that from that time on Oyomei concealed itself within the phrases of Confucianism, or entered as a modest component into that military Zen which, by a typical paradox of history, transformed the pacific faith of Buddha into the inspiration of patriotic warriors.

As Japanese scholarship developed, and became directly acquainted with the writings of Confucius rather than merely with his Sung interpreters, men like Ito Jinsai and Ogyu Sorai established the Classical School of Japanese thought, which insisted on going over the heads of all commentators to the great K’ung himself. Ito Jinsai’s family did not agree with him about the value of Confucius; they taunted him with the impracticability of his studies, and predicted that he would die in poverty. “Scholarship,” they told him, “belongs to the Chinese. It is useless in Japan. Even though you obtain it you cannot sell it. Far better become a physician and make money.” The young student listened without hearing; he forgot the rank and wealth of his family, put aside all material ambition, gave his house and property to a younger brother, and went to live in solitude so that he might study without distraction. He was handsome, and was sometimes mistaken for a prince; but he dressed like a peasant and shunned the public eye. “Jinsai,” says a Japanese historian,

was very poor, so poor that at the end of the year he could not make New Year’s rice cakes; but he was very calm about it. His wife came, and kneeling down before him said: “I will do the housework under any circumstances; but there is one thing that is unbearable. Our boy Genso does not understand the meaning of our poverty; he envies the neighbor’s children their rice cakes. I scold him, but my heart is torn in two.” Jinsai continued to pore over his books without making any reply. Then, taking off his garnet ring, he handed it to his wife, as much as to say, “Sell this, and buy some rice cakes.”114

At Kyoto Jinsai opened a private school, and lectured there for forty years, training, all in all, some three thousand students in philosophy. He spoke occasionally of metaphysics, and described the universe as a living organism in which life always overrode death; but like Confucius he had a warm prejudice in favor of the terrestrial practical.

That which is useless in governing the state, or in walking in the way of human relations, is useless. . . . Learning must be active and living; learning must not be mere dead theory or speculation. . . . Those who know the way seek it in their daily life. . . . If apart from human relations we hope to find the way, it is like trying to catch the wind. . . . The ordinary way is excellent; there is no more excellent in the world.”115

After the death of Jinsai his school and work were carried on by his son, Ito Togai. Togai laughed at fame, and said: “How can you help calling a man, whose name is forgotten as soon as he dies, an animal or sand? But is it not a mistake for man to be eager to make books, or construct sentences, in order that his name may be admired, and may not be forgotten?”116 He wrote two hundred and forty-two volumes; but for the rest he lived a life of modesty and wisdom. The critics complained that these books were strong in what Molière called virtus dormitiva; nevertheless Togai’s pupils pointed out that he had written two hundred and forty-two books without saying an unkind word of any other philosopher. When he died they placed this enviable epitaph upon his tomb:

He did not talk about the faults of others. . . .

He cared for nothing but books.

His life was uneventful.117

The greatest of these later Confucians was Ogyu Sorai; as he himself put the matter, “From the time of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, how few scholars have been my equal!” Unlike Togai he enjoyed controversy, and spoke his mind violently about philosophers living or dead. When an inquiring young man asked him, “What do you like besides reading?” he answered, “There is nothing better than eating burnt beans and criticizing the great men of Japan.” “Sorai,” said Namikawa Tenjin, “is a very great man, but he thinks that he knows all that there is to be known. This is a bad habit.”118 Ogyu could be modest when he wished: all the Japanese, he said, explicitly including himself, were barbarians; only the Chinese were civilized; and “if there is anything that ought to be said, it has already been said by the ancient kings or Confucius.”119 The Samurai and the scholars raged at him, but the reformer shogun, Yoshimune, enjoyed his courage, and protected him against the intellectual mob. Sorai set up his rostrum at Yedo, and like Hsün-tze denouncing the sentimentality of Mo Ti, or Hobbes refuting Rousseau before Rousseau’s birth, flung his laughing logic at Jinsai, who had announced that man is naturally good. On the contrary, said Sorai, man is a natural villain, and grasps whatever he can reach; only artificial morals and laws, and merciless education, turn him into a tolerable citizen.

As soon as men are born, desires spring up. When we cannot realize our desires, which are unlimited, struggle arises; when struggle arises, confusion follows. As the ancient kings hated confusion, they founded propriety and righteousness, and with these governed the desires of the people. . . . Morality is nothing but the necessary means for controlling the subjects of the Empire. It did not originate with nature, nor with the impulses of man’s heart, but it was devised by the superior intelligence of certain sages, and authority was given to it by the state.120

As if to confirm the pessimism of Sorai, Japanese thought in the century that followed him fell even from the modest level to which its imitation of Confucius had raised it, and lost itself in a bitter ink-shedding war between the idolaters of China and the worshipers of Japan. In this battle of the ancients against the moderns the moderns won by their superior admiration of antiquity. The Kangakusha, or (pro-) Chinese scholars, called their own country barbarous, argued that all wisdom was Chinese, and contented themselves with translating and commenting upon Chinese literature and philosophy. The Wagakusha, or (pro-) Japanese scholars, denounced this attitude as obscurantist and unpatriotic, and called upon the nation to turn its back upon China and renew its strength at the sources of its own poetry and history. Mabuchi attacked the Chinese as an inherently vicious people, exalted the Japanese as naturally good, and attributed the lack of early or native Japanese literature and philosophy to the fact that the Japanese did not need instruction in virtue or intelligence.*

Inspired by a visit to Mabuchi, a young physician by the name of Moto-ori Norinaga devoted thirty-four years to writing a forty-four-volume commentary on the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Events”—the classical repository of Japanese, especially of Shinto, legends. This commentary, the Kojiki-den, was a virorous assault upon everything Chinese, in or out of Japan. It boldly upheld the literal truth of the primitive stories that recounted the divine origin of the Japanese islands, emperors and people; and under the very eyes of the Tokugawa regents it stimulated among the intellectuals of Japan that movement back to their own language, ways and traditions which was ultimately to revive Shinto as against Buddhism, and restore the supremacy of the emperors over theshoguns. “Japan,” wrote Moto-ori, “is the country which gave birth to the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu; and this fact proves its superiority over all other countries.”122 His pupil Hirata carried on the argument after Moto-ori’s death:

It is most lamentable that so much ignorance should prevail as to the evidences of the two fundamental doctrines that Japan is the country of the gods, and her inhabitants the descendants of the gods. Between the Japanese people and the Chinese, Hindus, Russians, Dutch, Siamese, Cambodians, and other nations of the world, there is a difference of kind rather than of degree. It was not out of vainglory that the inhabitants of this country called it the land of the gods. The gods who created all countries belonged, without exception, to the Divine Age, and were all born in Japan, so that Japan is their native country, and all the world acknowledges the appropriateness of the title. The Koreans were the first to become acquainted with this truth, and from them it was gradually diffused through the globe, and accepted by everyone. . . . Foreign countries were of course produced by the power of the creator gods, but they were not begotten by Izanagi and Izanami, nor did they give birth to the Goddess of the Sun, which is the cause of their inferiority.123

Such were the men and the opinions that established the Sonno Jo-i movement to “honor the Emperor and expel the foreign barbarians.” In the nineteenth century that movement inspired the Japanese people to overthrow the Shogunate and reestablish the supremacy of the Divine House. In the twentieth it plays a living rôle in nourishing that fiery patriotism which will not be content until the Son of Heaven rules all the fertile millions of the resurrected East.

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