Neo-Confucianism Becomes Japan’s Official Philosophy

The scholar Hayashi Razan designed a philosophical system based upon Chinese Neo-Confucianism that helped create a stable hierarchical structure for the Tokugawa shogunate, its national bureacracy, its samurai warriors, and Japanese society as a whole. Neo-Confucianism remained the state philosophical system of Tokugawa Japan until that dynasty came to an end in 1867.

Summary of Event

Neo-Confucianism was the intellectual progeny of a sophisticated system of thought originally put forward by China’s great philosophical sage, Confucius, in the sixth century b.c.e. Using his ideas as their foundation, Neo-Confucian scholars of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279) created an intellectual paradigm based upon three philosophical concepts. The primary premise of this new system was that the universe and human society were based upon natural laws and that these laws could be discovered and understood through the use of reason. Furthermore, Neo-Confucian philosophers believed that the laws governing the world and society represented objective truths that were both universal and unchanging. [kw]Neo-Confucianism Becomes Japan’s Official Philosophy (beginning 1607)
[kw]Confucianism Becomes Japan’s Official Philosophy, Neo- (beginning 1607)
[kw]Japan’s Official Philosophy, Neo-Confucianism Becomes (beginning 1607)
Cultural and intellectual history;Beginning 1607: Neo-Confucianism Becomes Japan’s Official Philosophy[0450]
Government and politics;Beginning 1607: Neo-Confucianism Becomes Japan’s Official Philosophy[0450]
Japan;Beginning 1607: Neo-Confucianism Becomes Japan’s Official Philosophy[0450]

Most Chinese Song intellectuals were not concerned with the great metaphysical questions, however, but focused instead on how the rational Confucian model could help solve the problems of the human condition. Most important, they wanted to develop a model that would ensure good government, peace, and prosperity, which in turn would maintain a secure social and political order. These scholars also believed in the importance of history. They wanted to use the records of past dynasties, both their accomplishments and their failures, as a source of knowledge and as a learning tool for future generations. Study of these records would enable historians to discover the natural laws of history, which then could be used to create a well-ordered and prosperous nation. The Neo-Confucians also used historical biography. They wanted to present the actions of historical figures as examples of the importance of high moral and ethical standards to the well-being of society.

As it spread, however, Neo-Confucianism also fostered a negative xenophobic and ethnocentric response in the cultures that embraced it. This response was based upon the belief that Neo-Confucianism was the only true philosophical system and any culture that followed a different paradigm was necessarily inferior to Neo-Confucian cultures. In the case of Japan, this belief would first manifest itself in the nation’s isolationist tendencies during the early modern period and later in its aggressive, militaristic attitude toward the rest of East Asia.

In 1603, when the emperor appointed Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun, Japan was still suffering from two centuries of civil conflict and the bloody wars of unification fought by Ieyasu’s two predecessors, Oda Nobunaga Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi . Ieyasu knew he needed to adopt a philosophical model that would bring stability to his ravaged nation. China had long been the cultural center of East Asia, and its philosophical systems and historical analyses had an impact on scholars of every nation in the region. It is no surprise, then, that Ieyasu looked to Chinese philosophy for his model.

Ieyasu had plans not only to stabilize the nation, but also to create a stable and lasting shogunal dynasty for his family. In 1605, he officially retired from the shogunate, passing the title to his son, Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada , but he continued to wield power from behind the scenes until his death in 1616. Ieyasu decided that he would attempt to apply Neo-Confucian principles to the operation of the Tokugawa Tokugawa shogunate;Neo-Confucianism and[NeoConfucianism and] government. He hoped this Chinese philosophical system would provide the government with the necessary skills to bring peace and prosperity to Japan.

In 1607, Ieyasu turned to an orthodox Neo-Confucian scholar, Hayashi Razan Hayashi Razan , who in time would serve four Tokugawa shoguns, becoming the Tokugawas’ top adviser. Hayashi created a Japanese form of Neo-Confucianism based upon his belief in natural law and in an orderly universe. He created a cosmic model centered on the Confucian “Great Chain of Being” paradigm, which asserted that the universe originated with a heavenly power known as the Supreme Ultimate. This creative energy set into motion a process that brought into existence the basic cosmic harmony, Yang (motion) and Yin (lack of motion). It was from these two forces of nature that the five basic elements of the universe—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water were created. In turn, all life on earth evolved from these same elements.

Hayashi was convinced that he had created a philosophical model that proved the connection between heaven, the Supreme Ultimate, and all life on earth. He also stated that this order extended to the five basic Confucian social relationships that created a social hierarchy governing the interactions of the shogun and his subjects, patriarchal family relations, and the intercourse among friends. Hayashi, like Confucius, believed that a nation’s success could be guaranteed if it remained faithful to this social orthodoxy.

Most important, Hayashi believed that the natural laws governing the social order, which could assure the well-being of Japan, could be discovered and comprehended by the use of reason. He thus emphasized the importance of the empirical scientific study of all aspects of the natural world and human relationships. He also stated that if in fact these natural laws could be discovered, understood, and applied, it followed logically that this knowledge could be used to create a group of elite scholar-bureaucrats that would form the foundation of a well-ordered government, ensuring peace and prosperity for the Japanese people. To this end, in 1630 Hayashi convinced Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu , the third Tokugawa shogun, to create a national university where the best and the brightest from Japanese society could obtain the education needed to become members of this Neo-Confucian elite. The creation of a Neo-Confucian educational system was Hayashi’s greatest achievement, and members of his family controlled the National University well into the modern era. Education;Japan

Later in the century, Kumazawa Banzan Kumazawa Banzan , a follower of the Confucian sect known as the School of the Mind School of the Mind , challenged Hayashi’s philosophical model. Kumazawa also believed in natural law and in the power of the Supreme Ultimate, but he differed from Hayashi in his assertion that the mind intuitively knew the good and that, through the practice of disciplined introspection, one could know the will of heaven. This belief in using intuition and introspection to guide conduct directly challenged Hayashi’s premise that one must engage in rational, empirical investigation of the world beyond the self in order to gain an understanding of the natural laws one should follow.

Kumazawa also developed a political philosophy that advocated developing a benevolent government guided by a class of talented but very humble bureaucrats. Many of his writings foreshadow the concept of the welfare state, in which government agencies control prices, execute social programs, and equitably manage the nation’s resources. Ultimately, however, Kumazawa lost the intellectual battle for the direction of Neo-Confucianism to Hayashi and his followers; he spent the last years of his life under house arrest.

In spite of philosophical challenges by men like Kumazawa, the success of the Neo-Confucian system designed by Hayashi and perpetuated by the Tokugawa shoguns did create a period of peace and prosperity in Japan. Ironically, this very prosperity posed a unique problem for the Tokugawas: Japan’s warrior class, the samurai Samurai , and their warlords, the daimyos, had been occupied fighting each other for centuries, but with relative peace inside the nation, the idle warriors represented a potential danger to their military ruler, since there was no one else for them to fight. This threat was finally defused by reinforcing the principles of a hierarchical class structure found in the writings of Neo-Confucian scholars.

The most important philosopher dealing with this question of the potential danger of the samurai was Yamaga Sokō Yamaga Sokō , who was a masterless samurai, or rōnin. Ronin“>Rōnin Yamaga used the Confucian social model to create a distinct warrior class that would follow a strict martial code, Bushidō
Bushidō[Bushido] , which itself was based upon the Neo-Confucian social structure. Tokugawa Ieyasu had already helped to form the underpinnings of this warrior code when he issued the Buke shohatto
Buke shohatto (1615), an imperial edict that governed the actions of the samurai class. The edict had also established the samurai as the only group in Japanese society that was allowed to bear arms. This in turn prevented any rival daimyo from arming thousands of peasants and creating a potentially destabilizing army.

Over time, the Bushidō code would have a far-reaching impact on Japanese society. Yamaga envisioned the samurai becoming an example of the highest standards of Neo-Confucianism, which would reinforce the social structure of the Tokugawa shogunate as a whole. First and foremost, Bushidō emphasized duty and self-sacrifice on the part of the warrior. His first concern was loyalty to his daimyo, and he was always ready to give up his life in the service of his lord. Like Neo-Confucianism, Bushidō also regulated a samurai’s actions among his family and friends. He was always regarded as an individual that both family and friends could count on to be steadfast and loyal.


Neo-Confucianism created a political system that enabled the Tokugawa clan effectively to govern a nation that in essence was made up of 250 independent feudal regions. It also helped create a national social structure whose hierarchal characteristics supported the Tokugawa autocracy. Neo-Confucianism formed the basis of the code of Bushidō, which created a paradigm of loyalty and self-sacrifice that controlled the potential danger posed by Japan’s warrior elite. Finally, the Neo-Confucian emphasis on empirical scientific study ensured the success of Japan’s eventual transition to industrialization during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

Further Reading

  • De Bary, William Theodore. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963. An excellent collection of primary source documents.
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. An excellent one-volume history of Japan from the Tokugawa shogunate to Japan’s economic dominance in the 1970’. Maps. Index.
  • Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The best single-volume account of early modern Japan. Charts. Index.

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