Confucianism in ancient Japan

Question raised by: Michel Vieillard-Baron,

Discussants: Michael Watson, David Pollack, Ivo Smits, Wayne Farris, Michael Jamentz, Richard Bowring, William Bodiford, Steven G. Nelson, Andrew Gordon, Rein Raud

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From: Michel Vieillard-Baron
Date: Mon, 28 May 2001 17:17:51 +0200

My name is Michel Vieillard-Baron, I teach Japanese at Grenoble University, and my research is on medieval waka (particularly Fujiwara no Teika). [...]

A colleague of mine, a teacher of comparative literature, asked me if I knew a good reference article or book in English (or any other occidental language, since she cannot easily read Japanese) on The Influence of Confucianism on the Japanese Society at the end of Heian Period and Kamakura ? I was unable to answer, and Charlotte [Von Verschuer] suggested that I contact you. Can you, or anybody, help me?


Michel Vieillard-Baron

From: Michael Watson
Date: Tue, 29 May 2001 15:21:06 +0900
Subject: Confucianism

I wonder if anyone on the list can answer a question I've received about the influence of Confucianism on Japanese Society in the Heian - Kamakura periods.

[Michel Vieillard-Baron's letter quoted]

Marian Ury's chapter "Chinese learning and intellectual life" (Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 2) would presumably be a place to start. Are there other Western treatments of the subject?

Do by all means answer to the list as a whole.

Michael Watson

From: David Pollack
Date: Tue, 29 May 2001 07:54:00 -0400
Subject: Confucianism

The subject forms the woof of Robert Borgen's Sugawara Michizane and the Early Heian Court (Harvard Council on East Asian Studies, 1986). The warp is of course Michizane, man and deity.

David Pollack

From: Ivo Smits
Date: Tue, 29 May 01 15:22:55 +0200
Subject: Confucianism

Another addition. Your friend may also be interested in:

I.J. McMullen. "The worship of Confucius in ancient Japan." In Religion in Japan: Arrows to heaven and earth, ed. P.F. Kornicki and I.J. McMullen. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 39-77.

Ivo Smits

From: Wayne Farris
Date: Tue, 29 May 2001 16:50:32 -0400
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

Dear folks,

To expand the discussion a little, I wonder how different people assess the role of Confucianism in the Nara and Heian periods? Despite Borgen's excellent work, I am under the impression that Confucianism really wasn't very important until Go-Daigo, or even the sixteenth century. Nara and Heian cultures were dominated by esoteric Buddhism, Taoism, and "native" beliefs, not Confucianism. I would even argue for Legalism over Confucianism.

What do people think?

Best wishes,

Wayne Farris

From: Michael Jamentz
Date: Wed, 30 May 2001 11:12:06 +0900
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

Hello Everyone,

I am very interested in Wayne Farris' question. Long ago, in a MA thesis, I tried to argue that Heian monogatari could not be fully appreciated without a sense of the weight of Heian Confucianism. I still hold to this position but have found no one in the US or Japan who seems to think that such a point of view is tenable. I have come to doubt my own eyes. I see it, can't others? Not worth the trouble? Insignificant? In any case, I have moved on to Insei-era Confucianism, which I had naively thought was even more obvious. I have been writing about the scholar class of the twelfth century in an unfinished dissertation for many years (I start with Masafusa and the "Kibi daijin nittou emaki," the "godfather" and the exemplar, and move on to Michinori (Shinzei) and his descendants. I focus on their production of the kanbun genres of ganmon and hyoubyaku. ) I often wonder if anyone is interested in such topics from the perspective of Confucianism.

In dealing with the issue of Confucianism, I think there is a fundamental problem with the use of the terms Confucian, Confucianism, etc. I try to preface my references with the words such as Heian or Insei-era, which I hope avoids confusion with other, continental varieties. I think such a distinction is important, but it only tells us what Insei-era Confucianism was not. I have struggled to define and illustrate Insei-era Confucianism and have not been able to come up with a simple straight-forward definition. (If anyone's interested, I'd be happy to offer a complicated attempt at a definition and would love to get some feedback on it.) In trying to come up with ways to communicate my understanding, I have searched for various analogies, e.g., Tang Confucianism, 19th-century French Catholicism, the color of the sky in the background of a painting. I think that such analogies convey something of what I see as Insei-era Confucianism at the broadest level, but they perhaps mislead as much as clarify.

I recently stumbled through a kenkyuukai where I made claims about the literary prowess of Michinori's first son, Toshinori (Shunken), and insisted that the jukyouteki haikei of his creation of ganmon was essential to understanding his literary efforts. I sensed this meant little to my audience, but, at the nijikai, where one can usually receive more candid responses, I pressed for a reaction and got the impression that jukyou, Confucianism. means post Zhu Xi, Edo-era thought for many scholars of Heian and Kamakura Japan. I felt the word jukyou, no matter how modified, was a stumbling block and asked for a substitute. I wondered how we should refer to scholars who were called daiju or jushi in their own day? I don't recall getting a satisfying response (of course, they, iya, we were drunk, and they are not used to proposing English language vocabulary for phenomena that they don't believe exist.) I'd like to ask the members of the list. What should we call the daiju Masafusa, if not a Insei-era Confucian?

Mike Jamentz

From: Richard Bowring
Date: Wed, 30 May 2001 09:20:11 +0100
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

Just a short comment on this. I am certain you are correct in assuming that the word jukyouteki has an entirely different connotation in Japan to our use of the word Confucian. Although, as you also remark, our use of the term is far too general and lax to be of much use. I remember many moons ago at a happyou claiming that Mori Ogai had a number of Confucian aspects (I used the word jukyouteki I think) about him only to be met by incomprehension and then violent disagreement. I suppose in your case the problem you have to solve is whether the 'Confucianism' you trace in a number of figures was anything more than a minority interest. Certainly it did not penetrate everyday Japanese thinking to anywhere near the degree to which it did in Korea.

Richard Bowring

From: David Pollack
Date: Wed, 30 May 2001 08:39:19 -0400
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

I only want to underline Mike Jamentz's perception that the notions of "confucianism" and even of "Confucius" have come under entirely- and long-justified attack in Chinese studies for some time now. Recent studies are fundamentally questioning what turns out to be a mess of anachronistic concepts -- begun and developed in China over centuries, of course, but undoubtedly abetted by western missionaries' desire to, among other things, separate out a "philosophical" tradition entirely different from a "religious" one, until recently to the detriment of ideas about the history of religiosity in China. Since there are apparently numerous threads and combinations of ideas and practices that change over the course of time in "China" (which we should remember is only the official Grand version of all the many Smaller ones), little wonder that the Japanese versions of these should themselves turn out to be different from what we think of as the Chinese, and as complex and changeable within their own environment. It takes little effort, not necessarily to begin at the beginning, to see in the so-called "Seventeen Article Constitution" of Shoutoku Taishi only one particular frozen moment in the changing kaleidoscopic constructions of "confucian," Buddhist, daoist and native ideas as imported and interpreted by one group in what was not yet but beginning to become "Japan."

I'm afraid that a proper study of these phenomena requires FIRST, as background, a thorough knowledge of recent scholarship into the evolution of the structure and content of the Chinese canon, of court and clan ritual practices, bureaucratic organization and procedure, the manufacture of and role played by precedent as law, the institutionalization of court and private poetic practice and its role in the shaping of ideologies that take the form of battles over orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the ways in which Daoist and Buddhist ideas (themselves an ever-evolving stew) are assimilated into the mix... AND ONLY THEN (oy!) can one turn the same careful attention to the ways this complex develops in Japan.

I don't keep track of recent Japanese scholarship in these areas, but the atmosphere for creative work in this area may be less promising in Japan than elsewhere these days, there being a rather more invested orthodoxy there than here. Mike has a long and perhaps aggravating life's work cut out for him.

David Pollack

From: William Bodiford
Date: Wed, 30 May 2001 21:57:32 -0700
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

In regard to this thread, note that Abe Ryuichi at Columbia argues (in his recent book, The Weaving of Mantra, 1999) that Japanese court of the Nara and Heian periods was a Confucian institution supported by a Confucian ideology and that, therefore, Kukai's goals consisted of creating an new Buddhist discourse that could be used to compete against Confucianism. This tension between Confucianism and Buddhism is the lens that Abe uses to evaluate Kukai's contributions to Japanese history (see p. 8).

Abe does not explicitly define Confucianism. For him it seems to designate the entire secular (ritsuryo) apparatus of Chinese political theory based on the structure of an "imperial" (son of heaven) court: ceremonies, laws, court ranks, and the curriculums (do or michi) of Chinese textual study at the state collages: clarifying the classics (meikeido), Chinese literature (monjodo), and clarifying legal standards (meihodo).

Abe devotes much of his book to a taxonomy of discourses in Nara and Heian Japan and the ways that they interacted with one another. I must admit that before reading Abe's book, I too saw Nara and Heian culture as being totally dominated by Buddhism. Regardless of how the term Confucianism is to be defined (or discarded altogether), Abe highlights the importance of non-Buddhist (and anti-Buddhist) forms of Chinese learning.

William Bodiford

From: Wayne Farris
Date: Thu, 31 May 2001 16:47:47 -0400
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

Dear comrades,

I guess I wonder A) if the ritsuryoo could be considered a Confucian document; and B) if those statutes that can be traced to Confucianism were actually enforced. Yoshida Takashi, who is now really the leading expert on the codes and social/economic history of the period 645-900, argues that a key concept in Chinese culture, and possibly Confucianism, was li (often translated as propriety), and that this notion was absent in Japan. To me, the codes are a Legalist document, were somewhat altered to fit Japan, and foisted upon a society that was very different from China.

And as for Shotoku Taishi's "Constitution," does anyone believe that the editors of the NIHON SHOKI did not doctor or perhaps even invent this? The mythologization of Shotoku Taishi was so thorough that I wonder if we can ever get at the real figure? Regards
Wayne Farris

From: Steven G. Nelson
Date: Fri, 01 Jun 2001 10:39:39 +0900
Subject: Early Japanese Confucianism and music

Dear fellow PMJS members,

As a musicologist, I'm not sure that I'm qualified to speak about the religious and political questions involved in this discussion, but I would like to add a word about the way that I see 'Confucian' ideals acting in the context of music and ceremony.

As I understand it, the idea of liyue (Jpn. reigaku, 'ritual and music'?) was elaborated in various works in the Confucian tradition; it can be seen in the Analects, Li Ji (Jpn. Rai-ki) etc etc. These works were transmitted to Japan before the seventh century, and were clearly widely read. The enormous energy devoted to ceremony and ritual at the Nara and Heian courts, and the importance of music within it, appears to me to be a clear reflection of the Confucian idea that music and ritual were two of the supports of a properly ordered society and well conducted government.

The cultivation of music by Emperors and all of the members of the ruling class who 'mattered' from the early tenth century (at the latest; earlier records are scarce) and onwards was clearly motivated by this belief. It can be seen, for instance, stated very clearly in the foreword to the Shinsen oojoo-fu ('Newly-edited score for transverse flute') completed by Prince Sadayasu under imperial decree in 920. This score (the body of which unfortunately no longer survives) was compiled to provide a model for performance of accompanied dance at court ceremonies, and shows the Engi-year-period rulers doing their best to systematise rules for 'ritual and music' with the musical material that had been transmitted from the continent. (Note the proximity in date to the production of Kokin waka-shuu. Something important there, I suspect.)

A complete set of wind and string instruments was always kept close to the Emperor (in a zushi or something in the Seiryooden), and certain of the instruments (like the biwa Genjoo) gained a mythical, almost magical aura, about which survive an interesting range of setsuwa. Clearly music was thought to possess a special power to 'correct' and 'cleanse,' and this seems like a very clear reflection of Confucian ideas about music to me.

One fascinating but puzzling thing is that the music of Confucian ritual apparently never made it to Japan, and that what was recast as the music for court ceremony centred on what had been ceremonial banquet music at the Tang court. Another important ceremonial role was filled by 'indigenous' forms like azuma-asobi and (mi)kagura, at regular and special annual ceremonies associated with shrines (Kamo, Kasuga, Iwashimizu, etc), although it is clear that these 'indigenous' forms underwent recasting with significant influence from the continental forms. Perhaps the presence of indigenous forms like these made the Japanese feel that it was unnecessary to import the music of Confucian ritual; perhaps it was just a question of practicalities, of what the Japanese actually came in contact with most on their journeys to Tang, and of what came back with them and immigrants from the continent.

I don't know whether there is any other way of accounting for the importance of music and ceremony if we discount the influence of Confucian liyue philosophy (perhaps that's too strong a word). To counter Wayne's argument, then, perhaps li as a notion was absent in Japan, but certain closely associated ideas were surely present. Or am I sorely misled?

Steven Nelson

From: Andrew Goble (via editor)
Date: Fri, 01 Jun 2001 17:34:09 +0900
Subject: Confucianism

Dear all,

I've been following the "Confucian" discussion with some interest. I wonder whether the word itself is the problem. Pre-modern thinkers and writers (such as emperor Hanazono, whose engagement with Chinese thought I explored in a 1995 Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies article, which appended a translation of Hanazono's Admonitions to the Crown Prince, Kai taishi sho) that I have looked at seem not to have heard of the term "Confucian," but worked in a context of "classical" thought which included 1. the Analects and Mencius in particular 2. various works on history and the dynastic histories (Han and Tang being the biggies) and 3. musings on history and society by various essayists, with great respect for those of early Tang emperors. When we get to late Kamakura it is evident (from Hanazono, but also from the acquisitions of what became the Kanazawa bunko in Kamakura, and other Buddhist institutions) that Song writings, made very available through printed editions, were contributing very seriously to intellectual life in Japan. The many allusions to Chinese examples that we see in the Taiheiki should also give a good sense of how Chinese thought (not limited to "Confucian") was regarded in Japan.

Andrew Goble

From: Rein Raud
Date: Fri, 1 Jun 2001 16:15:04 +0300
Subject: Confucianism in ancient Japan

Another perspective on the word jukyou: I recently had a discussion on Confucianism with a Sinologist colleague, Jelena Staburova from the University of Latvia, who said that in her view the term "Confucianism" is actually misleading, since there is no such thing - the school should be called rujia, or rujiao, i.e. jukyou, of which Confucius was one, albeit important, representative. Together we came up with a metaphor that a similar thing would be to call most Western philosophy "Socratism". But for Heian Japan the proper term could probably be "Chinese learning", because the distinction of Chinese philosophical schools seems to have been less important, at least for a Heian bystander, than their common stance and agreed basics (which include a considerable amount of "Confucian" tenets). I can certainly agree that "Chinese learning" is necessary for understanding Heian monogatari, or, for that matter, anything of those times, but Mike
seems to have indicated in his posting a specific Confucian, as opposed to legalist or Daoist, or Wenxuan-induced layer. Could you specify?

Rein Raud

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complete as of 2001/06/02 9:52 PM (JST)