Japan Times Review of Watanabe

Michael Hoffman of the Japan Times reviews the English translation of A HISTORY OF JAPANESE POLITICAL THOUGHT, 1600-1901, by Hiroshi Watanabe (Translated by David Noble. LTCB International Library Trust, International House of Japan, 2012). Hoffman focuses on the “evolution of Japan’s turn away from Confucian ideas.” Looks interesting. Here is some of the review (read the whole review at the Japan Times).

Maybe all ideas are inherently strange, given the nonsense time tends to make of them. Imagine how odd our thinking will seem 100 years from now — or would have seemed 100 years ago. Is “freakish” too strong a word? Whether it is or not, the ideas Watanabe discusses here with such clarity and vigor are the ones that animated two of the most astonishing phases of Japanese and, arguably, world history: the 2½ centuries of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1867) and the subsequent national transformation of backwater Japan into superpower Japan.

What were these ideas? You could, simplifying just a bit, divide them into two categories: Confucian and anti-Confucian. For pre-modern Japan, China was civilization itself, and Confucianism was what made it so — “perhaps the most powerful political ideology yet conceived by the human race,” writes Watanabe. To devotees, its “rites and music,” “five relationships” and “five virtues” are what separate us from the beasts and make us human. To doubters — and the doubts grew as Japan’s stagnation became more evident — it was a retarding force. “Ours is a world in which living things are confined and regimented as if dead things,” wrote one exasperated samurai-scholar in 1838.

The “freakishness” under discussion, then, lies in Confucianism and what the Japanese made of it. Certainly the modern mind, restless, striving, acquisitive, forward-looking, has little patience with the Confucian yearning for a long-past, long-lost Golden Age ruled by sages whose virtue alone made the people good, happy and prosperous. That thinking resonates no longer and isn’t likely ever to again. The trouble was, it rang a little false even under the early Tokugawa when neo-Confucianism was promoted as an official ideology.

Japan was a warrior society; China was not. To a Chinese proverb asserting “Good men do not make soldiers just as good iron does not make nails,” a Japanese one counters, “As the cherry among blossoms, so the warrior among men.” True, Tokugawa Japan was a warrior society “at peace,” but warrior peace is not Confucian peace. Pax Tokugawa, writes Watanabe, amounted to “waiting for a battle that never seemed to come.” He quotes a samurai’s poem: “What a waste!/ Born into times so fortunate/ That I must die lying at home on the tatami!”

[Read the whole review at the Japan Times]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.