Modern Japan began to take shape in the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), after the military reunification of the country in the late sixteenth century. Accordingly, many historians have been tempted to mark the beginning of the modern era in Japan with the founding of the Tokugawa regime. True, there is some incongruity in calling “modern” a period during which the feudal system and military government inherited from medieval times were perpetuated. We might also ask why, with the drastic changes made after Japan’s opening to the West, it still should have needed modernizing. But we would have even more difficulty explaining the country’s success in undertaking such a comprehensive reorganization of its national life and assuming an active role in the modern world, if during the preceding centuries Japan had not already been traveling, though perhaps more slowly and unevenly, in the direction of its subsequent rapid progress.
Among the changes in Japanese society that helped prepare it for this role, we may point to significant trends in thought that were already well established in the Tokugawa period—which was known also as the Edo period after the location of the shogunate’s capital at Edo (modern Tokyo). The first of these changes was a marked shift in attention from religious questions—from the Buddhist search for release from the bonds of this world—to more mundane problems. This is not to suggest that Buddhism suddenly went into eclipse or that its light ceased to shine among the Japanese people as a whole but that the intellectual world responded almost immediately to the ruling class’s need for a secular ideology that, after centuries of violence and disorder, would maintain some semblance of order and stability. Whatever else Buddhism had done for the soul in the anguished medieval period, it did not propose a public philosophy or provide for a civil society. Privatization of religious experience was paralleled by privatization of power and internecine warfare.
The late medieval period had been dominated by the great houses of the daimyō—literally, “great ames”—term that itself betrays the privatization of power and its loss by the imperial court. The court’s loss of power had long since been identified with a court aristocracy, known as kuge, a word signifying the privatization of state power (kō) largely by the Fujiwara clan (ge). In his drive to reunify the country, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had arrogated to himself the title of kanpaku, translated as “imperial regent” or “civil dictator,” both terms ironically reminiscent of the imperial house’s original claim to represent a unified civil state.
By the time of Japan’s unification under Tokugawa Ieyasu, the tradition of feudal military rule had become so strongly embedded in Japanese life that Ieyasu’s attempt to superimpose a higher authority naturally came about through the enactment of legislation modeled on the medieval house laws. Mostly this confirmed local decentralized rule but also was aimed to prevent any agglomeration of power that could challenge the shogun’s control. Even the imperial court was treated by the new regulations as a private household confined within its own courtly rituals.
This was true as well for the principal religious communities, both Buddhist and Shinto. Even the great religious movements in Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, often thought “popular” in the sense that they had broken out of the old Heian mold and, in some cases, formed new lay communities, were seen as essentially sectarian: universalist in theory but competitive in practice. Their “expedient means”—a key feature of Mahayana universalism—had adapted itself so well to the medieval landscape that Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu (though their tactics differed) regarded Buddhist communities as rival sects, allied when convenient with one or another feudal power and sometimes a potential threat to their own position.
Japanese Buddhism, both early and late, had adhered to the idea of religion and the state as mutually supportive and protective, but implicit in this relationship was respect for their complementary spheres of authority. Power holders generally refrained from interposing themselves in sectarian issues, while Buddhist sects in privatized lineages and those that emphasized personal intuition more than doctrine had almost no public philosophy or program to offer.
True, the Ashikaga shoguns and the leading daimyo had had Zen advisers, but their advice was largely prudential and tactical, not based on any political philosophy or ideology. To justify or dress up their seizure of power, the Ashikaga had legitimized themselves by patronizing Zen temples, landscape gardening, the tea ceremony, and nō drama; that is, they had identified themselves with the contemporary high culture of the capital, just as the rulers of the Heian period had done when they could no longer lay claim to governing a universal state in the name of “all-under-Heaven.”
In his turn, Nobunaga had overruled the Ashikaga precisely on the ground that they had forfeited any moral claim to acting on behalf of “all-under-Heaven.”1 Hideyoshi, a foot soldier from out of nowhere with no aristocratic pedigree, tried to legitimize his assumption of supreme authority by assuming the old title of civil dictator (reminiscent of the Fujiwaras), by constructing a new Great Buddha image in Kyoto (in imitation of Shōmu’s Daibutsu in Nara), by playing the Ashikaga game as patron of the tea ceremony on a grand scale, and by having himself deified in a new Shinto shrine.
Although such ritual ploys had largely lost their currency by Ieyasu’s time, he had no less need of legitimization, especially since he had forsworn his guardianship of Hideyoshi’s son and designated successor, Hideyori. Like the Ashikaga and the leading daimyo, Ieyasu had a retinue of Buddhist advisers, but, again, they provided no public philosophy or civil ideology. Their influence in practical matters, therefore, did not prevent Ieyasu and his successors from turning to the new Neo-Confucian secular culture that was developing in East Asia.
In the seventeenth century, what Japan’s leaders sought was less peace of mind than the peace of the country, and it was natural that they should turn for this to Confucianism, the philosophy devoted to achieving social peace and order. Hence the new “this-worldliness” of the Tokugawa era did not directly concern the material or physical world so much as the personal world of intellectual and moral cultivation in the context of social relations. It was in this domain that Neo-Confucianism, from its beginnings in China and passage through Korea, made its greatest impact. In addition, other elements of Neo-Confucian culture spread from China and Korea and commanded attention on their own merits apart from any official sponsorship, nourishing and invigorating Japanese life even more widely in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
What was “new” in sixteenth-century Japanese Neo-Confucianism had arisen in eleventh-century China and fourteenth-century Korea as a reaction to an earlier age dominated by the military and by Buddhism. The Song Neo-Confucians’ new philosophical formulations were a response to the fundamental challenge of Buddhist philosophy, rejecting Buddhist skepticism of the world in order to provide a positive metaphysical basis for a new humanistic culture and civil society. As the product of a rising civil, scholar-official class, the Neo-Confucian philosophy at first was a challenge to the establishment and later was adopted by dynastic rulers who could not stabilize their rule without that class’s support and active involvement. But its adoption by the ruling powers and their subsequent incorporation of Neo-Confucianism into the official ideologies should not obscure the fact that Neo-Confucianism spoke more broadly for a whole new cultural movement that, just as it had first developed independently of the ruling ideology, continued much of its growth in areas beyond official control.
This Neo-Confucian teaching, based mainly on the system of Zhu Xi, had been available to the Japanese earlier when Zen monks, heavily engaged in the China trade, brought Neo-Confucian texts back to the leading Zen monasteries. Zen advisers to the Ashikaga, however, had done little to promote them. Tending to be dismissive of the Neo-Confucian philosophy as simply mundane, they did not recognize its “Learning of the Mind-and-Heart” as a spiritual discipline on the same plane as their own.
With the establishment of a unified military regime under Ieyasu, a new, coherent ideology was needed, along with secular learning that would serve a more centralized system, albeit in many aspects still “feudal.” Answering to both purposes, centrality and feudalism, was the key concept of Neo-Confucian teaching: “self-cultivation (i.e., discipline) for the governance of men,” based on the cultivation by ruler and ruled alike of man’s morally responsible self and socially responsive nature.
Meanwhile, the Neo-Confucian learning itself had developed and spread since Zhu Xi’s time. It was no longer just the Song learning of the twelfth century that had been known to Zen monks but a political doctrine that had been adapted first by the Mongols in Yuan China, then by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and next by the Chosŏn dynasty in Korea (1398–1910). In late-sixteenth-century Korea, Japanese expeditionary forces returned with the texts and artifacts of a whole new culture, bringing with them libraries covering a range of Neo-Confucian scholarship and secular literature. These were accompanied by Korean scholars, nominally prisoners of war, who quickly became advisers to the Tokugawa and their branch houses.
In its earlier forms, Neo-Confucianism was closely identified with a Chinesestyle civil bureaucratic state, the like of which was not found in Tokugawa Japan. Many of Confucianism’s meritocratic features, especially those of the civil service examination system, contrasted sharply with the aristocratic, hereditary features of the Tokugawa shogunate. Nevertheless, Neo-Confucianism itself was a broader intellectual and educational movement than the institutional forms adapted to the dynastic state. It had spread through local academies in Song China, and then into Mongol Korea, China, and Chosŏn Korea. Even in Korea, it was sustained by the relatively independent local academies of the Yangban elite. Thus, even allowing for the major differences between Chinese and Korean bureaucracy and Japanese feudalism, it is not surprising that Neo-Confucian culture bridged the two and flourished in both the domain and the private schools of Tokugawa-period Japan, developing diverse forms in the process. Thus we can speak of official schools maintained by the shogunate or its branches and also of relatively independent individual schools. Together they produced a prolific, wide-ranging intellectual life, with orthodoxy a contested issue.
Compared with Buddhism’s emphasis on the evanescence of this world, Neo-Confucianism stressed the substantiality, orderliness, and intelligibility of “Heaven-and-earth and all things.” In the minds of a significant few Tokugawa thinkers, this attitude eventually helped foster a new interest in the study of both nature and human society. More immediately, however, it was expressed in a typical Confucian concern for the study of human history as revealing the constant laws of human behavior and political morality. As applied to Japan, this study took forms that had no precedent in China’s experience. For instance, it focused on the question of legitimate shogunal and imperial rule and on the unbroken succession of the reigning house, which later fed into the imperial restoration movement. This, in turn, abetted the rise of a new nativism: the National Learning movement, which contributed to the study of Japanese literature and the revival of Shinto. In time, both these trends fused into an intense nationalism, which consciously rejected Chinese influences while incorporating essential elements from the great residue of Confucian intellectual and moral cultivation. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the development of bushidō, the “Way of the warrior,” which joined Japanese feudal traditions and some Buddhist influences with elements adapted from Confucian ethics to form a new military cult.
New developments in the Tokugawa period benefited from the relative stability of Japanese domestic life, the growth of the economy, and the adaptation of Neo-Confucian teachings, especially to the townspeople in the burgeoning urban areas. The “seclusion” policy (sakoku), aimed primarily at protecting Japan from foreign intrusion and incursion, kept foreign trade largely under shogunal contro...