Renaissance Japan

Epochal analogies are some of the trickiest traps in our historical discourse. Whether it’s the Medieval v. Feudal snake pit or the quicksand of finely grained modernities, generalizing historical processes from one society to another is one of the most common, and most often failed, attempts to systematize that qualitative epistemology we call history. But we don’t give up: first because we need a shorthand to talk about processes, and the analogies, however flawed at deep definitional levels, give us a foundation to communicate with each other; second, because in our heart of hearts we historians believe that there must be rhyme and reason to the course of humanity, and only by the insistent dialectic of thesis and data will we reveal those rhythms and patterns. All of which is just my way of saying that I’d like to pass on a historical analogy from my teaching and I don’t want anyone taking it too seriously, but I don’t want it dismissed out of hand, either.

Most historians are familiar with the basic history of the European Renaissance and Reformation: humanistic scholarship (religious, not secular, yet), combined with new socio-economic realities (mercantile urbanites) and technologies (good ‘ol Gutenberg) created a new milieu in which individual faith and action trumped institutionalized ritual or traditional social bonds. The political and intellectual fallout from the schisms and conflicts included a new understanding of the roles of governments and the rights of individuals and the importance of secular studies that leads to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. Yeah, it’s the World Civ midterm short essay answer (instructor’s edition, at least), but it’s actually pretty fundamental to the transition (terribly useful undefined term, that) from late medieval to early modern.

Japan presents a very different set of stages, particularly religiously and intellectually. Though we use the language of political and economic stages (Classical, Medieval, Early Modern, Modern), nobody assumes that social, intellectual, artistic or religious aspects equate. Culture, in other words, is too distinct to fit into analogies with other societies, whereas political and economic activity is sufficiently universal to be the object of meaningful cross-cultural analysis. For example, “Reformation” is not a generalizable process or stage. My teacher, Hal Bolitho, used that term to refer to Japan’s 13th-14th century religious transformation, and I use it in my teaching as well (when I have students whom I think know enough about the history to find it useful) but the comparison only works on a very shallow and narrow theological level (I’m quite sure that Bolitho knew this as well; this isn’t a criticism of him).

It is true that both the Protestant Reformation and the spread of populist devotional Buddhisms in Japan (Shin, Jodo, Nichiren) feature the transition from esoteric and institutional ritual to individual faith and congregational practice. After that the comparison breaks down. Populist devotional Buddhism wasn’t seen as a challenge to esoteric Buddhism, but an extension of it into new populations; there were no religious wars or widespread sectarian violence; printing and literacy were not at issue in Japan, where simple mantras and hymns were used to bypass the literacy problem; etc.

Most crucially, I believe, the religious transformation of Japan is not preceded by any kind of humanist moment, and Japan’s intellectual life remains fixed in universalist transcendent (mostly Confucian and Buddhist) modes much more comparable to medieval Roman Catholicism than to Renaissance humanism. So, while that may answer the question of whether a Reformation is possible without a Renaissance, it still leaves Japan in the lurch on the most important intellectual shift since Aristotle. It is in the realm of history that humanism is most evident: whether history is driven by human agency or divine providence. It was in history that the social science of the European Renaissance began, and it is in the realm of history that we can see the stirrings of humanism in Japan.

That moment comes, I believe, in the Edo period (1600-1868), particularly in the scholarship of Rai San’yō (1780-1832), one of the most underappreciated intellectuals in Japanese history. Rai San’yō’s Nihon gaishi [An Unofficial Japanese History] was read by most of the major figures of the anti-bakufu movement and leaders of the post-Restoration (1868) Meiji government. I’ve done some work on Rai before: my interest in him dates back to a paper I wrote for Bolitho in the early years of my graduate career. The paper was about Nagasaki as a destination for cultural travelers, particularly the effect of visiting the city on Rai San’yō and the artist Shiba Kokan: Shiba hasn’t interested me much since then, Rai remains a fascination; probably because I’m an historian, not an artist. It’s worth noting that my citations on that paper (1992) related to Shiba are about half and half English and Japanese, while the citations on Rai were entirely to Japanese language scholarship and sources. Not much has changed: Rai’s work is not cited in Harootunian’s chapter on Tokugawa culture in the Cambridge series, but is cited in Jansen’s chapter on the bakumatsu/Restoration politics. One possible direction for study, in my view, comes out of my earlier research as well: Rai’s visit to Nagasaki left him convinced that Japan needed to be more aware of the world (he wrote a long poem in honor of Napoleon, and became interested in western technology, though not to the extent of becoming a Dutch Studies scholar) and his advocacy of political reform was tinged with the sense that the world was both hostile and unavoidable. Rai’s influence might help explain the transition in bakumatsu (1853-1868) politics from “Expel the Barbarians” (jōi) dominance to Sakuma Shōzan’s “Eastern Ethics; Western Technology” formulation (which got him killed by the jōi types). I have, tucked away in my “someday” box, a copy of the Nihon gaishi “translated” by one of his descendants into modern Japanese (the original is in classical Chinese; Jansen notes that a translation of the work into vernacular Japanese was the way most bakumatsu partisans read it), which I’d like to use (it’s only cheating if I stop there) as a rough guide for a full-bore study of his work. Unless someone beats me to it by doing a translation and analysis: there are often hints on PMJS and EMJ of people doing it, but so far nothing.

Rai represents, more to the point of this post, the culmination of a series of advances in historical writing and thinking over the 17th and 18th centuries. Though it would be easy to dismiss his work as “Confucian” — because it was — that obscures the dramatic evolutions that Tokugawa Confucianism had undergone by that time, and also the specific genius of Rai’s work.

The two dominant and relevant strains of Tokugawa era thought are the Ancient Studies (kogaku) school, epitomized by Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728), and the National Studies (kokugaku) school, founded by Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801). Starting from a universalist, transcendent and rigid (though not official orthodoxy) Zheng-Zhu base (as transmitted through the intensely philosophical Korean Confucian tradition), these two schools deconstructed (and reconstructed) Confucianism in such a way as to create a space for Rai San’yō to insert distinctly Japanese priorities and, more importantly, Japanese agency.

The Ancient Studies school rehistoricized Confucianism, making The Way into something contingent and timebound, subject to critical study. Ironically, from my perspective, Ogyū does this by deifying the sages of old, turning them into paragons beyond human aspiration; but this frees him (and everyone else) from trying too hard to emulate the sages or fixating on the teachings of later commenters like Zhu Xi. Instead of taking the teachings as universally grounded truth, he focused on understanding their teachings in context. Ogyū argues for an emphasis on compassion in human affairs, for reorganization of political affairs on more rational lines (he proposes centralization of power under the Shogun, but then he was working for the Shogun at the time), and a rather un-confucian separation of public and private virtue. Philology and political science, in roughly equal measure: Ogyū and his colleague/interlocutor Arai Hakuseki both were polymaths well worthy of the name “Renaissance Man” with interests that ranged into natural science and anthropology as well as ethics and linguistics.

The National Studies school takes a further step towards historicization: Motoori Norinaga argues that the Confucian sages were indeed human, timebound and that their distance and historical contingency makes them poor models for Japanese to emulate. Writing on Japan’s masterpiece The Tale of Genji he wrote “All judgments of good and evil differ depending on the relevant Way. They also differ depending on time, place, and circumstance.” (Shirane, EMJL, 619) He turns to the mytho-historical origins and histories of early Japan, arguing that the gods and emperors who established Japan’s enduring (if attenuated) Imperial polity were the source of wisdom and right thinking most relevant to Japan, and that the early literature of Japanese closest to those origins contained the purest expressions of Japanese character and thought. He devoted himself to the reconstruction of lost orthographies and grammars, developed a distinctly Japanese poetics. His disciples, including Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), took his sources and ideas to develop a new theocratic politics centered on the divinity of the Emperor, and these ideas would become deeply influential in the “modern” period.

Rai San’yō’s Nihon gaishi has to be understood in this context. The focus of the twenty-two chapter work (three thick volumes, with annotations, in Japan’s modern bunkobon paperback format) is the military clans, daimyo houses and coalitions that were the motive force of Japan’s history from the 1100s to his day. But behind these dynamic actors is the (deeply Confucian) ethical foundation of the divine Imperial institution, and it is the implementation of Confucian virtues in samurai governments which forms the metric of success for Rai. It is, in a sense, an Enlightenment history, featuring progressively better and better governments but with remaining flaws in principle and practice that require continued reform. It also shares with some of the enlightenment histories — and Confucian histories — an ambivalence towards individuals as historical actors, but it is very clear that his history gave comfort and inspiration to those who felt that individual action was necessary and effective to continue the “march of progress.” This is where I feel the strongest connection to the Renaissance social scientists, men like Machiavelli who wrote detailed analyses of social and political phenomena with the aim of finding the keys to desirable outcomes. Rai’s work, though it retains the moralism of Confucian historiography (as Renaissance humanism retained the moralism of Christianity), does not contain its historical mechanisms, for no other Confucian history so clearly places human agency at the center of events and allows that outcomes are the result of human actions rather than Heaven-ordained.

I may be overstating the case somewhat, because Rai’s work is difficult to access and under-studied. Certainly the activism of the bakumatsu period owes as much to the political crisis and to the influence of Wang Yangming’s (Ōyomei, in Japanese) intuitive Confucianism as to the studied analysis of pre-bakumatsu scholars. But it is implausible to assume that a work widely read and cited by the activists would be irrelevant to their activism. It would be too much, far too much, to claim the Meiji Restoration as some sort of humanist revolution (there’s a whole other literature to be written on the “humanistic tradition” in Japan, most of which I probably wouldn’t want to read myself), but at the same time it would be absurd to claim that an increasingly humanistic and widely read historiographic body of work played no role in those dramas.


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