Confucianism: The Branches and Leaves of Japanese Civilization?

Prince Shotoku, who as Yamato regent in 604 wrote the first guidelines for Japanese government in his ‘‘constitution,’’ was also alleged to have written in another document that Shinto was the root, Confucianism the branches and leaves, and Buddhism the flowers and fruit of the tree of Japanese civilization. Although the prince didn’t put this assertion in writing, Confucian ideas definitely permeate his 604 document. While Japanese learned of the doctrines that Europeans would label ‘‘Confucianism’’ later than Chinese and Koreans, the belief system exerted widespread influence in Japan.

Confucius justly deserves the reputation of one of the greatest teachers in world history. He lived from approximately 551 to 479 BCE and was born of a minor aristocratic family during a time in its history when China was not unified under one dynasty. A well-educated man, Confucius greatly desired to influence public policy and advise rulers. Although he held minor bureaucratic posts and consulted with several rulers, Confucius was unable to become a permanent adviser with any Chinese sovereign.

Confucius instead turned to teaching. Though he left no writings, after his death his disciples compiled his teachings in a printed work, known as Lun Yu in Chinese and the Analects in English. Later, scholars and adherents of the teachings throughout East Asia, including Japan, produced a canon of Confucian texts. Confucianism is difficult to categorize. Some scholars assert it is a philosophy while others, citing the fact that there are Confucian temples in Asia, conceptualize it as a religion. However, all concur that the impact of the belief system is profound throughout East Asia.

Although respectful of the spiritual and supernatural, Confucius was most concerned about the promotion of societal harmony at every level and of political stability in this world. He viewed the proper maintenance of important relationships as vital to the promotion of these goals. Confucius identified five basic relationships that must be nurtured: those between ruler and people, parent and child, husband and wife, older and younger siblings, and friend and friend. Confucius was an aristocrat, and his belief system was clearly hierarchical in nature but assumed reciprocity on the part of all parties. Subordinates were expected to obey and be loyal to superiors, while those at the top were obligated to be benevolent and protective of subordinates.

Confucius also stressed the importance of tradition and the cultivation of individual virtue. Rites and ceremonies were important societal centripetal forces as was veneration of ancestors. Individual virtue could be cultivated at its highest level through acquiring a true education. Like Socrates, Confucius made morality and virtue the heart of education. He stressed the cultivation of an aristocracy based on learning and virtue instead of blood. Confucius felt that the practice of virtue by heads of households, government officials, and rulers taught people proper moral behavior much more than the imposition of penalties or punishments.

Although Confucian teachings had been influential before the Tokugawa era, it was during that period of Japanese history that the government adopted so-called Neo-Confucianism as part of official state ideology. As was the case elsewhere in East Asia, the Tokugawa shogunate organized society into classes based on Confucian teachings. Samurai were at the top, followed by peasants and artisans. Merchants, who were considered money hungry and nonproductive, ranked below the other groups. Familiarity with Confucian classics was an important component of the education of samurai elites. Ideally, samurai were expected to not only be warriors but also, though never to the extent of their Chinese literati counterparts, cultivate a knowledge of classical Chinese philosophy, history, literature, and the arts as well as their own indigenous national traditions. Samurai were also obligated, as was the case in imperial China, to be virtuous government bureaucrats. As time passed and peace seemed a prominent part of Tokugawa life, the samurai became more bureaucratic and less of a warrior class.

It is important to note that as was the case with other foreign ideas and practices, the Japanese rejected elements of Confucius’ teachings. Family birth status exerted much more power in Japan than in mid- and late imperial China, so the Japanese refrained from adopting a meritocratic civil service examination system as was the case in China. The Meiji government did, however, initiate a competitive educational examination system during the latter part of the 19th century.

As the Japanese rushed to Westernize during the first part of the Meiji era, Confucian ideas fell out of favor, but they were too much a part of the fabric of Japanese life to disappear. There was a resurgence of government and elite accentuation of Confucian ideas in the latter Meiji period. Today, despite changes in Japanese society because of affluence and urbanization, the influence of Confucian thought survives in Japan. The irony is that most Japanese don’t even think of themselves as Confucian, but the teachings are deeply integrated into daily life. As noted, the very terms ‘‘Confucianism’’ and ‘‘Confucian’’ are Western inventions. Northeast Asians have traditionally called the belief system ‘‘the teachings of the scholars.’’ Despite widespread participation in Shinto and Buddhist rituals, a higher percentage of Japanese than Americans have a secular rather than a theologically based religious worldview. Confucius, while not an atheist or even agnostic, focused his teaching on appropriate virtue and conduct in this world.

The Japanese emphasis on both academic and moral education, the high school and college entrance examinations, and the rewards and high status that welleducated people accrue in Japanese society are beliefs and practices partially resulting from Confucianism. For example, most Japanese business and political elites positioned themselves for career advancement by working hard and succeeding in Japan’s relatively meritocratic educational system.

Confucianism also directly affects Japanese attitudes toward work, society, gender, and the group. Confucian teachings strongly stress the virtues of hard work, obligation, and reciprocity. In all Northeast Asian countries, a widely accepted work ethic is quite apparent compared to what exists in many other nations. Countries like Japan and South Korea are annually at, or near, the top of developed countries in number of hours worked. Seemingly even more than other East Asian countries, Japan is a status-conscious society. Many Japanese have a propensity to find few things equal and to assign differing levels of status to both individuals and institutions. Within public and private institutions, superiors and subordinates traditionally owed each other protection, loyalty, and good team play. These propensities manifested themselves in such Japanese business practices as superiors helping to find potential spouses for subordinates and employees voluntarily not taking their full annual vacation time so as to put in more hours in their offices.

Economic globalization and recent deregulation in light of a more intense competitive environment seem to be causing at least some changes in these practices. For example, although Confucian notions of hierarchy survive in the Japanese corporate world, many employees now don’t have a particularly deep-seated loyalty to their supervisors for various reasons. Japanese companies are hiring fewer permanent employees, and an increasing number of employees have specific skills that enable them to more easily change jobs than in the past.

The Confucian notion that the family is the all-important unit in society is deeply embedded in Japanese culture. The most obvious sign is Japan’s still-low divorce rate compared to other developed countries, but it is important to point out that Japan’s rate has been steadily rising on an annual basis in recent years. Traditional East Asian family structures have been more hierarchical and status driven than in the West. Although elderly people are now more and more living apart from their children, there still seems to be somewhat higher levels of respect for old people compared to other developed countries, and many Japanese continue to honor dead family members. Despite equal opportunity employment laws, Japanese women often still have a much more difficult time obtaining employment that is commensurate with their qualifications than is the case in the United States or Western Europe. This situation is at least partially a legacy of the influence of Confucian beliefs that resulted in lower status for women than was the case in the West.

Confucius was very concerned about public as well as family life. Rule by virtuous leaders was a constant subject that the sage addressed in his teaching. Confucius felt that rulers should lead by example and that developing a sense of shame in people was a much better tool to make them behave than specified and detailed legal codes. The traditional Japanese propensity to first ascertain the trustworthiness of a potential business partner rather than heavily relying on contracts, the somewhat general nature of Japan’s statutory laws, and the minimal role of litigation as a problem-solving method each partially reflect Confucian influences. Recent economic reforms designed to make the Japanese economy more competitive in a new era of globalization are creating a demand for more statutory commercial law and for the services of attorneys that constitute challenges to two of these Confucian-inspired traditions.

Like any belief system, Confucianism is an ideal conceptualization of human action; how people behave in the real world is often contradictory to cultural belief systems. Japan’s political leaders have certainly engaged in corrupt practices. Still, despite recent increases, Japanese rates of violent crime, theft, drug abuse, and divorce are lower than many developed countries. For example, Japan has approximately 33 percent as many police per capita as the United States, about 20 percent as many judges per capita, and approximately five percent as many jail cells per capita (Reid 1999, 16).

It is also quite common throughout Japan to see government-financed signs and billboards exhorting people to do the right thing. Upon entering an urban Tokyo park, for instance, a visitor encounters a host of messages requesting park patrons to keep things clean for others, preserve the grass, jog on designated paths and not cut corners, and not do anything that might bother other people who use the space. Although such good behavior admonitions are common in many countries, they are much more numerous in Japan than in the West. This practice reflects the Confucian notion that people will probably act virtuously if they are constantly reminded to do so. Although it is impossible to quantify the relationship between Confucian teachings and the relatively high level of social stability in Japan, there is little doubt that a relationship does in fact exist.