Weekly Report 0909-Paramore chapter 1-4

Weekly Report 0909

Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History by Kiri Paramore (chapter 1-4)

and the book review by Samuel Hideo Yamashita


The utilitarian nature of Confucianism in Japan


Kiri Paramore constructively explains the introduction of Confucianism to Japan and analyzes Confucianism’s historical significance in Edo-era Japan. Paramore claims that Confucianism had played different roles in the Japanese cultural history, being either liberal or conservative. However, despite different interpretations of Confucian ideologies since its introduction, Confucianism had been a mechanism to bridge indigenous Japanese principles and exogenous values, and to interconnect social elites and common individuals. Confucianism in Japan conformed to the principle of utilitarianism, when it was applied to integrate a society with stratified classes.

Paramore acutely categorizes early-Confucianism introduced into Japan from Paekche in the fifth century as “conciliatory” and “coercive”, as his definition characterizes Confucianism’s fundamental dualism: being both humanistic and authoritarian at the same time.[1] Since Confucianism in the fifth-century was an integration of fundamentalist Confucian and Legalist ideologies.[2] Paramore argues in chapter 2 of the book that Zen Buddhist establishment in medieval Japan incorporated Confucianism, making Confucianism not only “bureaucratic” but also prevalent as a religion in society. Paramore believes that the integration of Neo-Confucianism and indigenous Japanese traditions (Shintoism, samurai rituals, and military doctrines, etc.) facilitated the vernacularization and popularization of Confucianism in seventeenth-century Japan.[3] Neo-Confucianism introduced from Song-China, which was the state with prosperous commerce and cultural modernity, resonated with the social stability and economic growth in early Edo-era Japan.

Paramore discusses the significance of Ogyu Sorai in chapter 2, for Ogyu’s revolutionary solution of presenting the Way of the Ancient Kings as political institutions and practices in Japan under the Tokugawa rule. Ogyu reconciled the conflict between Neo-Confucianism and the centralized governance at the turn of the eighteenth century, when Yamaga Soko and Hayashi Hogo fiercely argued for the divorce between Japan and the continent and the superiority of Japan as the central realm created and blessed by gods. While Yamaga criticized Japanese literati’s obsession with the crystallization of Chinese civilization, including Confucianism, and Hayashi discredited Manchu-ruled China as a degenerated and uncivilized state; Ogyu offered a utilitarian approach to assure the social acceptance of Confucianism and reorient its role in public sphere, as a collection of useful political mechanisms rather than a inflammatory education system. Paramore believes that Ogyu’s reinterpretation of Confucianism endowed the principle of utilitarianism, and his justification was respected among the scholars as a tradition, which later facilitated the influence Confucianism later projected upon Japanese nationalism and fascism.

Paramore argues that Japanese Confucianism’s utility had transferred from originally a platform of political values and bureaucratic institutions, to a hyberated system of Neo-Confucian and indigenous social principles in the seventeenth century, and to a public sphere that allowed cross-class communication in the eighteenth. Paramore discusses how Confucianism encouraged the expansion of education network to inferior individuals who were previously excluded and the cultivation of knowledge (even those that were not in the domain of Confucianism) in chapter 3 and 4 of the book. Education offered in eighteenth-century Confucian schools theorized the role of samurai in the contemporary society, which was to exemplify and teach a “salvational ideal” to commoners as Confucian missionaries.[4] Paramore believes these social networks helped the Tokugawa government to institutionalize the education system that transferred knowledge and ideology, and such institutionalization facilitated Japan’s future engagement with western ideologies, technologies, and delegations.[5] Paramore emphasized the function of Confucian ideology in systemizing the proliferation of knowledge, instead that of actual Confucian classics scripts.

The primary gist I gained from Paramore’s book is that Confucian attitude towards both indigenous and exogenous knowledge and principle (in the Japanese perspective) that affected Japanese cultural history, meanwhile detailed scriptures in the Confucian classics obtained the role less significant in shaping proto-nationalism or nationalism in Japan. Paramore observes the social context and reaction towards the introduction and interpretation of Confucianism, and he argues that it was the public attitude (of both elites and commoners) towards Confucianism, rather than Confucian ideologies, that shaped the Japanese social and cultural history from the seventeenth to nineteenth century. The Japanese experience of coping with Confucian school of thought encouraged social elites (samurais, and those who commanded samurais) to adopt a utilitarian approach to newly arrived ideologies and technologies (particularly the western ones arrived in Japan in mid-nineteenth century), and to interact with commoners when it was necessary for the whole Japanese society to overcome social stratification and encounter unfamiliar objects collectively. Intimate communications across divided classes, widespread educational networks without entry barriers, and a non-judgemental perspective based on Confucian utilitarianism, all these factors encouraged the proliferation of proto-nationalism from scholars to literate warrior class, and to the rest of society.

Paramore’s observation and analysis contextualize the emergence of proto-nationalism, for which I argue originated from Confucianism in Japan and served to institutionalize nationalism and fascism in later centuries. Paramore’s argumentation reminds me that I should not overly concentrate on Confucian classics, as I have fully devoted myself in examining texts like Chucho Jijitsu and Kai Hentai. Reading Paramore suggests it might be productive to take a step back and analyze the social context when these Japanese Confucian writings were produced. I realize that I have been obsessed with archival evidences that might indicate the correlation between Confucianism and Japanese proto-nationalism, but neglect the effect of social context in general when conducting a cultural history research. I wish to gain more insights after reading the rest of Paramore’s chapters in the coming week.


[1] Paramore, 16.

[2] Paramore, 20.

[3] Paramore, 41.

[4] Paramore, 72.

[5] Paramore, 95.

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