Japanese Confucianism

A Cultural History

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Kiri Paramore
New Approaches to Asian History
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     2016.
     249 pages.
     $29.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781107635685.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Kiri Paramore’s Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History offers a welcome and groundbreaking approach to the current revival of interest in Confucian and Neo-Confucian studies. Beginning with an event that may have occurred as early as the third century, and concluding with well-argued speculation about future political and intellectual developments, Japanese Confucianism is densely packed with information, yet accessible to students new to the field.

Japanese Confucianism opens with the assertion that by studying the topic, we are recreating it. The epigraph, “Antiquity is constructed by us”—attributed to three Confucians (one Chinese and two Japanese, from three different eras)—is a good reminder to the reader that the Confucian scholarly tradition is highly participatory and active. Confucianism has at its core engagement in every aspect of the world, continually reflecting upon its past and inspired to better its future. Not only religious and intellectual activity, therefore, but also political, social, educational, and even philological pursuits have always been integral to the Confucian life. Yet all too often scholarly treatments of Confucianism have focused on only one facet of the tradition. Paramore instead treats the tradition holistically, addressing both the socio-political context within which it developed in Japan, as well as the religious and intellectual elements that influenced and reacted to that context. Further, his approach of examining Japanese and East Asian history from the standpoint of the longue durée provides us with a framework for understanding the many and varied manifestations of Confucianism beyond the stereotype that has for so long inhibited its study. As Paramore points out, depictions of the Confucian tradition as a monolithic, stable entity—a “timeless Chinese culture” (8) have resulted in Sinophilia (during the European Enlightenment), anti-Sinicism (in the 19th-century imperial era), and other more benign simplifications that fail to address the rich diversity of this system of thought across time and cultures. Such depictions have also caused scholars to dismiss developments in Japanese and Korean Confucianism as mere parroting of the Chinese masters on whose work they commented. Paramore’s book more than remedies this.

Japanese Confucianism is structured roughly chronologically, but also topically, and there is some temporal overlap between chapters. For the reader who is not conversant with Japanese history, this may be slightly confusing at times; many helpful references are included to orient the non-historian, however. The first three chapters form a set—“Cultural Capital,” “Religion,” and “Public Sphere”—taking us from the founding of the first centralized government in Japan through the flourishing of the Tokugawa shogunate. The primary thrust of these chapters is the manner in which Confucianism manifested differently, dependent on a variety of factors (origin of transmission, economic benefits, socio-political context, spiritual enrichment). The second chapter explains the elements influencing the spread of Confucian religious practice beyond the ruling class, which is of special interest. Along the way, Paramore incorporates current research on a wide variety of topics, from the expected (well-known Confucian scholars and their individual approaches to the tradition), to the unexpected (the early Neo-Confucian origins of judo).

Chapters 4 and 5—“Knowledge” and “Liberalism”—offer insight into the development of Confucianism from the late Tokugawa into the Meiji era in Japan. As the cultural and linguistic translators of Western, primarily Dutch, knowledge, Meiji Confucians were rarely in agreement on intellectual matters, as this book makes clear. Paramore’s argument that tension within the political sphere both enriched Confucian discourse and weakened Confucian institutions is compelling.

It is in chapters 6 and 7—“Fascism” and “Taboo”—and the Epilogue, that Paramore demonstrates the relevance of his approach for students of modern East Asian history. The remarkable developments in Japanese Confucianism during the late Meiji era that resulted in its use to justify the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo testify to widely disparate manifestations of Confucianism. In Manchukuo, Confucianism was an instrument of tight ideological government control. As Paramore points out, one of the Japanese goals during World War II was to recover the true heart of Confucian culture, lest it be destroyed by the West (160). This is reminiscent of the Japanese references to Confucianism during their occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945—one of many instances in East Asian history when Japan claimed to be the true heir to the Confucian orthodox lineage that China had, supposedly, failed to uphold. (Oddly enough, the Chinese Kuomintang party took up this rhetorical mantle just four years later when they established martial law in Taiwan.)

Paramore presents developments in East Asian Confucian history as the tension between idealistic self-cultivation, based on a Mencian view of human nature, and pragmatic political philosophy, based on a Xunzian view of human nature (183). He characterizes the former as individualistic and the latter as instrumentalist. From the standpoint of interpreting current Japanese and Chinese revivals of Confucianism, Paramore argues that the dominant Japanese iterations of Confucianism grew from the Xunzian politically pragmatic, instrumentalist strand, thus tending at times toward the fascism that manifested during the first half of the 20th century. In China, on the other hand, Paramore argues that the Mencian idealistic, individualistic approach predominated, as represented by Kang Youwei and others. Paramore’s reasoning draws on a connection between idealism and revolutionary socialism.

Paramore offers insight into current intellectual and political movements in East Asia (primarily Japan and China) as grounded in 1500 years of carefully examined social history. And Japanese Confucianism has something for everyone. For the student of Japanese sociology, religion, or politics, Paramore has written a comprehensive study of the influence of Confucianism that demonstrates its distinctly Japanese character, so specific to Japan that at times it could almost be called “indigenous.” The greatest value of this book, however, is its contribution to the field of East Asian Confucian and Neo-Confucian studies. In presenting Japanese Confucianism as a multifaceted tradition outside of China for over more than one thousand years, Paramore has opened the field to new interpretations of what was once considered a hide-bound, monolithic orthodoxy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Jameson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kiri Paramore is University Lecturer in Japanese History at Leiden University. He studied Asian History at the Australian National University (BAS Hons, 1999) and worked for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade before moving to Japan to study Area Studies and Intellectual History at the University of Tokyo (MA 2003, PhD 2006). He has been awarded research fellowships from the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy at Academia Sinica, Taipei, where he was Visiting Research Professor from 2011–12. His first book was Ideology and Christianity in Japan (2009).

Keywords: 

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