Tokugawa Confucianism
& the Development of Bushido

Battle of Sekihagahara
The Battle of Sekigahara: October 21, 1600
Hideyoshi, Nobunaga and Ieyasu
Nobunaga ~ Hideyoshi ~ Ieyasu
From the Sengoku Period to the Tokugawa Shogunate
The Sengoku (Warring States) ended with the successive rule of three great warlords, each of whom managed to emerge above all other lords to unify Japan under a single authoritarian government in his day. They were Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Each was a man of strong individual character, and each had a distinctive attitude toward religion.
Oda Nobunaga
Oda Nobunaga
Nobunaga, a cold, ruthless warrior, generally hated religion. ... It was he who, in the process of bringing all Japan under his sway, slaughtered the monks of Mount Hiei and burned their temples in 1571, and who received the surrender of the Ikko ikki in 1580.
Oda Nobunaga setting Mt. Hiei on fire
Ironically enough, it was also during Nobunaga’s heyday that a totally unexpected new politico-religious force arrived in Japan: Europeans and with them Christianity. ... Some lords and not a few others were baptized; by the death of Nobunaga, less than thirty-five years after the missionaries first came, as many as 150,000 Japanese were Christians. Nobunaga was not among them, although he seemed more sympathetic to the foreigners and their creed than to the despised native Buddhists. (IJR, 171)
Sir Francis Xavier
bamboo page divider
Toyotomi Hideyoshi on a horse
Toyotomi Hideyoshi
He who lives by the sword will die by the sword, it is said, and so it was with Nobunaga, who died quelling a fairly minor rebellion in some of his own following. He was succeeded by his most brilliant general [Toyotomi Hideyoshi]. ... At first this dictator seemed complacent towards religion, without the vindictiveness of Nobunaga. He allowed Tendai, Pure Land, and Nichiren groups to become active again, and remained on cordial terms with the Christians. Then, suddenly, in 1587, he turned against the missionaries in an edict forbidding their activities; why is not entirely clear, but it is likely that he came to fear the faith’s growing power. ...
The 26 Christian martyrs on crosses
The ruler seems to have had advice that, as the example of the Philippines and the Americas made clear, missionaries were not seldom followed by European regiments and colonial governors. ... The twenty-six martyrs of Nagasaki described in Chapter 2, both European and Japanese, both Franciscans and Jesuits, perished on crosses at Hideyoshi’s order in February of 1597. Hideyoshi himself died the following year. Christians were given a short respite as power shifted, after some vicissitudes, to the third great warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu. (IJR, 172-4)

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu
After well over a century of almost constant conflict between power-hungry warlords, Japan was ready for peace, and the Tokugawa were ready to impose it. For their two-and-a-half centuries, if not quite the well-regulated, clockwork society its masters envisioned, Japan was without external war and suffered only internal disturbances. With peace came, as it usually does, relative prosperity despite famine years, and considerable cultural creativity. However, poverty and unrest in the countryside only grew worse as the years advanced, even as the commercial sector became more and more prosperous.
Martin Scorcese's film "Silence"
However, it was not a time of peace for Japan’s remaining Christians either. The Tokugawa regime, alarmed by news of European expansion, desirous of a society without significant internal dissent, and determined that Japan must cut itself off from the rest of the world, enacted increasingly harsh decrees against Christianity, until by 1623 the religion was subjected to unspeakably cruel persecution. Christians were tortured until they recanted or died, and were forced to spit or stamp on crucifixes. ... Some Christian families remained faithful, however, throughout the long Tokugawa era; when missionaries finally returned in the mid-nineteenth century, they found Kakure Kirishitan, “Secret Christians,” who, without priests, had kept alive sometimes garbled versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Creed, and who worshiped by such ingenious devices as placing a crucifix behind a Buddhist image. (IJR, 175)
Buddhism itself was organized and controlled by the Tokugawa government. Each family was required to have membership in a Buddhist temple. Every temple, in turn, was made a branch of a well-regulated major temple, like Mount Koya in Shingon, Mount Hiei in Tendai, the two Honganji in Jodo-Shinshu, or their major auxiliaries, which trained and supplied priests for the local level. Japanese Buddhism had no geographical divisions or responsibilities, like the diocese or district in many Christian churches; each priest and local temple looked to its main temple for guidance and, if need be, the resolution of difficulties. ... [T]he Tokugawa ordinances meant that Buddhism now was at least a nominal part of the life of every village and family. (IJR, 175-6)
Poster for the movie "The Funeral"
Every family was legally required to belong to a Buddhist temple and had to be questioned periodically by the temple priest. “At one stroke, all Japanese were incorporated administratively into the existing Buddhist structure.” Births were registered and deaths were recorded in the local temple to which the family belonged. ... The general situation tended to stifle religious devotion, especially at parish Buddhist temples where family membership was obligatory; temple members’ “relationship with Buddhism often came to be more formalistic and pragmatic rather than a matter of individual religious conviction.” The Japanese historian Anesaki has described the general situation: “For the people at large religion was rather a matter of family heritage and formal observance than a question of personal faith.” ...
Buddhist altar (butsudan)
The death of a person sets in motion a series of rites and ceremonies that culminates in the observance of a final memorial service, most commonly on the thirty-third or fiftieth anniversary of death. Between a person’s last breath and the final prayers said on his behalf, his spirit is ritually and symbolically purified and elevated; it passes gradually from the stage of immediate association with the corpse, which is thought to be both dangerous and polluting, to the moment when it loses its individual identity and enters the realm of the generalized ancestral spirits, essentially purified and benign. ...
       An outstanding feature of the ceremonies for the dead is that from start to finish they are primarily the responsibility of the household and its members, for all of whom, regardless of sex and of age at death, these same devotions will be performed in some degree. Indeed, the longer the time since a person’s death, the more likely that only household members will look after his spirit. Many people will attend the funeral; fewer will attend the rites of the forty-ninth day; and the number will dwindle over the years as the memorial services are marked. The priest, too, has less and less to do with rites for the deceased as time passes. It can be said without exaggeration that the household members alone, through their observance of the rites, prevent the ancestors from becoming wandering spirits. ...
Buddhist funeral pyre
During the first forty-nine days after death, steps are taken both to separate the spirit of the newly dead from its association with the corpse and to free it from its attachment to the world of the living. To achieve these ends the survivors undertake first to confuse the spirit. The coffin may be carried in a circle around the room of the house where it has rested and only then be borne outside for the funeral procession. The mourners may return from the grave by a route other than that taken by the procession. The path of the cortege may be swept clean in order to obliterate the footprints of the mourners and prevent the spirit from using them to find its way back home. The funeral service itself ends in the symbolic separation of the corpse or ashes and the spirit: a temporary memorial tablet representing the spirit is taken away from the cemetery and serves as the object of veneration during the first forty-nine days. ...
Buddhist altar with legend explaining each element
The temporary tablet is first set on a low table in front of, but not within, the altar, and it is often accompanied by a photograph of the deceased, candles, an incense burner, and a bell or gong. On the forty-ninth day in most instances ... the temporary tablet is disposed of and the photograph put away. A permanent tablet, inscribed with the deceased’s posthumous name, is placed with the others already in the altar, to be separated from them only once when it is singled out for special treatment at the first bon. On that occasion the tablet will be placed on its own altar in the main room of the house and will be the object of far more elaborate offerings than are made to the other tablets. It is obvious that the special bon altar for the newly dead is constructed “to keep the observance for purified souls of distant ancestors from contamination with mourning for the newly dead.” ... With the conclusion of the rites of the first bon, the spirit is thought to have begun the long process of becoming an ancestral spirit. Over the years, on occasions marked by successive memorial rites, the dead person becomes more and more remote and fades from the memories of family members. At length, the final services are held for the individual ancestral spirit, which thereupon passes from the ranks of the household dead into a larger collectivity [i.e. it becomes one with the family’s ancestral kami]. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 186-8; cf. 128-9)
Poster for the film "Departures"
To the present day, the organized sects of Japanese Buddhism have not been able to escape completely the unfavorable stigma of disinterested affiliation. Both enlightened priests and devout laypeople have often deplored the inertia of Tokugawa “feudal” patterns of Buddhist ancestor worship and have lamented the lack of a strong, personal Buddhist faith in the setting of parish temples. (Japanese Religion, 146-7)
Tokugawa crest
Concentric Circles showing relationship between ritual and humaneness
Turning to Confucius
The Chinese Roots of Confucianism
Map of the Warring States period (in China) with Confucius and other early philosophers
Hayashi Razan
In medieval China, a new school of Confucian philosophy arose. It continued the ancient sage’s humanistic emphasis on a harmonious social order and the realization of one’s true inner nature as the supreme good. But, influenced by Taoist and Buddhist thought, the tradition now took on a more metaphysical cast. What ultimate view of nature, and of humanity, best led to true humanism and the good society? According to Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the leading Neo-Confucianist, the key is the discovery and contemplation of li (Japanese, ri) or fundamental principles. Everything has its own li, and it is from the supreme li of heaven (tenri in Japanese), earth, and humankind that all else derives. The second most important Neo-Confucianist, the idealist Wang Yangming (1472-1529), considered the li to be ultimately in the mind. (IJR, 176)
Samurai receiving Confucian education
The Tokugawa government was interested more in the organizational powers of Neo-Confucianism than in its cosmological theories. Tokugawa Ieyasu apparently saw in Neo-Confucianism a suitable philosophy for stabilizing and ordering the state. What the Neo-Confucian tradition amounted to was a heavenly sanction for the existing political and social order. Neo-Confucianism in this period served as the main intellectual rationale justifying the existence of the four social classes and their support of the Tokugawa government. The rulers or superiors were advised to be just and benevolent; subordinates were taught to be obedient and respectful. (Japanese Religion, 148; cf. IJR, 177-8)

Confucius with a can of SPAM

The Four Classes





The separation into four classes of samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants, like the five relationships, is part of the principles of heaven and is the Way which was taught by the Sage (Confucius). (Hayashi Razan; Religion in the Japanese Experience, 115)

The Five Relationships

Ruler and Subject

Parents and Children

Husband and Wife

Elder and Younger Brother

Friend and Friend

Neo-Confucianism was seen by its advocates as a rational and moral force in society (particularly in politics) that corresponded to the structure of the universe and the nature of life. The rulers may have had personal preferences for Buddhist piety and some sympathy for Shinto teaching, but the government support of Neo-Confucian teachers and advisers was an expression of political duty, in the interest of preserving the social order. The intention of the government policy supporting an official school of orthodox Neo-Confucianists (who taught people the nature of the moral order) was to create moral citizens and thereby preserve social stability. The government sought to tie the political system and social stability to support for Confucian (Chu Hsi) principles, and banned heterodox teachings. (Japanese Religion, 150-1)
Hayashi Razan
To know the way of heaven is to respect heaven and to secure humble submission from earth, for heaven is high above and earth is low below. There is a differentiation between the above and the below. Likewise among the people, rulers are to be respected and subjects are to submit humbly. Only when this differentiation between those who are above and those who are below is made clear, can there be law and propriety. In this way, people’s minds can be satisfied. ... The more rulers are respected, and the more the subjects submit humbly, and the more the differentiation is made clear-cut, the easier it is to govern a country. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 115)
The Seven Virtues of Bushido
The Way of the Warrior

Like earlier thinkers of the Tokugawa period, Yamaga Soko (1622-1685) worried about the inactivity of the warriors (samurai or bushi) in the prolonged peace of Tokugawa, and he proposed a code of personal ethics for warriors. His work, entitled The Way of the Warrior is considered the first systematic attempt to set forth what later was called Bushido. The notions of self-discipline and loyalty in this code of life were very influential for popular ethics in subsequent centuries.
When Shinto values such as genuineness, purity of heart, and imperial rule blended with Confucian notions of hierarchy (as embedded especially in the Japanese interpretation of its virtues of filial piety and loyalty), there was an important side effect outside Neo-Confucianism and Shinto institutions per se. A distinctively Japanese understanding of loyalty to one’s lord (and ultimately to the emperor) developed.
Image representing the "kokutai" (national body/polity), with the emperor at the center of the universe
Social strata during the Tokugawa period (emperor on top, merchants on the bottom)
This Japanese variant took Confucianism’s emphasis on loyalty and appropriate behavior toward one’s superiors and enhanced it with two Shinto qualities: affect (emotion) and the holographic paradigm. The affective dimension maintained that loyalty does not derive merely from formulas about hierarchical roles. This would make loyalty no more than an external relation. For bushido, loyalty is not role-playing or fulfilling some social contract. In the new Japanese interpretation, loyalty derives at least as much from love, an internal relation with the lord and his house. Such an internal relation reinforces the holographic model of the whole-in-every-part. That is: true loyalty arises from the sincere mindful heart that recognizes how the house headed by one’s lord is reflected within each of its members, including oneself. To turn against one’s lord is to turn against oneself.
ritual suicide (seppuku/hara kiri)
In this context, when a vassal could not agree with and follow the command of his lord, seppuku — ritualized suicide — was often the only option. By the holographic model, because the whole is part of the individual, the individual cannot be fully true to oneself and simultaneously oppose the whole. The act of seppuku arises from the double bind of being torn between one’s own position against the whole and one’s identity as reflecting the whole. (SWH, 110-1)
[T]he bushido value system gave the samurai a new sense of place in peacetime society. They could bring their values from the battlefield to the bureaucratic offices, where dedication, absolute loyalty, and discipline were equally important. Bushido ideology articulated its values into a formal system promulgated beyond the military class itself. That is: the bushido mentality became potentially a model for all Japanese — its elements promulgated in the Japanese public schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under the rubric of “moral education.” (SWH, 111-2)
Businessman in samurai garb
Cover of the Bushido manga
IS BUSHIDO STILL ALIVE? Or has Western civilization, in its march through the land, already wiped out every trace of it? ... [James Stafford] Ransome says that “there are three distinct Japans in existence side by side today — the old, which has not wholly died out; the new, hardly yet born except in spirit; and the transition, passing now through its most critical throes.” While this is very true in most respects, and particularly as regards tangible and concrete institutions, but as applied to fundamental ethical notions, this statement requires some modification. For Bushido, the maker and product of Old Japan, is still the guiding principle of the transition and will prove the formative force of the new era. (Bushido, Chapter 16)
page from the Bushido manga
Bushido icon
page from the Bushido manga
Bushido icon
page from the Bushido manga
Bushido icon
Here we should focus on the training and position of women. Women have sometimes been called the paragon of paradoxes, because the intuitive working of their mind is beyond the comprehension of men’s “arithmetical understanding.” The Chinese ideogram denoting “the mysterious,” “the unknowable,” consists of two parts, one meaning “young” and the other “woman,” because the physical charms and delicate thoughts of the fair sex are above the coarse mental nature of men.
       In the Bushido ideal of woman, however, there is little mystery and only seemingly a paradox. Ideographically, the Chinese represent wife by a woman holding a broom — certainly not to brandish it offensively or defensively against her partner, or for witchcraft, but for the more harmless uses. The idea involved being as homely as the etymological derivation of the English words wife (weaver) and daughter (duhitar, milkmaid). The Bushido ideal of womanhood was preeminently domestic. (Bushido, Chapter 14)
page from the Bushido manga
Bushido icon
ON THE ONE HAND, samurai had the discipline of enduring without a groan and, on the other, the teaching of politeness. This requires us not to spoil the pleasure or serenity of another by showing our own sorrow or pain. These practices combined to encourage a stoical turn of mind. Stoicism then became the characteristic of a whole nation. Although our national manners and customs may seem hard-hearted to a foreign observer, still we Japanese are really as susceptible to tender emotion as anyone under the sky.
       In a way, I think that we feel more than others, since the very attempt to restrain our natural desire to express ourselves causes suffering. Imagine boys and girls brought up to not shed of a tear or utter a groan to relieve their feelings. And there is a physiological question whether such effort steels their nerves ... or makes them more sensitive!
       It was considered unmanly for a samurai to betray his emotions on his face. “He shows no sign of joy or anger,” was a phrase used in describing a strong character. The most natural of feelings were kept under control. A father could hug his son only at the expense of his dignity. A husband would not kiss his wife in the presence of other people. (Bushido, Chapter 11)
page from the Bushido manga
So, is Bushido still “the guiding principle of the transition
[that provides] the formative force of the new era”?