japan and confucianism -- 5/2/14

Today's selection -- from Japan: A Short History by Mikiso Hane. When Confucianism made its way to Japan from China in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., it helped the Japanese aristocracy maintain a strictly heirarchical society and keep "inferior" people in their place:

"The economy of Japan until the nineteenth century remained essentially agrarian. Rice culture was introduced to the islands around 100 B.C.E. and the peasants struggled to eke out a living, tilling the sparse land areas, growing rice in tiny paddies in the flat land and carving out terraces on the hillsides to grow other cereals and vegetables. Tea and silkworm cultivation also became an important source of income for the villagers. Eventually arts and crafts came to flourish with the introduction of the crafts from Korea and China from the fifth century on. The land worked by the peasants provided the ruling class with its material necessities.

"Thus the power struggle by the clan and tribal chieftains was a struggle to control the farm land and keep the peasants working it. ...

Image showing merchants who were considered lower class

"There was from the outset a hierarchy of the wielders of power and those subjected to serve them in various capacities. With the introduction of Confucian concepts in the fifth to sixth centuries the case for maintaining a hierarchical social order was strengthened. Hence the Confucian emphasis on preserving the hierarchical order between the 'superior' and 'inferior' persons and the maintenance of proper relationships to ensure social harmony (which meant compelling the 'inferior' persons to behave in accordance with his or her station in the family and society) came to be staunchly embedded in Japanese mores. This social imperative was reinforced by the emergence of the samurai as the dominant force in the late twelfth century. They reinforced the sense of hierarchy by the edge of the sword. The Tokugawa shogunate instituted a legal class-order of samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants (based on the Confucian hierarchy of scholars, peasants, artisans, and merchants). Outside this classification were the so-called 'unclean' class, the outcastes. What this meant was the samurai caste at the top and the others below. Even after the end of Tokugawa hegemony and the advent of the modern Meiji era, class distinctions were retained with people in registries identified as shizoku (former samurai class), and commoners. The special status of the old aristocracy was preserved with their classification as kazoku (nobility). The discrimination of the outcaste group was also sustained with the classification: new commoners. After the end of the Second World War legal class distinctions were eliminated though social discrimination persisted.

A samurai before the 1600s

"This evolving sense of status distinctions came to influence the place of women in Japanese society also. There is evidence that early Japan was a matriarchal society, or at least a matrilineal society. The acceptance of the Confucian social philosophy, and the ascendancy of the samurai class resulted in a steady decline in the social standing of women. In the Tokugawa era gender discrimination came to be enforced most stringently among the samurai class but relationships between men and women among the townspeople remained less rigid."


Mikiso Hane


Japan: A Short History (Short Histories)


Oneworld Publications


Copyright 2000 by Mikiso Hane


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