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The Formation of Medieval Japanese Confucianism

Medieval Japanese Confucianism is a unique phenomenon, which spread across the whole nation. The main reason for its popularity in the country of the rising sun is the fact that Japanese neighbors such as China had been practicing Confucius’ teachings for centuries before it got to the island. Japan was first introduced to the teachings of Confucius back at the beginning of the fourth century CE and deeply integrated into its religion, culture, and, even, politics. Japanese state was formed with the aid of Confucius’ teachings. However, its role in the early history of Japan was quite limited, compared to the influence of Confucianism on medieval Japanese society. From the twelfth to sixteenth centuries CE, Japanese society experienced significant changes, which helped Confucianism strengthen its cultural influence in the country. This can be seen through the trans-religious and trans-national features it gained.

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To understand the factors, which shaped medieval Japanese Confucianism, one must look at the background of the Japanese state. Historically, Japan was surrounded by other countries such as China and Korea, which shared the same culture and religion. The former had a major cultural and political influence on the East Asian states. For example, before the Choson dynasty invented the Korean alphabet, they used the Chinese graphs despite having a completely different language. Furthermore, some Koreans saw this invention as a betrayal, including Ch’oe Malli, who argued that replacing Chinese writing was a barbarian matter (Source for PSA 4). Chinese dictated the East Asian culture throughout the whole medieval period, so it comes as no surprise that countries like Japan adopted Confucianism.

However, there were also internal factors unique to Japan, which shaped the adopted Confucius’ teachings into medieval Japanese Confucianism. During the Middle Ages, Japan experienced a series of political changes. It all started from the downfall of the aristocratic grip on power and its subsequent passage into the hands of shogunates. Therefore, the teachings of Confucius stopped being the one of the Imperial state (Paramore 38). This inevitably led to Confucianism becoming a rather cultural phenomenon, with all its rituals losing their political and religious significance.

There is a variety of factors, which indicate trans-religious features of medieval Japanese Confucianism. The rise of the Five Mountains (Gozan) Zen culture is one of them. This is the system where the Imperial government supported various Buddhist monasteries. Gozan Zen culture originated in China and then, shortly afterward, was replicated by the Japanese. In combination with the Japanese interpretation of Confucius’ teachings, Zen resulted in a much more creative approach to Buddhism and Confucianism, as earlier Japanese Confucianism was limited by the bureaucratically structured government. It left a heavy mark on Japanese secular and religious literature, art, and education. The role of the Five Mountains Zen culture in politics should not be underestimated either. According to these teachings, retired politicians often found their new place as monks in one of the Buddhist monasteries next to Kyoto, which they had closed ties to. This helped Japan mitigate the consequences of the downfall of aristocratic power and smoothly transfer into the rule of shogunates (Paramore 34-36). Therefore, the integration of Confucianism into Buddhism in Japan is evident as it gave birth to a new culture known as the Gozan Zen.

The trans-nationality of Japanese Confucianism can be seen by building a parallel with its Chinese counterpart. The Five Mountains Zen culture did not originate in Japan. The entire phenomenon of Japanese Confucianism was imported from China, where it was developed based on the teachings of Confucius. The comparison can be made by looking at the Chinese version of the Five Mountains Zen structure. Just like in Japan, Chinese Buddhist monasteries had to be granted a governmental license by the Song and later dynasties to operate (Paramore 36). Additionally, when the Gozan lost its political influence in medieval Japan, it still held its dominant position in Japanese culture and literature. Many sources and books providing new interpretations of the Confucius teachings kept being brought into Japan from abroad. For instance, metaphysical literature of the Yinyang thought was imported from China in the thirteenth century CE and laid the foundation for the Japanese version of Neo-Confucianism known as Shinto (Paramore 38). This shows that medieval Japanese Confucianism did not originate in Japan. In fact, the entire culture was adopted from China, indicating that it was a rather trans-national phenomenon.

In conclusion, the teaching of Confucius had a significant influence on medieval Japanese society. Medieval Japanese Confucianism is a unique phenomenon created under the heavy influence of the Chinese culture, which was the dominant one among the East Asian countries. Despite its trans-national features, Confucianism in Japan was also formed by a variety of internal political factors. Moreover, it is deeply integrated with the religion of the country of the rising sun. The signs of Confucianism can be seen in the religious rituals performed by the Gozan Zen and the various Shinto sects. Overall, the Japanese version of Confucianism is a mixture of political, religious, and cultural factors, which was imported from China and then modified to fit the standards of medieval Japanese society.

Work Cited

Paramore, Kiri. “Confucianism as Cultural Capital (mid-first Millennium CE–late Sixteenth Century CE).” Japanese Confucianism: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016., pp. 16-40.

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