"The Disciple" and Japanese Understanding of Confucianism

 "The Disciple"is  very Japanese, in the sense that it looks favorably upon being martial and earnest.  Yu Dan, “China’s Oprah”, who made Confucius cool in the contemporary Chinese media, dismisses Zilu in her multi-million seller Confucius From the Heart as “very impulsive” and concludes that “Love of courage was Zilu’s defining quality, but his bravery was of the shallow, thoughtless kind.” This is clearly not the interpretation of "The Disciple"'.

It is true, Confucius described Zilu as “rough and rude,” (Analects 6:18) and sometimes scolded Zilu for his wildness. When Zilu asked, “Master, if you were given command of the combined armies, who would you want to accompany you?” Confucius replied, “The person who would wrestle a tiger with bare hands or march across the Yellow River, and who would rush to his death with no thought—I do not want such a person to accompany me.” (Analects 7:11) Confucius said this in an effort to reign in Zilu’s reckless bravado. However, when he first met Confucius, Zilu already had what Confucius called the first principle, xin (信 ) (Analects 1:8), which is faithfulness and sincerity. Confucius also said it is advantageous to make friends with those who are upright, sincere, and learned. (Analects 16:4)  When he became Confucius' student, Zilu was already upright and sincere. He only lacked learning. Zilu followed his master for nearly 40 years, learned, and became a good governor of Bo and earned Confucius' praise.  

Zilu in his early days did not understand what it means to be martial (righteous in use of force). Being martial does not mean fighting and winning. Of course, there are always some who pursue martial art for the glory of winning. Those who pursue martial art for the sake of winning and killing may be feared but not respected; they are considered the ones who have strayed from the right path. Being martial means to live according to the moral code, to have skill and discipline, and to know when and how to use the skill to serve the human society, even at the cost of sacrificing one’s own life or one’s own salvation. That is the right path.

When the American force occupied Japan after the WW II, the General Headquarters ordered a ban on kendo (swordsmanship), believing that the martial art had bled militarism in Japan. When the GHQ proposed a match between their Navy training officer and a Japanese martial artist, Kunii Zenya (1894-1966) was nominated by his fellow martial artists. An unorthodox and independent martial artist, Kunii fought with many martial artists of different schools and never lost in his life. Armed with a wooden sword, Kunii faced the American officer armed with a bayonet. With one measured and swift move, Kunii held the Navy officer immobile under his wooden sword. Many Japanese believe Kunii’s demonstration proved that kendo is primarily for self-protection and self cultivation, which, in turn, influenced the later reversal of the ban.

That martial art is not for winning or killing is a constant theme in mainstream martial arts literature. Many of today’s Asian martial art movies explore this theme. Recent fine examples are Jet Li’s Fearless (2007), Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Hiroyuki Nakano's Samurai Fiction (1998), and Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010) which commemorate and honor the Win Chun master Ip Man who taught Bruce Lee.


There are historical reasons why Japanese understanding of Confucianism has a martial slant. Confucianism in Japan grew since the late twelfth century with the rise of warrior bushi (samurai) class. The main transmitter of Confucianism was Chinese Zen Buddhists who came to Japan to spread their teachings. Chinese priests  taught not only Buddhism but also Confucianism and Daoism, since they were inextricably intertwined with their understanding of Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on pursuing the enlightenment through self-discipline and meditation had a strong appeal to the warrior class. (Aristocrats gravitated toward Tendai and Shingon sects which are rich in elaborate rituals, and commoners, toward Pure Land sects which promised salvation though chanting Buddhist scriptures.)  Confucius strove to achieve peace and prosperity through better governance during the civil war era. The Japanese warrior class who were fighting to gain political power found ideal moral guidance in Confucius’ words.


Since the late twelfth century, the bushi class gradually wrestled the political power from the emperor, aristocrats, and Buddhist temples. In the mid-sixteenth century, the peasant-turned-soldier Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) united Japan.  In the early seventeenth century, the Tokugawa Shogunate who took the power from the Toyotomi clan adopted Confucianism as the state moral philosophy. The Edo era (1603-1868) under the Tokugawa Shogunate was the time where Japan developed economically and culturally to form the foundations of modern Japan. Confucianism and Zen Buddhism had significant influence on the Edo culture as the political elites' philosophy.  Zen has inner connections not only to Bushido (the way of worrier) of the bushi  class  and their understanding of Confucianism,  but also to many Japanese art forms, such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, black and white painting, and haiku.


The Tokugawa Shogunate decreed that there were four classes of people; bushi, peasants,  craftsmen, and merchants. Though the imperial family still held the court in Kyoto, the aristocrats had no real political power. In Tokugawa Japan, in order to officially participate in politics, one had to be a bushi.  (This does not mean money could not buy influence.)  In contrast, the Chinese imperial system since the Song dynasty (960-1279) deliberately cultivated the Confucian literati class to become civil servants in order to control the warrior clans that had held political power until the Tang dynasty era; military officers were placed one rank below civil servants. (More about the Chinese civil service examination system in  Women in Water Margin.)


            Once the Tokugawa clan unified Japan, bushi were forbidden to fight without official permission, and basically became civil servants to help run the government. (In early years, unemployed samurai called ronin attempted rebellions.) Even when their daily duties were that of civil servants, being bushi presupposed the possibility of facing life-or-death, kill-or-to-be-killed situations. Bushi were to be martial, living according to the code of professional military class, having skill and discipline, and knowing when and how to use the skill to serve higher moral purposes, even at the cost of sacrificing one’s own life or one’s own salvation because of the killing.


At the philosophical level, this martial orientation manifest as heavier weight placed on the virtue named yi (justice or righteousness ).  Such a view is not unheard of in China, either. The famous late South Song dynasty era politician and general Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283) expressed such a view well.


Wen Tianxiang was a brilliant student, passed the local civil service examinations at the young age of 18, and passed the court examination at 20, placing the first . By this time, the Mongols conquered the northern China and started to attack the Song territory in the south. Wen Tianxiang served in several court posts, and fought the Mongols as a general. In 1276 he was granted the rank of Prime Minister. After the failed negotiation with his Mongolian counterpart Bayan (1236-1394), Wen Tianxiang was captured, but managed to escape, and over two years led insurgency forces against the Mongols. In 1278, Wen Tianxiang was recaptured and sent to the Mongol capital of Daidu (Beijing). In prison, Wen Tianxiang was urged (tortured) to write a letter to recommend the remaining Song force to surrender. He wrote a poem declaring that as all men had to die, it was better to remain loyal to the country.


After the Southern Song dynasty was vanished in 1279, Kublai Khan (1215-1294), who had established the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1271, tried multiple times to persuade Wen Tianxiang to serve him. Wen Tianxiang refused and wrote a famous poem titled the Song of Rightfulness (正気歌) which declared that it was against the natural order of the universe for him to serve Kublai. Kublai and his court officials respected Wen Tianxiang deeply, and even considered a clemency for him on the condition that Wen Tianxiang would retire from the world of politics. However, it was obvious that, once released, Wen Tianxing would become the focus of insurrection force. After four years of imprisonment, Wen Tianxiang was executed in 1283. Kublai lauded Wen Tianxiang as a “real man.”  Wen Tianxiang was long remembered as the true patriot and his Song of Rightfulness remained in circulation. His story was introduced to Japan in the mid-Edo era, and has remained popular ever since.


            Wen Tianxiang wrote his farewell poem that says: “Confucius talked about achieving ren, and Menzius, pursuing yi. Being able to pursue yi to the end presupposes possessing ren. Studying the sages’ books teaches me no more than that.  If I pursue yi as well as I can and achieve ren through it, I will be as close as I can to being without shame.” This sentiment is very close to Japanese interpretation of Confucian ethics.  Chinese and Korean Confucian scholars may frown at or qualify such a view.


A Note on Shinto

The Japanese indigenous religion of Shinto is a natural religion, the amalgamation of indigenous folkloric customs. When the Yamato dynasty, the first dynasty of lasting significance,  established their hold on power in central Japan in the early seventh century, the imperial house started to reorganize existing Shinto myths. The imperial house claimed that they were the descendant of the Sun goddess Amaterasu who had created the country. Since she was the founder of the country, she was on the top of the gods’ hierarchy, which entitled her descendants, the Yamato clan, to rule the land. Shinto at this time (and until the Meiji era) was mostly the matter of venerating different gods related to families and communities, not a state religion.


As the state religion, the Yamato dynasty chose Mahayana Buddhism, partly because the better established dynasties of China and Korea had already embraced Mahayana Buddhism. Shotoku Taishi (commonly believed 574-622), the most revered prince of Japanese history, is usually credited for having established Buddhism in Japan. The legend tells that he was a devote Buddhist since childhood. He sent missions to China to learn more about Buddhism, as well as commissioned the building of a number of temples. Though Confucianism and Daoism were also imported, they were accepted in limited ways. Daoism as existed in China could not be imported to Japan because Daoism was so intimately tied to China’s geography and folk customs. Daoism in Japan was a reference point of the intellectuals and not the adopted religious custom. (This is similar to the current situation in the West where intellectuals are fascinated by Daosim as philosophy but indifferent to Daoism as religion.) Daoism was used to supplement Shinto with more advanced divination and ghost busting techniques, and with medical knowledge.  Though Japanese imported some Daoist gods, they came to be regarded as Shinto gods. Japanese do not share the Daoist concepts of knowing when to stop and of the yin and yang of action and reaction; Japanese tend to see pushing forward regardless of the circumstances is an admirable thing.

Though Shotoku Taishi used Confucian ideas such as the importance of royalty to one’s master in his famous Seventeen Charters that defined the foundation of the ancient Japanese government, Confucianism was treated as a part of Buddhism, rather than the philosophy on its own right. Through its tie to the imperial and other powerful aristocratic families, Buddhists played important roles in the ancient and medieval Japanese history. As it was the case with Buddhist and Daoism deities in China, Buddhist and Shinto deities, including the imported originally Daoist ones,  were often believed to be the same deities manifested in different ways. Buddhist and Shinto deities were often venerated side by side at the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.


Confucianism gained crucial importance in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa Shogunate embraced Confucianism as its state philosophy. The Tokugawa Shogunate also made all Japanese register at Buddhist temples of their preferred sect. Shinto also lived on as the family and community customs. Thus, the Tokugawa government established the pattern in Japan where Confucianism lived side by side with Shinto and Buddhism.


The Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country to the Western traders, except the Dutch who did not try to proselytize the Japanese. Japan lived in the self-imposed isolation until the mid-nineteenth century when the Westerners used their superior military power to force Japan to open the ports for trade. Japan went through a period of fierce political debate about how to deal with the Westerners, which led to the civil war between the faction that wanted to reform the Shogunate and the faction that wanted to remake the Japanese society by creating a modified constitutional monarchy with the emperor as the patriarch. The latter faction won and formed the new government (the Meiji Restoration 1868).


Shinto went through a radical transformation after the Meiji Restoration. Knowing that China had been forced to accept unfair trade treaties with the Western countries, the founders of the Meiji government wanted to create a modern Japan that could resist the Western colonizers. (Japan did have to accept unfair trade treaties and spent a long time trying to reverse these treaties.) They decided to introduce an accelerated modernization of industry from top down and reorganize the feudal society into a state by creating the national identity centered upon the emperor.


The Meiji Constitution (1889) declared that the emperor was a living god. Modeled after the Prussian constitution, the Meiji Constitution gave the emperor the supreme power in every aspect of governance. The constitution introduced the National Diet system. The lower house of was to be democratically elected (by the males who paid more than a certain amount of tax). The upper house was consisted of aristocrats. The Diet was to write laws, but could not enact the laws. The emperor was the sole enactor of the laws; the Diet was merely to assist the emperor. The judiciary, cabinet, military were also to assist and advise the emperor. Though the people had rights such as freedom of speech and religion under this constitution, the rights were described as “benevolent gifts” from the emperor. It was a radical departure from the previous Edo era when the emperor had no role in common people’s lives.


With the constitution, the Meiji reformers established the new state religion out of Shinto. The Meiji government removed the imperial family from their traditional tie to the Shingon (True Words) Buddhism sect, and started new Shinto ceremonies as state functions. The government also tried to purify Shinto by separating it from Buddhism, which led to the destruction of Buddhist temples (1870-1871). (Despite this, Japan still boasts having 75,000 Buddhist temples and Buddhist customs are part of everyday life.) The government also mandated that Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, as well as schools, must preach that the emperor was a living god. The government claimed that Shinto was not religion but the practice of traditional custom, and, therefore, it does not violate the freedom of religion stated in the Meiji Constitution.


As a part of the effort to forge a new national identity, the Meiji government made Tokyo dialect taught as the standard spoken Japanese. (The dialects variations were large enough to make communication sometimes impossible among native speakers of Japanese.) Even though they did not totally abandon the traditional ways, the Japanese complied with the government’s demand in learning Tokyo dialect and accepting the state-mandated Shinto. Since Japan had developed a civil society during the Edo era, Japan succeeded in a swift industrialization and modernization.


The Meiji Constitution lacked the idea of civilian control; the military answered to the emperor but not to the parliament, cabinet, or judiciary. Once the generation that guided the Meiji reforms was gone, the military started to abuse this constitutional blind spot. Theoretically, the emperor could rein the military in. However, the reality was messier. Taisho Emperor (1912-1926) who succeeded Meiji Emperor was physically frail, which made it progressively difficult for him to perform public functions. Since around 1917, he was too ill to function as the emperor and passed away in 1926. Showa Emperor assumed the throne at the age of 25. Lacking good advisors, the young rookie emperor made unwise decisions on some important events, which made it difficult for him to assert his authority over the military brass. The military increasingly acted as they wished under the pretext of serving the emperor. No politician pulled enough weight to stand up against the military. So, though he from time to time expressed his objection to the hawkish attitude of the military, the emperor by and large passively tagged along with the expansion of militarism; invasion of China, establishment of the colony Manchu Cuo, and on to the Pearl Harbor attack.

When it became apparent that Japan was going to lose the war, the uncertainty of what would happen to the emperor if Japan surrendered delayed the government's decision to surrender. In the end, the emperor, then 39,  took the initiative to accept the unconditional surrender, though his fate was uncertain. After the surrender, in cooperation with the American GHQ, the emperor declared on the New Year's Day of 1946 that he was not a living god but a human. The new constitution of Japan (1947), written under the supervision of the GHQ, defines the emperor as the symbol of national unity.


 Today, if you ask what religion they follow, most Japanese would say that they do not follow any religion. This is mostly because the word religion is understood to mean only revealed religions. But they still follow the traditional religious customs. They venerate Shinto deities, less out of conviction but out of custom, on traditional occasions such as New Year's Day and festivals; some still keep kamidana ( a shelf reserved for the veneration of gods) at home.  When a death occurs, most Japanese go to a Buddhist temple for the funeral ceremony. The Japanese still read the Analects as their classic and seek moral guidance from it. Though they know magic stories of Daoism as religion through shared cultural literacy, Japanese regard Daoism as Chinese religion, not theirs. Nonetheless, Japanese and other East Asians recognize having a common bond in people’s shared understanding of human morality, i.e., in Confucianism.



Higeyoshi Murakami, Nihon Shukyo Jiten (Encyclopedia of Religions in Japan) (Tokyo: Kodan-sha, 1988).

Kazuhiro Takii , The Meiji Constitution: The Japanese Experience of the West and the Shaping of Modern State (Tokyo: I-House Press, 2007).

Toshimaro Ama, Nihonjin ha naze Mushukyo nano ka (Why Are the Japanese “Religionless”?) (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1996).

Eiichi Shibusawa,  Koushi: Ningen Dokomade Okiku Nareruka (Confucius, or How Great a Human Can Grow ), ed. Takeuchi Hitoshi (Tokyo, Mikasa Shobo, 1996).

Daisetsu Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist Society, 1938). 

Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Co., 2000)

Yu Dan, Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World (New York: MacMillan, 2009). (The quote is from p. 42-43.)

Yoshinor Kono, Bujutu no Shin Ningen-gaku (Martial Arts as the Study of Humanity) (Tokyo:  PHP, 2002).

Jun Zako, Bun Ten no Shogai (The Life of Wen Tianxiang) (Tokyo: Shobun-sha Japan, 1996).

Yukio ItoShowa Tenno-den (Showa Emperor: A Biography) (Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 2011).

John W. Dower carefully rebuts the widely held belief that the Japanese had no intention of surrendering in his Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq (New York: Norton & Co., 2010), p. 225-241.