return to Articles and Chapters

Kyoto, Japan October 15, 2000

Symposium on the 270th Anniversary of the Founding of Shingaku
Shingaku and Twenty-First Century Japan

by Robert N. Bellah


It is a great honor for me to be here and have the privilege of addressing you. It is also poignant for me personally to be returning in these days of my retirement to the period, nearly fifty years ago, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on Ishida Baigan and the beginning of the Shingaku movement. I am pleased that the book that came out of my dissertation, Tokugawa Religion, helped make Baigan and Shingaku better known in the West, and perhaps, in translation, in Japan as well. I am still convinced that Baigan and Shingaku have much to tell us today.

I want to begin with a few words about Baigan himself. The highlights of his life, even though familiar to many of you, are worth remembering. The "closed country" (sakoku) of the Tokugawa Period was anything but static, and the ferment and excitement that were evident in so much of that period were never more obvious than in the early eighteenth century when Baigan lived. Although the Tokugawa shogunate could be heavy-handed and did on occasion strike out against what it thought were overly critical thinkers or lax morals, it lacked either the apparatus or the will to control closely the spontaneous social and cultural creativity of the people. Although the samurai class considered itself the bearer of high culture, particularly Confucian culture, and itself made significant intellectual contributions, new ways of thinking and feeling were also appearing widely among the commoner classes, both merchants and farmers. It is in this atmosphere of innovation and experimentation that we can understand the life of a person such as Ishida Baigan.

Baigan was not alone in opening up new possibilities for common people, but his example is a particularly vivid one. While he had no interest in opposing authority, nonetheless in his life he challenged many of the normal expectations of his time. The Tokugawa regime idealized a closed class system where everyone would stay in the class in which he was born, and members of each class would remain within their traditional occupations. Born in a peasant village, Baigan, however, was, at the age of 11, apprenticed to a merchant house in Kyoto, thus changing his class affiliation, as many farm boys did, whatever the bakufu might think. At the age of 15, however, he left his employment and returned to his home village where he remained for eight years. We don't really know why he did this, but the result was serious for his chances for a normal merchant career. Promotion in a merchant house would be normal for someone apprenticed at an early age, but once one's career was interrupted one's later employment at a merchant house would be problematic and the chances for promotion limited. Thus when Baigan returned to merchant employment in Kyoto at the age of 23 his position could only be marginal. However, something had occurred in those eight years at home that would make him more marginal still: he had decided that his real calling was not the life of a merchant but the life of a religious teacher. At first, he felt called to propagate Shinto, and walked around the city ringing a bell in the attempt to attract listeners. Not being very successful, he turned to a life of study in his spare time from his merchant duties and eventually realized that the religious message he was called on to preach was an amalgam of Zen Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism of the Chu Hsi school. In several ways these actions broke the pattern of expectations of his day. Religious callings were hereditary and it was not expected that a peasant turned merchant would pretend to have a religious vocation. Further, serious study was primarily an occupation of the samurai class, although by the time of Baigan merchants and peasants were not unknown to take up scholarly studies. Finally, in exception to the Tokugawa rule that everything should stay in its place, Baigan moved around among all the major religious and philosophical traditions of his day, putting them together in his own unique form.

If in his life Baigan showed a degree of initiative and a willingness to take risks that was not typical, the content of his teaching was equally remarkable. While he was always respectful of authority and never urged opposition to it, he was firm in asserting the dignity of every individual of whatever class, and the capacity of everyone to attain spiritual enlightenment and ethical virtue. In the official Tokugawa view there was a significant difference in status honor between classes, with the samurai being superior, the farmers next, and artisans and especially merchants being slightly disreputable. It is just this that Baigan denies. In his defense of the "way of the merchant," while affirming that merchants had special responsibilities to the society as a whole, he held their activities were just as dignified as those of any other class. There is, finally, only one way:

When one says "the way of the merchant" how can it differ from the way of the samurai, farmer, or artisan? Mencius said, there is only one way. Samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant are each creatures of heaven. In heaven are there two ways?

That a person of Baigan's background would set himself up as a teacher of ethical universalism was not what was expected. To many people the very idea that an old bant˘ (clerk) of a merchant house would suddenly call himself a philosopher and start lecturing to all and sundry was ludicrous in the extreme. Baigan was the disciple of no recognized teacher and belonged to no known school or sect. He was not a priest nor did he have either wealth or position. He humbly claimed to be unlearned and poor in literary style and there were many who leaped to agree with him. He tells us himself in the opening pages of his book Seikaron that many people criticized him, some praised him to his face but laughed at him behind his back, many said that such an unlearned person was not fit to teach others. Further, he tells us that there were those who said he did not compose his own lectures but merely repeated without understanding what he had heard previously.

Yet in spite of his inauspicious beginnings Baigan founded a movement that would reach many thousands of people, the movement that came to be known as Sekimon Shingaku. The content of his teaching was eclectic, drawing from the major traditions of East Asian spirituality: Confucianism, especially of the Chu Hsi school, Mahayana Buddhism, especially of the Zen tradition, and Shinto, especially devotion to the Sun Goddess. What characterized his religious and ethical thought was a consistent universalism. He accepted the Tokugawa status order as the context for his teaching, urging everyone to carry out his duty in his appointed place. But he denied any intrinsic differences between human beings. All had the potentiality to realize their kokoro, their heart/mind, which is identical to the heart/mind of heaven and earth. He believed that a humble peasant who faithfully practiced filial piety was superior to a learned scholar who only preached but did not practice the virtues. And while he emphasized the Confucian virtues having to do with status, such as filial piety and loyalty, he also emphasized universal ethical obligations. "Love men at large and have pity on poor people," he said, and he organized charitable activities for the afflicted in times of flood or famine.

Above all, Ishida Baigan lived what he taught. His whole life was devoted to following the way. In spite of all difficulties he persisted in his vocation of teaching the way to others. When, early in his teaching career, only one student came to attend his lecture and suggested to Baigan that he need not trouble himself for just one person, he replied: "When I began to lecture, expecting to face only the reading stand, I was satisfied if there was an audience of one," and he gave the lecture. And Baigan, unlike many religious teachers before and since, never abused his position for selfish ends of power and money. Living frugally, he gave away anything in excess and his pupils wrote in Ishida Sensei Jiseki:

After his death the things which remained in his house were only three boxes of books, the drafts of his replies to the daily questions of people, his reading stand, his desk, his inkstone, his clothes, and the utensils of his daily use.

Yet it was this man of simple tastes and lifelong devotion who founded a movement that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen and whose influence survives still today.

As I have said, Baigan was only one of many who were opening up new possibilities of social and cultural life in the midst of the Tokugawa Period. My colleague, Tetsuo Najita, Professor of Japanese History at the University of Chicago, has studied the Kaitokud˘ Academy, a merchant school in Osaka, that carried on lively debates about all kinds of issues of the day. More recently Najita has studied the Tekijuku, another Osaka academy, but this one devoted to Dutch Studies (Rangaku), and has written an article on one of its leading figures, Ogata K˘an. What Najita found of interest was K˘an's self-confidence in the face of Western learning. His interest was in medicine and in that field there was much new information to be studied and translations to be made. But on matters of hygiene, exercise and diet, where the Japanese were already aware of what was necessary, he could ignore his Western sources. In short, K˘an studied Dutch books not in order to become Westernized or even to become modernized, but just because they contained useful information that was relevant in a vital and growing society. Many other examples of creativity from middle and late Tokugawa times could be given. The great printmaker Hokusai lived a long and productive life. Perhaps his most productive period was in his eighties, when, under the sponsorship of a wealthy farmer, he moved to a mountain village in Nagano and painted some of his greatest works, calling himself "the mad old painter." What these and many other possible examples illustrate is that in the midst of the period of the closed country (sakoku) there was a remarkable spirit of open country (kaikoku). What was important was not the source of the ideas-whether they came from India or China or the West-but how they could help in thinking through the problems of the day-scientific, economic, social or spiritual. We might almost say that although Baigan lived under the repressive and closed Tokugawa regime, he was surrounded by the spirit of kaikokushugi (openness).

Today it seems obvious that Japan's "modern miracle," its success as the first nonwestern nation to attain equality with the most advanced societies, must have had pre-modern sources. During the nearly half-century since my book Tokugawa Religion was published many studies, including those of Professor Najita that I have just mentioned, have described the vibrancy of economic, social and cultural life in the Tokugawa Period. I was drawn to the study of Japan from my undergraduate days because of the interesting case it presented as a parallel development with the West. The term feudalism, for example, has been very loosely used to describe pre-modern social relations in many societies, but unlike most other examples, Japanese feudalism really did seem to have deep parallels with Western feudalism. Since I was very much influenced by Max Weber's comparative sociology and his sociology of religion in particular, it occurred to me to look into the possibility that there might have been religious tendencies in pre-modern Japan comparable to the Protestant ethic that Weber believed was so important in the modern transformation of the West. It was thus that I chose the topic of Tokugawa religion for my dissertation and that I decided to focus particularly on Shingaku and its founder Ishida Baigan as a type case.

It is hard for us to realize today how optimistic, how euphoric, was the atmosphere in American social science in that first decade after the end of World War II. The belief that social science was rapidly becoming scientific and the belief that its results would be socially beneficial still held together to an extent hard to imagine today, when we have become so much more modest both about social science and about whether the changes produced by modernization are always beneficial. A further presumption of those days which influenced Tokugawa Religion was that the key issue was economic development, that if the economy were sufficiently advanced everything else would take care of itself. Since the development of the modern economy had been problematic ever since the initial takeoff in the early 19th century one could well ask what was the basis of that optimism, except that even today a remarkable optimism about economic growth solving all problems persists, though not in the academic world to the extent it did in the 1950s. But that was the atmosphere in which Tokugawa Religion was written: Japan was transforming itself into "a modern industrial nation," and so it was of interest to understand how its premodern culture might help to account for that success. In this way of thinking the premodern culture, including religion, could too easily be considered merely as a means to the end of economic development and not taken seriously enough in its own terms.

Therefore, the greatest weakness of my book has nothing to do with Japan but with a weakness in the modernization theory I was using: I failed to see that the endless accumulation of wealth does not necessarily lead to a good society but on the contrary can undermine it. For a moment, at the very end of the book, I spoke of Japanese "religion as religion," and much of the descriptive material, including the chapter on Ishida Baigan and the Shingaku movement was a serious effort to understand the nature of religion in the Tokugawa Period in its own terms. But the larger framework of the book did seem to reduce religion to a utilitarian means for economic ends.

In truth, though there is a relationship between religious teachings and economic development, it is a mistake to view religion as simply a means for economic growth. Religion is concerned with matters of ultimate meaning and ethical value. Ishida Baigan, though he preached honesty and hard work, nonetheless was concerned that his disciples discover the Way and act ethically in the world. It was not his purpose, anymore than it was the purpose of the Protestant Reformers, to use religion as simply a utilitarian means to the end of getting rich. Baigan felt that a reasonable profit for merchants was legitimate, and equivalent to the stipend that samurai received, but he felt the basic calling of the merchant was to render service to society, not to maximize profit at the expense of all other considerations.

If I focused excessively in Tokugawa Religion on religion and economics, the criticism I received from Maruyama Masao raised the question of the relation between religion and politics, which, from his point of view, had had some unfortunate consequences in modern Japanese history. Since religion is a powerful force, it is not surprising that it will have significant economic and political consequences in any society, and that there is always the possibility that it will be used for ulterior purposes.

Today I would like to spend some time comparing Japan and the United States, noting the striking similarities as well as the deep differences, and keeping in mind that the close relation between the two nations on many levels-economic, political, military, cultural-is not without serious difficulties. Japan and the United States are the two most economically productive societies in the world. That is an important fact to which I will return, but there is another fact, less often noticed, to which I would like to draw attention. There is one particular circumstance of the Japanese and American cases that makes them somewhat different from other countries, and in some respects similar to each other. In both the U.S. and Japan there has been a notion of a special relation between the divine and the nation. Americans have believed that they are a "chosen people," "God's New Israel," a "redeemer nation." Biblical imagery surrounded the American project even from the colonial period, when the notion that the New England colonists were chosen by God for "an errand into the wilderness" to establish "a city on a hill" had already taken hold. The founding of the American Republic at the end of the 18th century combined secular and religious imagery, as when the Great Seal of the United States took as one of its Latin mottoes Novus Ordo Saeclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a quotation from Virgil but with strong New Testament overtones. America was to be a model for the rest of the world, a free democratic republic, an example for all peoples.

This way of thinking continued throughout subsequent American history, assuring Americans in wartime that they were the children of light and their enemies the children of darkness. Both of the World Wars of the 20th century were viewed in these terms and so, of course was the Cold War. The Cold War led some Americans to believe that it was our special mission to lead the "free world" in opposition to the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union and that we were doing God's will in that regard. I would argue that with the end of the Cold War in 1989, if not long before, the understanding of the United States as a "messianic nation" should have come to an end. Nonetheless, under somewhat different guise, that idea survives in the notion that the United States is the model for all other countries in its free market economy and its democratic politics. Even though there is no longer an evil empire to fight, Americans are still trying to export their own version of modernity to all other nations and putting pressure on them to be more like us.

While modern nationalism has carried ideas of national uniqueness and superiority almost everywhere, it would be hard to find a nation that rivals the United States in understanding itself as having a divine mission as much as Japan. The notion that the islands of Japan were created by the gods and that the Japanese Emperor is descended from the Sun Goddess goes back into the earliest layers of Japanese mythology. While these ideas were never entirely lost throughout Japanese history, they were vigorously revived in the Tokugawa Period, especially by the movement known as Kokugaku with its leading thinkers being Motoori Norinaga and Hirata Atsutane. The formation of a strong modern state in the Meiji Period introduced these ideas into popular culture through a variety of symbolic acts and through the teaching of national morality (kokumin d˘toku) and the idea of kokutai in the public schools. The word kokutai doesn't go well into English, but might be translated as Japan's unique national essence. Undoubtedly these ideas did help to create a sense of national identity in a population that had been divided into many feudal domains with a weak central government for centuries. In the late 19th century and early 20th century world of contending nation-states, strong national identity contributed to national survival. However, the idea of Japan's divine mission was also used to justify imperial ambitions in the 1930s and 40s and to legitimate the creation of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japan's leadership, leading Japan into a series of disastrous wars. With the defeat of 1945 and the first time in history that Japan was occupied by a foreign power, these ideas went into eclipse, and were for awhile replaced by talk about democracy.

In recent years, however, a renewed interest in Japan's uniqueness has become widespread. This has taken various forms: Nihonjinron, the theory of the uniqueness of the Japanese people, or Nihonbunkaron, the theory of the uniqueness of Japanese culture. Most recently we have seen the emergence of a new emphasis on national history, Shinkokuminshi. This is interesting because in most of the world at the moment the idea of national history is being neglected. Then of late we have heard from the highest quarters in Japanese politics the idea that "Japan is a divine land with the emperor at its center," and even the revival of the term kokutai. What is happening here? It would seem that just as America's self-understanding as divinely chosen doesn't die easily, neither does Japan's. But perhaps there is some relation between these two phenomena: the pressure from the United States on all other countries including Japan to become like us is stimulating a defensive reaction in Japan and probably elsewhere as well.

Only fifteen years ago in 1985, when the new Introduction to Tokugawa Religion was written, it appeared that Japan would be economically Number One in the 21st century, as a widely read book by Ezra Vogel predicted, and that the United States must imitate Japan to catch up. Today the United States again appears to be Number One, whereas what turned out to be Japan's bubble economy collapsed at the end of the 1980s, and now, ten years later, there are still only a few signs of recovery. It should be remembered that Japan is an enormously wealthy country, with a GNP second only to the U.S., and per capita higher than the U.S. Still, not only many Americans, but many Japanese expect continuous high growth, and if growth falters there is a sense of failure.

One response to this sense of failure is suggested by the report of a commission appointed by the late Prime Minister Obuchi which appeared in January of this year. According to American newspaper reports, the commission recommended rather sweeping changes in Japanese society and in education in particular. Yamamoto Tadashi, executive director of the commission, is reported to have said, "We are really advocating a fundamental reorientation of society. . . [since] . . . our basic premise was that something is basically wrong with society." The commission criticizes the allegiance to rules and conformity which have "leached Japan's vitality."

One recommendation of the report is to make English a "second language" for all Japanese. An inadequate emphasis on knowledge of foreign languages is another characteristic that Japan shares with the United States. Americans have an advantage in that American English is now setting the standard in world communications because of the Internet, as well as because of the widespread use of English in many parts of the world. So American avoidance of foreign language learning could simply be explained as laziness: one can find English speakers almost anywhere, so why learn a foreign language. But there is something else going on here. There is a fear of foreign language in the United States, a fear that has spawned the "English Only" movement, which would prohibit the use of any language other than English in many public situations, including prohibiting bilingual education in the public schools. The English Only movement indicates a fear of "pollution" or "contamination" as though English had a sacred status that must be protected. Something similar seems to have surfaced in Japan in the wake of the recent emphasis on English education. Objections have been raised as to the practicality of universal English teaching and it has been suggested that only the political and economic elites need be proficient in English. But there is also evidence of a fear of pollution not entirely dissimilar to the American anxiety about foreign languages. Takashima Shűji in a recent issue of Japan Echo expressed anxiety about the maintenance of "linguistic sovereignty" in Japan. Takashima suggests that the emphasis on English makes it necessary to "safeguard the Japanese language" as though the widespread teaching of foreign languages actually endangers the native language. Perhaps both Americans and Japanese could learn from Europeans that fluency in foreign languages does not endanger native languages but enhances the capacities of those who are multi-lingual.

The primary emphasis of the commission's report, however, is on "the empowerment of the individual." Yamamoto said, "The 21st century will be the era of individuals. Individuals have become more important through globalization, the Internet, networking." I have not seen the whole report so I can't be sure how accurate the American newspaper account is, but it would seem that the commission was advocating an American-style individualism as a solution to Japan's problems. I have no doubt that there are problems in Japanese society nor do I doubt the ethical importance of respect for the dignity of the individual, which is essential in any modern society; but I do doubt that American-style individualism is a helpful solution to Japan's problems, especially since it seems to be creating serious problems for American society.

In 1985 four coauthors and I published a book called Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (which is available in Japanese translation), which argued that radical individualism, particularly utilitarian individualism in which the pursuit of self-interest is primary, was having a destructive influence on American life to the extent that it was replacing older ethical ideals such as those of Biblical religion and civic republicanism. Just this year Robert Putnam has published a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which provides massive empirical confirmation of the argument of Habits of the Heart and carries it into new territory as well. In the book Putnam describes the sharp decline of what he calls "social capital" in just about every sphere of American life for the last thirty years or more, all the more remarkable since the first sixty or seventy years of the 20th century saw a significant increase in social capital. By social capital Putnam means social connectedness of almost every sort and finds all of them-from voting, to political activism, to membership in a wide variety of civic organizations (he takes his title from the stunning decline of bowling leagues), to informal socializing, including even having dinner with one's own family, to church-going, membership and giving-weaker today than they have been for decades. But more is changing than a decline in belonging of all sorts. Social capital also consists in norms and expectations-that we behave politely in public, for example, or that we expect that most people can be trusted, and all those measures are dramatically down as well.

Putnam's primary explanation is generational change. On almost every variable in which he is interested each generation starts lower than the one before and stays lower. Another important variable in Putnam's analysis, one that overlaps with generation, is television watching. The number of hours spent watching television per person has gone up through the whole period when almost every form of participation has been declining, and again, the increase by generation is clear. But the correlation is not just general, it is quite specific: that is, within every generation, those who watch more television participate less in politics, civic life, informal socializing and religion. It should be noted that many in the younger generations seek meaning and loyal relationships, but it is as though they have lost the capacity to understand and sustain them. That their efforts in this direction are proving to a degree ineffectual is indicated by some of Putnam's more alarming findings: what we might call subjective health as measured by reported headaches, insomnia and indigestion, is actually getting worse with each younger generation, and subjective feelings of happiness are declining as well, counterintuitive findings where we might normally expect that the younger the generation is the healthier and happier it would feel. Putnam argues that American society is in need of a basic transformation. We could say that even if a society is economically successful, if it is depriving its young people of meaning and the capacity for loyal relationships, something is seriously wrong. Is this society, and particularly the radical individualism that is now rampant in this society, what Japan wants to copy?

It could be argued that while too much individualism is bad for Americans, Japanese don't have enough of it, so they need more individualism. I have sometimes imagined that if we could find the perfect mean between Japanese group loyalty and American individualism we would have a really good society. Unfortunately, individualism is not something you can just turn on until you get the right amount and then turn off again. Unless it is located in a strong ethical context and a sense of community obligation, which it was once in the United States, it undermines all forms of social connectedness and cultural meaning. So for the Japanese to become more individualistic in a healthy way would require thinking carefully about the ethical and social context for such a change, something that Prime Minister Obuchi's commission apparently gave little attention to.

In short, if there are problems in Japanese society, as there are in every advanced modern society, there is probably no foreign model which can be adopted to solve them. What is needed is a period of creative experimentation with new ways of thinking and feeling, invented by Japanese themselves, but using whatever resources-from Asia, Europe, America, and the Japanese past-that might be helpful. Strange as it might seem, the middle of the Tokugawa Period, including the Shingaku movement, with its openness and experimentation, might be an example, not to be copied exactly, but to use as a stimulus to creative invention.

But instead of vibrant creativity, the outside observer gets the impression of Japan today as a country mildly depressed, uncertain of its role in the world, and tempted to return to an inward-looking national history and old symbols like kokutai for reassurance. Whereas the middle of the Tokugawa Period saw an atmosphere of openness (kaikokushugi) in the midst of the reality of a closed country (sakoku), today's Japan seems to have an atmosphere of closedness (sakokushugi) in the midst of the reality of an open country (kaikoku).

I have no easy solution for the difficulties of either Japan or the United States. Both of them are facing problems resulting from modernization that no modern society has solved. Both societies are obsessed with the effort to increase economic growth, while both are concerned with problems of national meaning or the lack of it. But maybe we will not even begin to solve our problems unless we question the basic assumptions of modernization itself, particularly the tendency to turn economic growth, which is a legitimate means to attaining a good society, into an end to which everything else must be sacrificed. As I have already noted, in Tokugawa Religion I had allowed modernization theory to lead me astray by presuming that the endless accumulation of wealth and power was good in itself and had not realized that such accumulation unchecked by other considerations leads not to a good society but undermines the conditions necessary for any viable society at all. Modernization everywhere runs the danger of displacing ends by means, of making means into ends, which is the very source of the pathology of modernization.

I would argue that the unique challenge that faces Japan, and that no other society is so capable of accepting, is to create a society in which economics is no longer the master, but only the servant of a genuinely good society. This is a challenge that developing nations would find it very difficult to accept. Feeling that they are economically backward, they are pressed to "catch up" with the advanced nations by making economic growth their primary purpose. But Japan is per capita the richest nation in the world (excepting, perhaps, a couple of small Arab oil kingdoms). Thus Japan could afford to compete with the rest of the world in a different way: not for limitless growth, but for the creation of a society that treats the environment and its citizens respectfully, creating a good form of life which others could be inspired by.

The very thought of a society oriented to something other than continuous economic growth raises real questions. Marxists have argued that it is the nature of capitalism to push for ever increasing levels of profit, regardless of the consequences. Ironically this vision of the world is remarkably similar to the one which the United States is currently pressing all other nations to accept. Globalization is seen as an inevitable process which it is useless to resist. Thomas Friedman, one of the strongest advocates of globalization, even speaks of a "golden straightjacket," that is, a rather rigorous set of requirements for participation in the global market that will then produce "golden" results. From this point of view all efforts of countries in Europe or East Asia to produce a "capitalism with a human face" must necessarily fail. European welfare states must be dismantled. Long-standing Japanese traditions such as lifetime employment, long-term supplier relations and seniority-based pay must be abandoned. Investment in low profit sectors must be reduced.

My colleague at Berkeley, the historian Andrew Barshay, in a book he is writing on Japanese social science, has described the position of the revisionist Marxist economist Baba Hiroji. Baba, writing in the 1980s, warned that there was a "great likelihood that the Japanese system may collapse." According to him it is "the penchant of affluent societies . . . to gear their institutions-and the domain of social and cultural reproduction generally-to [the] pursuit [of] unchecked and self-justifying" growth. The result could be "an irretrievable internal collapse of 'society.'" (It is interesting that Putnam in the subtitle of his book speaks of the "collapse" of American community.) Baba, however, seems to hold out some hope that kaishashugi (companyism, the play on shakaishugi, socialism, doesn't come through in English) might yet create a more human form of capitalism in Japan.

For whatever reason, it is clear that "capitalism" as an idea has never been very popular in Japan. Barshay quotes a Japanese graduate student at Berkeley, a graduate of Tokyo University, as saying "many Japanese are not aware of the fact that Japan is a capitalist country." It is clear that both through government initiatives and through what Baba calls companyism, Japan has been sheltered from some of the more destructive consequences of an obsession with economic profit as an end in itself. But at the moment, under the pressure of "globalization," particularly as it is interpreted in America, all the Japanese forms of shelter are under attack. Am I not being foolish to suggest that there is another option?

Economic sociologists have long argued, following Karl Polanyi, that economies are "socially constructed," that they are not natural forces that exist outside any social context but, on the contrary, that they require particular kinds of social contexts to operate at all. What I am suggesting is that Japan is in a unique position to create a new kind of social context for the economy, in order to make the economy serve society rather than the other way around. What I am also suggesting is that there are extensive cultural resources in all the world's great traditions, and in the Japanese tradition in particular, for making this project possible. I would argue further that it is not the project that I am proposing that is utopian. Rather it is the project of endless economic growth without regard for the consequences that is utopian and unrealistic. I have already pointed out that distinguished analysts have suggested that this course is leading to the "collapse" of society and community, of any source of meaning and loyalty, in both American and Japanese societies.

Although I don't believe that there is any tradition in Japan or anywhere else that can simply be adopted as a solution to our present difficulties, I do think there is much in those traditions that can give us inspiration for the creation of alternatives that are at present scarcely being considered. Let me take as an example the life and work of the man we are gathered here today to honor: Ishida Baigan. Baigan was a merchant and knew the value of the economy to society. As I have said, he believed that merchants should be respected for their contribution to society just as other occupations are respected. Baigan strongly emphasized honesty, hard work, and frugality, the classic virtues of a responsible merchant class in any traditional society. This much we would still affirm today. But what was most important for Baigan was a good form of life to which the economy contributes, but which the economy does not dominate. Primary for Baigan were the ethical obligations of social life. The content of his ethics was drawn largely from Confucianism and emphasized the "five relations" and the primary Confucian virtues. These have been criticized in modern China and Japan as "feudal values," simply reinforcing an obsolete hierarchical and authoritarian society, and they have indeed been used in that way, as, for example, in the teachings of national morality in pre-war Japan. But a deeper understanding of Confucianism, such as that offered by Tu Wei-ming and other scholars today, would hold that Confucianism is concerned not with upholding a particular "feudal" kind of, society, but with the good life for human beings generally. Thus the relation of lord and follower can be interpreted as the set of obligations which citizens owe to each other and to the society on which they depend, as well as the rights that society should guarantee to them. The relations between parents and children, husband and wife, and older and younger siblings can be seen as the basic forms of respect and support which should hold sway within the family. The relation between friend and friend describes that fundamental civic friendship upon which any democratic society must depend. The existence of civic friendship makes it possible for the majority of the population to believe that "most other people can be trusted" and that is one of the most secure foundations for a good society.

The Confucian virtues, particularly jin, which can be translated as benevolence or love, and gi, which can be translated as righteousness or justice, were already interpreted by Baigan to imply an obligation of concern for all members of society and particularly for the poor or those in need because of any catastrophe. While traditional societies were often hard on the environment, they did not have the technological capacity to be as destructive as we are, so that, while a sensitivity to and respect for nature were central in East Asian culture generally and Japanese culture in particular, there was no strong ethic of environmentalism. Here tradition must be supplemented by growing contemporary ethical awareness.

Intrinsic to Baigan's understanding of the ethical life was a spiritual dimension which he expressed as "knowing the nature" or "finding one's lost heart," in the formulation which he took from Mencius. The important thing for Baigan was that life has a larger meaning, that it is not simply a matter of survival or of the endless pursuit of wealth and power. He saw sources of such larger meaning not only in Confucianism but in Buddhism and Shinto as well.

Thus what Baigan was most concerned with would seem to be what it most problematic for young people today in America, but I suspect also in Japan: a sense of larger meaning and an understanding that it is through our connectedness with others that we are fulfilled. What I am suggesting, odd though it might seem, is that we still have much to learn from figures such as Ishida Baigan as we consider in what kind of society we want to live in a world of ever increasing economic pressure.

I want to conclude by pointing out how quickly notions about which nation is "Number One" can change. As I have already said, in 1985 it appeared that Japan would be Number One in the 21st century and that the United States must imitate Japan to catch up. Today the United States again appears to be Number One and all other societies are told to imitate us. But just as Japan stumbled at the end of the 1980s, so can the United States stumble in the not too distant future. There is no one model for a successful society in the 21st Century. Each society must find its own way, but each would do well to draw on the ethical and spiritual resources of the great universal religious traditions. It is in this context that I think Shingaku can still have a voice in the search for a good society in Japan.

return to Articles and Chapters