O'Leary on Bowring, 'In Search of the Way: Thought and Religion in Early-Modern Japan, 1582-1860'

Richard Bowring
Joseph S. O'Leary

Richard Bowring. In Search of the Way: Thought and Religion in Early-Modern Japan, 1582-1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv + 329 pp. $111.55 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-879523-0.

Reviewed by Joseph S. O'Leary (Professor English Literature, Sophia University, 1988-2015; Roche Chair for Interreligious Research, Nanzan University, 2015-16.)
Published on H-Buddhism (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Erez Joskovich

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49178

This masterful account of the intellectual and spiritual life of Edo Period Japan is a sequel to Bowring’s The Religious Traditions of Japan 500-1600 (2005), and no doubt will be followed by a third volume on the period since the Meiji Restoration. Bowring’s writing becomes more engaging as he moves toward modern times, and we may augur that the final volume, when he rejoins his original field of study—seen in Mori Ōgai and the Modernization of Japanese Culture (1979)—will be the most exciting of the three. The very broad cultural and literary horizons from which he approaches his ambitious project are further illustrated in his studies of Lady Murasaki—see The Diary of Lady Murasaki (1996)—and his work with Peter Kornicki on The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan (1993).

The first volume of Bowring’s history covered Buddhism extensively, even giving an account of Chinese Chan as background to the Japanese Zen schools, but in the present volume Buddhism is put on the back burner and is seen mainly through the eyes of its opponents. The period began with a “collapse in the prestige of Buddhism” (p. 304), which ceased to be a foremost player in Japanese intellectual and political life. Strong on the institutional aspects and the social contexts of Buddhism, Bowring is not as fascinated by the intricacies of Buddhist thought as he is by Shintō and Confucianism, and he seems to slight such Edo Period Buddhist luminaries as Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645), unmentioned, and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), mentioned only fleetingly.

The first part of the book, covering the years 1582-1680, gives a very lucid account of the political policies adopted to suppress Christianity and regulate Buddhism. Intellectual highlights are the “Confucian turn” embodied by Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) along with the individualistic Nakae Tōju (1608-48) and Kumazawa Banzan (1619-91), the “way of the kami” championed by Yamazaki Ansai (1618-82), the “way of the warrior,” represented by Yamaga Sokō (1622-85), and “the way of man” represented by Itō Jinsai (1627-1705). Bowring generously translates illuminating passages from these and other major thinkers.

A very interesting feature of these years is the rapprochement between Shintō and Confucianism, in opposition to Buddhism. The energetic Deguchi Nobuyoshi (1615-90) of Ise, who sought to revive the Watarai Shintō tradition, had trouble purging it of Buddhist (Shingon) elements and turned to Cheng-Zhu metaphysics as an alternative, expounding Shintō in Confucian terms. Long before, Shintō’s quest for an intellectual foundation had used Daoist and Confucian terms “in an attempt to fill the void when Buddhism was removed from the equation” (p. 93). Deguchi’s tradition sought purity though a return to “primeval nonduality, when ‘Yin and Yang had not yet separated’” (p. 94). Esoteric Buddhism affected its shift to individual prayer that bypassed priestly mediation, though the Buddhist ideas are “cloaked in Confucian prose”: “one breathes with the breath of an empty and pure mind” (p. 96). Meanwhile from the Confucian side, Razan’s dislike of Buddhism led him to create “his own special form of Shintō imbued with Confucian values” (p. 93). A favored topos was the identification of the three regalia of Shintō with the Confucian virtues of wisdom, benevolence, and valor. Tōju, “a maverick, uncompromising and courageous to boot” (p. 71), which could describe several other figures in this history, rejected Razan’s minor accommodations to Buddhism as unprincipled.

The period from 1580 to 1786 was less militaristic and encouraged learning, with a leading role taken by the academies of Ansai and Jinsai on the opposite sides of the Horikawa canal in Kyoto. Here Bowring adverts to the growth of Buddhist scholarship and some “significant movements for reform” (p. 181), but he tends to regard much of this as “navel-gazing” (p. 183). Popular movements such as the cult of Mt. Fuji, street preaching, and pilgrimage are noted, and pride of place is given to figures who remain on the margin of Buddhist establishments, such as Ishida Baigan (1684-1744), Bankei (1622-93), and Masuho Zankō (1655-1742), who “gave up Buddhist practice and instead turned himself into a popular Shintō street preacher” (p. 191). Bowring ends this discussion with the startling figure of Tominaga Nakamoto (1715-46), “one of the most original, fresh thinkers of his age, which is precisely why to his contemporaries he seemed an impossible liability”; he produced “a truly devastating critique of faith” (p. 194). Another strong character in whom one may sense the note of modernity, albeit in a sweepingly negative guise, is Dazai Shundai (1680-1747), author of an influential Political Economy, who poured contempt on Shintō and Buddhism from a Confucian perspective, but whose own social philosophy was impractical and made him a despairing critic of Japan’s rulers.

When Confucianism became oppressive and seemed to be making the Japanese mind stiltedly Sinitic, relief came from an unexpected quarter, not from Buddhism but from a rediscovery of old Japanese poems and sagas that had seemed just a background murmur. This came to a head in the third period, 1786-1860, in the work of Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), who urged the Japanese to enjoy their own culture more: “Honestly, the Way of the Sages is all about keeping the world at peace; nothing to do with personal enjoyment” (quoted, p. 256). His intoxicating proposal to desensitize Japan and return to the pure Japanese spirit of the Man’yoshu and the Kojiki as he had deciphered it is somewhat contradicted by his elaborate instructions for his funeral, “carried out in accordance with Pure Land Buddhist practice” (p. 267).

I suggest that the current enthusiasm for teaching the “philosophy” of all cultures in departments of philosophy comes to grief here. Norinaga was the greatest thinker of his period, yet his thought is indissociable from grammar and refined appreciation of literature, and as such has no place on a philosophy syllabus; and many cultures have produced comparable great thinkers whom philosophy cannot handle. None of the thinkers Bowring discusses can be taken out of their social, cultural, or religious contexts to be treated as “philosophers” in the Western sense. Though elements of philosophy can be found in them, they are embedded thinkers who would lose all their force and attraction if slotted into a philosophy curriculum.

The subtle, skeptical, and versatile Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) was Norinaga’s nemesis, querying his claim to recover the spoken language of ancient Japan; then a Buddhist priest, Fujiwara Teikan, enraged him by the claim “that Japanese culture had come from China and Korea and that neither the Kojiki nor the Nihon shoki could be trusted” (p. 271). Nevertheless, even such critics agreed with Norinaga that “Buddhism and Confucianism had run their course” (p. 274).

Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) was something of a Norinaga redivivus. “Norinaga died before Atsutane had even come across his name” (p. 282), but he claimed to have been accepted by the dead master in a dream. He had sharp political preoccupations, such as fear of Russian encroachment in northern Japan, and his wide curiosity about the world of spirits led him to read proscribed Chinese works, even Christian ones such as those of Matteo Ricci. His effort to sketch a cosmic Shintō that could rival Buddhism and Christianity was poorly appreciated by the more philological disciples of Norinaga. Atsutane’s fascination with the world of spirits led him to adopt two boys successively. The first boy regularly visited the realm of the dead, and described it in terms matching Atsutane’s own conceptions. The second was a reincarnation of another boy; Atsutane “systematically expunged the Buddhist elements of the tale” (p. 285).

Professor Bowring’s book is packed with information and insight, and will be revisited again and again by those who want to understand Japanese intellectual tradition. It is immaculately produced, and misprints are so few that they can be listed: “a unrivalled” (p. 45); a missing “of” (p. 63); “Kamumusubi” for “Kamimusubi” (p. 279); “encense” for “encens,” “Japonaise” for “Japonaises,” and “Späten” for “späten” (p. 316); “Dunkan” for “Duncan” (p. 320). Due to careless binding, pp. 51-66 in my copy were displaced and followed p. 82. Also irritating is the pervasive suppression of capital letters in titles.

The book captures well the vitality of a nation in which three internally diversified traditions (Confucianism, Shintō, and Buddhism) interacted in a great variety of ways, often in the persons of intensely original intellectuals. Should we regret that the Christian contribution was rejected and that knowledge of the West was restricted? That in any case left Japan to develop maximally its own resources, so that when Western science and philosophy and Christian missions came flooding into Meiji Japan Japanese thinkers could hold their own and receive the new influences discriminatingly and creatively.


Citation: Joseph S. O'Leary. Review of Bowring, Richard, In Search of the Way: Thought and Religion in Early-Modern Japan, 1582-1860. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49178

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