Japan and Confucianism in Art and Society Essay

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When Neo-Confucianism arrived in Japan in the 16th century, it built on the pre-existing ideas of Confucianism that had already been imported into the island centuries earlier (Tsutsui 104). As far back as the 5th century, the Japanese had mixed with Confucian ideas about society and the role of the person in the world. Confucian ideas taught the Japanese about what it means to be a moral person. However, the Japanese also incorporated Buddhist concepts into their culture -- and these focused on the metaphysical side of nature and how to define reality (or unreality). These two systems of thought, along with Taoism, molded Japan for hundreds of years. By the time Neo-Confucianism arrived, the Japanese were ready to address the issues that the schools left unresolved. Buddhism presented life as basically unreal and that nirvana was the real reality. Confucianism taught values about society and how to respect life, but it did not provide satisfactory answers to some of life's questions (Reid 19). Neo-Confucianism served to reconcile these differences in Japan by promoting reality as real and virtue as part of one's duty.

Prince Shotoku Taishi (6th-7th century) made the 17 Article Constitution for Japan. It was built on principles from both Confucianism and Buddhism. The Confucianism provided the ideals that Japanese should work to achieve -- such as the gentleman ideal -- and the Buddhism provided the ethical structure for the society. In this way, the Japanese set up their culture as a composite of two philosophical frameworks that governed that behaviors and social mores of the people for hundreds of years.

Around one thousand years later, during the Tokugawa period in Japan, the ethical systems that had been promoted by Taishi needed revitalizing. This is when Neo-Confucianism came into being in Japan. This was a philosophy that made definitive answers to questions about the nature of the world and the role of the individual in society. It resolved questions such as whether reality actually existed -- according to Confucianism, it did -- and strongly appealed to the samurai in Japan.

Zhu Xi was responsible for bringing Neo-Confucianism to Japan. He was Chinese and lived during the 12th century AD. Japanese monks who had visited China in the 15th century AD learned the teachings of Zhu Xi and returned to Japan to spread the ideas of Neo-Confucianism. They led the revival of this kind of thought at a time when the country was in great need of direction because of much fighting that had happened on the island.
Neo-Confucianism was a positive force in Japan at this time because it promoted unity among the three different main philosophies in Asia -- Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism (Tucker 495). Prior to the arrival of Neo-Confucianism in Japan it was not seen how these three philosophies could go together, even though the first two were used by Taishi to form a Constitution so many years before. The Japanese referred to the unity that Neo-Confucianism gave to the people as Sankyo, which is translated into English as the "Three Religions." In Japan, the union of these three religions, supported by Neo-Confucian philosophy helped to unify Japan culturally and socially.

Part II: Confucian Art Work in Japan

The "3" aspect of Sankyo was incorporated into Japanese art to celebrate the unification of the three religions in Japanese culture under Neo-Confucianism (Stunkel 17). There is the picture of Sankyo, the Three Patriarchs; the Sansan-zu, the Three Sages Tasting Vinegar; and the Kokei Sansho, Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine. These three types of artistic composition can be seen below with a brief description of each one.

Figure 1. Close-up of the "Three Patriarchs: Confucius (hat), Buddha (curled hair), and Lao Tzu (white-haired elder). By Hasegawa Tousetsu - (+1539-1610) at Egawa Museum, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan." http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/japanese-confucianism.html

In the painting of the Three Patriarchs, shown above, Buddha

is in the middle, Lao Tzu is on the right, and Confucius is on the left.

The three are huddled together, representing a philosophical triumvirate that united Japan in the 15th-16th centuries thanks to the Japanese monks who traveled to China to discover Neo-Confucianism. Artworks like this were painted in the 16th century to commemorate the cultural patriarchy that these three philosophers represented for the Japanese. This picture appears at the bottom of a scroll that hangs in Hyogo Prefecture (see right).

It was originally painted by the Japanese Zen priest named Josetsu

for the Ryosokuin Temple in Kyoto.

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In the painting of the Three Sages Tasting Vinegar, a symbolic element is evident in the construction of the portrait. Confucius is again represented on the left and is painted in a manner that shows him interfering with rules and how one should behave. The Buddhist is depicted in the middle as being in control, practicing denial and generally being unappreciative; and Lao Tzu is on the right showing a good nature that is appreciative, harmonious and naturally light. The vinegar represents life and nature -- and the Three Sages are circled around it offering their approaches to it.

Figure 2. Three Sages Tasting Vinegar: Confucius, Buddha, Lao-tsu; Muromachi Period

by Keison ( -- ), Fukaji Temple -,Shizuoka Prefecture. http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/japanese-confucianism.html

In the painting of the Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine, the same "3" depiction is used again. Here the figures represent Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The figures depicted are the poet Tao Yuanming, the Taoist Lu Xiujing and the Buddhist Huiyuan. The poet and the Taoist go to visit the Buddhist. To get there they must cross the bridge that goes over the Tiger Ravine. The Buddhist lives as a hermit and has sworn that he will never go back over the bridge. Yet, when the two visitors depart he walks with them to the river and the three are so immersed in conversation that the Buddhist keeps walking with them right over the bridge to the other side. When the three realize what has happened they begin to laugh. The depiction has symbolic meaning: the poet represents the rules and strict adherence of law that is Confucianism; the Buddhist represents Buddhism and renunciation, and the Taoist represents the Tao.

Figure 3. Three Laughers at Tiger Ravine by Chuan Shinko -- (mid +15C). Tokyo Nat'l Museum. http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/japanese-confucianism.html

The bridge represents the "way" to the other shore of life and the three walking the bridge together represents the idea that no one philosophy alone is sufficient to get to the other side -- but instead the three have to go together. This is what Japan celebrated about Neo-Confucianism, because it reconciled the different philosophies and showed that they can fit together for the society (Huang 300).

These three works of art are pre-modern and come from the Muromachi and Edo periods of Japan (1400 to 1850, circa). The togetherness of the three philosophers reflects the ecumenical doctrine of the Neo-Confucian standpoint. A closer look at each of the three paintings can shed more light on what this ecumenical doctrine was and how it came to be viewed.

In Josetsu's Three Patriarchs, the three fathers of Japan's main religious beliefs were Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha. Separately they did not advance the aim of unity or togetherness in Japan. It was thanks to the Constitution of Prince Shotoku Taishi that two of the main religions were put together to help move Japan forward as a unified state. However, many years past and this union fell apart through in-fighting among the various parts and regions of Japan. A new vision was needed to bring the people back together again. This vision was found in Neo-Confucianism, which held that apart, each of the philosophers and religious founders would drive the Japanese people away from one another. Together they could bring the people under one roof. That was the main idea of Neo-Confucianism: each of the three could offer a view of life that was respectable and respected by the others. Each would in its own way say something about the world and about how the individual should view it. So it was that the Three Patriarchs are united in Josetsu's painting in the Temple in Kyoto.

In Fukaji Temple is Keison's painting of the Three Sages tasting vinegar. In this painting, the three characters are representative of the Three Patriarchs, but they also characters from the tale behind the title of the painting. The tale goes like this: One day, Su Dongpo (a Chinese poet) and Huang Shangu went to the temple to seek Foyin the monk. Foyin brought wine out for his guests. It was supposed to be sweet wine, but when they all tasted it at the same time, they were shocked to taste that it was bitter. The….....

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Works Cited

Elisonas, Jurgis. "Journey to the West." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 34, no. 1 (2007): 27-66.

Fujita, Neil. Japan's Encounter with Christianity. NY: Paulist Press, 1999. Print.

Huang, Siu-chi. Essentials of Neo-Confucianism. NY: Greenwood, 2001. Print.

Paramore, Kiri. Japanese Confucianism. NY: Columbia University, 2016. Print.

Reid, T. R. Confucius Lives Next Door. NY: Vintage, 2000. Print.

Stunkel, Ken. Ideas and Art in Asian Civilizations. NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Tsutsui, William. A Companion to Japanese History. UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Tucker, John. "A History of Japanese Political Thought (review)." Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 40, no. 2 (2014): 495-500.

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