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Journal of Japanese Philosophy

Volume 6, 2020

Thomas P. Kasulis
Pages 1-22

Inoue Tetsujirō (井上哲次郎, 1855–1944)
The Confucian Way and the Wayward Confucian

There is no arguing the impact of Inoue Tetsujirō on the development of philosophy in Japan from the Meiji Restoration through the end of the Pacific War. He was the first Japanese to receive a doctorate in philosophy from Germany and the first native-born chair of the philosophy department at Tokyo Imperial University, the training center for almost all the major Japanese philosophers who graduated before 1915. Inoue was instrumental in making German idealism the Western philosophy of choice for Japan, but he also appreciated Asian traditions as well, having no qualms about claiming there was true philosophy in India, China, and premodern Japan. He set the foundation for academic philosophy in Japan not so much through his own rather simplistic personal philosophy, but especially through his contributions to the organization of the field. This article focuses mainly on Inoue’s troubled relation with Confucianism. On one hand, in seeking a premodern philosophy to serve as the bedrock for modern Japan, Inoue looked to the Edo-period (1601–1868) Confucian traditions originating in China. He divided them into Shushigaku (朱子学, the Zhu Xi school), Yōmeigaku (陽明学, the Wang Yangming school), and what he named Kogaku (古学), the school focusing on classical texts preceding neo-Confucian developments and interpretations. In many respects, like so many others of his generation, Inoue was by training and personal preference a Confucian. That is not the whole story, however. Inoue understood Confucianism’s primary purpose as cultivating the social values and order that would ensure an efficient society of human flourishing, stability, and harmony. Yet, he also likely suspected that the people of the new Japan, with its modernization and plethora of Western ideas, would not unquestioningly accept the authority of the Confucian classics, nor be willing to undertake the rigors of textual study that are the hallmark of the Confucian scholar. In Edo-period Japan, that study had been the responsibility of the samurai class, but in their democratization program, the Meiji reformers had abolished the old class system. Education of the young would now shift from the Confucian academies to the new public school system. Always cooperative with the government to the point of being obsequious, Inoue took a leading role in the National Morality program and its installment in the nationwide school curriculum. That curriculum combined a Shinto-based reverence for the sacred nature of the emperor in the kokutai (国体) ideology along with practical moralistic values that could be loosely called Confucian. Yet, if schooling for most was limited to the elementary level and if there was no longer a samurai class to oversee the moral behavior of the society, who could nurture and enforce the moral order? Through a set of fortuitous events, Inoue “discovered” bushidō (武士道), the Way of the warrior. If there were no longer a samurai warrior class, perhaps all Japanese could become de facto samurai—at least in their mindset. Most may no longer have the scholarly skills and time to glean their spiritual and moral insights from Confucian texts. Yet, they could find the virtues of loyalty, sincerity, filiality, and compliance with seniority within the distinctively mindful heart and spirit of ancient Japan carried within the Japanese bloodline. What happened to the Confucianism of Inoue Tetsujirō? Some of its values were absorbed into bushidō and National Morality, but the praxis of the Confucian scholar and the ideal of the kunshi (君子) seem to have been lost, much to Japan’s detriment.

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