Blog Entry Week 2

Thomas P. Kasulis in Engaging Japanese Philosophy: A Short History raises an intriguing issue when he confronts Maruyama Masao’s theory that Ogyu Sorai represented an early signal of Japan’s eventual descent into a racist and totalitarian state. In fact, Maruyama connects Sorai to Machiavelli because they both composed their political works to absolute rulers and sought to assist such rulers in maintaining their position, which they posited was more important than personal morality. Moreover, Kasulis claims that Maruyama in his post World War II analysis sees Sorai’s brand of Confucianism as an early example in Japan of politics being separated from any religious or moral principles, which can, in turn be used to explain and comprehend the ethnocentric and facist development of Japan. However, Kasulis makes a compelling argument that Sorai and his understanding of the role of Confuciansim was not just as a tool to provide support to a ruler or shogun’s ability to maintain their authority, but rather a mechanism to chart a path for leaders to be more virtuous and connected with the needs of those who they have authority over. On the one hand it is not hard to see Sorai and his concept of the “accomplished ones” or the ruling classes being an obvious signal and early warning sign of the future fascist and racist Japanese imperial state. Nonetheless, It seems that the Kasulis’ argument is that such an analysis is too simple and reductive. Sorai’s philosophy and Confucianism in general, albeit representing conservative principles, does not inextricably explain the development of the modern state in Japan. Kasulis seems to be arguing that such a post-World War II analysis needs to be confronted in order to better understand the philosophical reach and context of scholars like Sorai. Indeed, Kasulis explains that while Sorai takes a dim view of “Buddhist egalitarianism” and clearly understands that some individuals are simply better than others, he still tasks rulers with needing to be “attentive to the people’s concerns”. This is a much more nuanced analysis of Japanese Confucianism and its import. The interpretations by different Confucian scholars, shows a wide range of beliefs, on many different points along the political spectrum. This is further proof that governments and ideologies are often imbued with contradictory elements and bright lines connecting a philosophical position to a specific political outcome should be viewed with suspicion. In fact, it seems odd that Sorai’s veneration of the sage kings and his emphasis on reading and learning Chinese to properly emulate these sages would be precursor for the ethnoracism displayed by the imperial Japanese regime. Furthermore, Sorai’s respect for the ancient culture of another country does not seem to comport with the imperialistic and nationalistic tendancies that developed in Japan. Kasulis effectively suggests that it is too simple to trace a direct line from philosophers like Sorai to a racist, ethno-nationalist and imperialist Japanese society. While Sorai’s theories seem to neatly fit within a feudal world view it does not seem inevitable or reasonable that such views will lead to facism and racism. Kasulis is clear that his “agenda” is not the same as Maruyama, but obviously he has an agenda as well as well, which is to promote a more complex understanding of Sorai that focus on Sorai philosophy as an intellectual construct, rather than an explanation for how Japan developed politically. This forces one to take sides on whether certain political and philosophical thinkers are best to understand and evaluate independently, or to see them as proof of how state and political movements evolve. Why should a politically conservative philosophy necessarily lead to fasicism? Why should historians be quick to spot connections that support the analysis that suits them rather than to go where the analysis takes them. In a way Kasukis appears to be arguing against a form of outcome bias that connects Sorai to the eventual outcome of the Japanese state even though other factors could be the causal basis for the sins of imperial Japan. It is telling that Kasulis ultimately rejects seeing Sorai simply through either a Machiavellian or a Platonic lens. This may be a warning to historians to avoid seeing straight lines of development and to question trying to connect one moment to another without a critical analysis of whether the connection is truly accurate. The interpretations of historical philosophy and cultures with a set agenda can lead to pigeon holing and confirmation bias.