Seppuku-confucianism samurai THINK IAFOR

June 9, 2016

Professor Stuart D. B. Picken explains the ways in which Japan’s Confucian social structures of harmony, duty and loyalty relate to its history of loyalty-inspired suicide in Part 13 of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph.

Shotoku Taishi and Confucianism

Shotoku Taishi (570- 622), regent to the Empress Suiko, is usually regarded as being the first national leader to actively promote Buddhism. Buddhist beliefs were encouraged in the seventeen clauses of moral guidelines he issued around 604, in which were stressed the ideal of harmony, and of Buddhism as a means of achieving that harmony. (Version from: de Bary, Wm Theodore (ed.) Sources of the Japan Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

Clause one began: “Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored”. The notion of harmony itself belongs to Confucianism. “When the world and the Way of Heaven coincide, there is harmony, well-being and peace”. It taught that harmony was to be preferred to conflict, and negotiation to confrontation. It was Confucianism that gave modern Japan the norms for its social structures. Confucianism originated in China as a system of social ethics designed to keep society just, stable and conservative. The principles are to be found in the sayings (Analects) of Confucius (551-479 BC), the father of the Chinese intellectual tradition. (Fung Yu-lan A Short History of Chinese Philosophy ed. Derek Bodde, New York, 1948) p.21 See also The Analects of Confucius tr. by Arthur Waley, London: Allen & Unwin, 1938) and Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Confucius (New York, The Modern Library, 1938.

He was a figure in sharply contrast to his Western counterpart, Socrates (470-399 BC) who died in Athens under sentence of death by means of drinking hemlock. He was accused of allegedly corrupting the youth of the city by teaching them to think critically.

While Socrates stressed ideas that led to the rise of philosophical argument as a method of seeking truth, and of scientific method as a means of establishing general truths, Confucius, in almost complete contrast, was preoccupied with the problem of social order. The principal consequence for Chinese thought was that the central problems of philosophy were not speculative but practical, and social ethics came to occupy in Chinese philosophy the place of prominence occupied by epistemology and metaphysics in the West.

The Confucian Structure of Relations

Confucius analysed society into five basic relationships (Analects op.cit. viii: 9).: (i) father/son; (ii) ruler/subject; (iii) husband/wife; (iv) elder brother/ younger brother; and (v) friend/friend. He suggested that when every individual fulfilled the particular duties of his station, society would be harmonious and would prosper as a consequence. It was necessary to live up to one’s social role. This he saw as part of the Way of Heaven, the founding concept of the Doctrine of the Mean, as it later became known. The social impact of this doctrine is seen in some of the less guarded statements he made about the way.

“The common people may be made to follow it (the Way) but may not be made to understand it.” This statement in principle divides society into the ordinary people and the feudal elite whom they are expected to respect and follow. It is to the principles of a feudal society that Confucian thought most readily lends support. One further quotation from the Confucian tradition should indicate the conservatism latent within it:

“To be stupid and to like to use his own judgment… people of this sort bring calamity on themselves. Unless one is the Son of Heaven, he does not decide o ceremonies, (of social order) make regulations, or establish the form and pronunciation of characters (in written Chinese). In the world today, all carriages have wheels of the same size, all writing is done with the same characters, and all conduct is governed by the same social relation…Although a man has the virtue, even is he does occupy the throne, he may not dare to institute systems of music and ceremony…” (Analects op. cit. p.475).)

This outlook survived the onslaught of Buddhist intellectuals and was reinforced by Cho Tun-i (1017-1073) (Chou Tun-i: For a discussion and source see: Wing tsit Chan A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy Princeton N.J.: University Press, 1969 p.460 ff), who linked it to the various types of metaphysics and cosmology current in his day. Even more than Confucius, Cho Tun-i stressed the conventional nature of morality, and affirmed that it must be taught by those duly informed.

“Moral principles are honorable and valuable only when they are possessed by man. At birth, man is ignorant. He remains stupid when he grows up if he has no teachers or friends to help him.” (For discussion see: Ed. Nivison, D.S., and Wright, A.L., Confucianism in Action Stanford, CA.: University Press, 1959) especially pp. 246, 254, 282).

Morality was conceived of as a system of values to be cultivated in man for the wellbeing of society. The doctrines of this tradition became, and remained until 1905, the basic themes of Chinese civil service examinations. Chu Hsi: For a discussion and sources see: Wing tsit Chan op. cit., p.588 ff). Their importance for the Edo period in Japan is beyond doubt. To a large extent they have survived to the present day.

The Social Ideal of Harmony

The principal value of society is order through harmony and harmony through obedience and loyalty to the various ranks and offices above one’s own. Harmony depends upon collective goals and collective interests taking precedence over individual goals, and loyalty is demonstrated not by silent devotion but by acts of service that exhibit the principle of subservience to collective goals. In order to facilitate the smooth functioning of society, as many aspects of daily life as possible are formalized.

This is reflected in the degree to which Japanese language remains analogously formalized. At the social level, political duties to the State take precedence over the various obligations of filial piety and social position that arise through kinship ties. Two terms are used to characterize what in English would be covered by the single term ‘duty’ as it originated in the feudal age. There is the word gimu, which was used for duties, which arose from the principle of loyalty to the collective goal, and giri is the kind of duty that arises from blood ties and close social relations.

“The notion of loyalty as the root of this system of values is best appreciated if it is understood that the antithesis is not ‘disloyalty’ but ‘selfishness’.”

The notion of loyalty as the root of this system of values is best appreciated if it is understood that the antithesis is not ‘disloyalty’ but ‘selfishness’. In other words, the individual’s inclinations must always be subordinated to collective goals. The individual is part of a twin network of duties, giri to those immediately around him and along with others, gimu to the collective goals as enunciated by the State. From these positions it follows that if one’s difference of opinion with another was sufficiently great, and one still wished to be loyal, one could find oneself faced with the duty of removing oneself altogether from the scene of the action. In a society that valued loyalty as the supreme virtue, and made an art out of not giving offence, ritual suicide as an expression of belief in and respect for social order was a natural development.

This position was pushed to a further extreme by the adjustment of the Confucian structure of relations by the Edo government – an adjustment which not only heightened feudal control but also matured the militaristic mentality of the neo-samurai, which dominated Japan until the end of the Pacific War and which lingers still in often unexpected places.

Neo-Confucianism and Neo-Samurai

After Nitobe Inazo published Bushido: The Soul of Japan around 1905, Bushido was mistakenly seen as the ethic of the Japanese people and the soul of Japan. What Nitobe was writing to justify (probably unconsciously) was the neo-samurai mentality that flourished during the era of modernization and which taught a debased form of Confucianism using the warrior class to maintain its political goals. The Tokugawa government aimed at eradicating all possibility of insurrection or revolution by ordinary people against their superiors and to this end rearranged the traditional order of Confucian relationships:

(1) Ruler – Subject
(2) Father – Son
(3) Husband – Wife
(4) Elder brother – Younger brother
(5) Friend – Friend

Thus relationships (1) and (2) changed places giving Ruler-Subject precedence. The monopoly of moral, political and intellectual authority vested in the bushi was derived from the neo-Confucian ethics of Chu Hsi (1130-1200), the Chinese scholar whose version of Confucianism the Japanese government chose to promote. The understanding of harmony in the Tokugawa system was simple enough:

“The law may upset reason, but reason may never upset the law… The law may be used to confound reason, but reason must certainly not be used to overthrow the law” (Sadler, A.L. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Tokugaw Ieyasu London, 1937)

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that feudal Japan under the Tokugawa family was a perfect model of social order. That there was a central power structure is not in doubt, but it was weakened by the independence maintained by many wealthy feudal lords. The restoration of Imperial power in 1868 saw the culmination and intensification of the central values of neo-Confucianism rather than their rejection. Indeed, the latter part of the Tokugawa period had seen the threatened collapse of centralization, which was one reason why many favored the restoration of the Emperor, not merely as the symbol, but as the effective source of power.

The Meiji Debate on Seppuku

The attitude of the public towards seppuku provides one clue to the emergence of the neo-samurai mentality. Another is provided by the way in which manipulated death, especially suicide, were seen as evidence of loyalty. Kurt Singer recognized this at a later stage when he noted: “When the samurai class as such was abolished, its ideals remained in force, unquestioned.” (Singer op.cit., p.166s)

In 1869, Ono Seigoro, clerk of the house, opened a debate in the National Diet on a motion to abolish seppuku. The motion was heavily defeated. Some of the recorded statements made by its supporters in defense of seppuku, show that they clearly saw it as a means of preserving feudal loyalty. Speeches against the motion included the following statements:

“Seppuku is the very shrine of the Japanese national spirit. It is in itself a moral act, being the embodiment in practice of devotion to principle.”

“It is a great ornament to the Japanese Empire.”

“It is a pillar of the national constitution.”

“It is a pillar of religion and an incentive to moral aspirations.”

And one of special note recommends:

“It is a valuable institution, tending to the honor of the noble classes, and based on a compassionate feeling towards the official caste.”

This statement confirms beyond all doubt what was thought to be at least one valuable purpose to be served by retaining seppuku. For a fuller discussion of the debate, see: Seward J. Hara Kiri (Tokyo: Charles Tuttle, 1968, p.94 ff).

At the time of the debate many who heard of the proposal to abolish seppuku made their way to Tokyo in protest. One protestor, to express his loyalty, disemboweled himself in front of the Imperial Palace, and with the blood that was dripping from his torn stomach, painted the symbol of the rising sun on a white sheet which he held aloft as he died in salutation to Emperor Meiji. (Quoted in Seward op. cit., p.93).

Imperial Rescript on the Army

The effective centralization of power and the uniformity of ideology established in 1868 were total and had behind them the divine authority of the Emperor as the true source of the Way. The same authority is apparent in the Imperial Rescript on the Army, issued in 1882, which may be summarized as follows:

1. The soldier’s first duty is to be loyal
2. The soldier shall be upright in his demeanor
3. The soldier shall highly esteem health and strength
4. The soldier shall esteem fidelity
5. The soldier shall make frugality a fundamental principle

While only the first of these principles directly pertains to the practice of suicide, it will be seen that this first rule of subservience to collective interest and collective goals is paramount to making possible all the concepts of group 3 in the list of suicide themes. Suicide squads, suicide attacks and suicide in the event of capture all became esteemed acts. Once again, the duty to commit suicide became written into the moral system of the Japanese nation, explaining among others, the loyalty-inspired suicides that occurred in 1945 when the Imperial order to surrender was broadcast.

An illustration of the argument so far is the case of Lt. Col Noboru Kuga, an officer in the Imperial Army who was captured at Howachin, in China. He was wounded by a bullet and lay unconscious on the ground. On waking, he found that he had been taken prisoner, but that neither his sword nor his revolver had been taken. Unable to draw his sword from its scabbard, since it had been damaged, he therefore shot himself. The Japanese Military Headquarters at Shanghai, in posting his death, used the term jijin, implying that he had killed himself by means of his sword. This was in acknowledgement of his suicide note, which stated that he had tried to use the sword, and since this was not possible, he had fulfilled his obligation of loyalty by shooting himself, although his aesthetic sense was thereby offended. Like thousands of others, he performed the duty to commit suicide in accordance with the morality he knew and thus exhibited in the highest degree, that loyalty to the collective goals of the body politic then expected of every Japanese citizen.

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This is Part 13 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, Militarism – Meiji to Showa will be published next Thursday on June 16, 2016.


Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System

Stuart D. B. Picken

About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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