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Making a Moral Society

Ethics and the State in Meiji Japan

Richard M. Reitan

Publication Year: 2010

This innovative study of ethics in Meiji Japan (1868–1912) explores the intense struggle to define a common morality for the emerging nation-state. In the Social Darwinist atmosphere of the time, the Japanese state sought to quell uprisings and overcome social disruptions so as to produce national unity and defend its sovereignty against Western encroachment. Morality became a crucial means to attain these aims. Moral prescriptions for re-ordering the population came from all segments of society, including Buddhist, Christian, and Confucian apologists; literary figures and artists; advocates of natural rights; anarchists; and women defending nontraditional gender roles. Each envisioned a unity grounded in its own moral perspective. It was in this tumultuous atmosphere that the academic discipline of ethics (rinrigaku) emerged—not as a value-neutral, objective form of inquiry as its practitioners claimed, but a state-sponsored program with its own agenda.

After examining the broad moral space of "civilization," Richard Reitan turns to the dominant moral theories of early Meiji and the underlying epistemology that shaped and authorized them. He considers the fluidity of moral subjectivity (the constantly shifting nature of norms to which we are subject and how we apprehend, resist, or practice them) by juxtaposing rinrigaku texts with moral writings by religious apologists. By the beginning of the 1890s, moral philosophers in Japan were moving away from the empiricism and utilitarianism of the prior decade and beginning to place "spirit" at the center of ethical inquiry. This shift is explored through the works of two thinkers, Inoue Tetsujiro (1856–1944) and Nakashima Rikizo (1858–1918), the first chair of ethics at Tokyo Imperial University. Finally, Reitan takes a detailed look at the national morality movement (kokumin dotoku) and its close association with the state before concluding with an outline of some conceptual linkages between the Meiji and later periods.

With its highly original thesis, clear and sound methodology, and fluid prose, Making a Moral Society will be welcomed by scholars and students of both Japanese intellectual history and ethics in general.

4 illus.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

A work of this kind is never entirely one’s own; it draws upon the suggestions and support of others. As this book took shape, many people offered their expertise and assistance and I wish to express to them my gratitude. Above all, I am sincerely grateful to Tetsuo Najita and Jim Ketelaar at the University of Chicago ...

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Introduction: Ethics and the Universal in Meiji Japan

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pp. ix-xvi

Moral universalism is a contentious idea. The theory of “moral universals”—the idea that all humanity or all those of a particular national or cultural community share certain common moral sensibilities, or that one’s own moral perspective is in fact a timeless moral truth—has in some form long been a central feature of moral discourse. ...

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Chapter 1. Civilization and Foolishness: Contextualizing Ethics in Early Meiji Japan

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pp. 1-21

During the first decade of the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan was plagued by intense social turmoil. In the years immediately following the 1868 revolution that toppled the Tokugawa regime, the new Meiji government contended with riots, rebellions, and civil war, while perceptions of the very real threat of colonization, ...

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Chapter 2. The Epistemology of Rinrigaku

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pp. 22-56

In the first two decades of the Meiji period, a number of texts appeared that took up the question of ethics. Some of the most important of these works included Nishi Amane’s “The Three Human Treasures”; Inoue Tetsujirō’s A New Theory of Ethics; Katō Hiroyuki’s A Reconsideration of Human Rights ...

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Chapter 3. Rinrigaku and Religion: The Formation and Fluidity of Moral Subjectivity

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pp. 57-80

As the new discipline of ethics began to emerge out of the social disruption and moral disorientation of early Meiji, it contended with religion for the authority to speak for “the good.” At stake in this contest between ethics and religion was the human interiority. To what extent, if at all, should the state play a role in shaping the individual’s moral conscience? ...

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Chapter 4. Resisting Civilizational Hierarchies: The Ethics of Spirit and the Spirit of the People

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pp. 81-113

In the 1890s, moral philosophers in Japan began to reconfigure the discipline of ethics. The utilitarianism and evolutionary naturalism that dominated the moral discourse of early Meiji gave way to a moral philosophy of spirit. This shift was part of an effort to resist the civilizational hierarchies imposed by the West and internalized ...

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Chapter 5. Approaching the Moral Ideal: National Morality, the State, and “Dangerous Thought”

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pp. 114-152

The Taoist classic Tao te ching observes, “[W]hen the state is in confusion, it is then that there are faithful subjects.”1 Such a statement might well be describing turn-of-the-century moral discourse in Japan. At this time, while the “dangerous thought” of anarchism, socialism, and individualism threatened to undermine the foundation of the state, ...

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Epilogue: The Ethics of Humanism and Moral Particularism in Twentieth-Century Japan

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pp. 153-166

The discipline of ethics (rinrigaku) emerged in Japan not as an objective and value-neutral form of academic inquiry, but as one among many competing normative views on how society ought to be ordered. From the early Meiji period, when Inoue Tetsujirō and others established this discipline, ...


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pp. 167-204


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pp. 205-218


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pp. 219-230

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About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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Richard Reitan received his doctorate in history from the University of Chicago in 2002. His research centers on issues of ethics, gender, and identity in modern Japanese intellectual history. He has published a number of articles on related topics, among them “National Morality, the State, and ‘Dangerous Thought’: Approaching the Moral Ideal in Late Meiji Japan” ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837686
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832940

Publication Year: 2010