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  • A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 by Watanabe Hiroshi
  • John A. Tucker (bio)
A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901. By Watanabe Hiroshi. Translated by David Noble. International House of Japan, Tokyo, 2012. xiv, 543 pages. ¥3,000.

Watanabe Hiroshi’s A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 joins Maruyama Masao’s Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan (1974) and Inoue Tetsujirō’s early-twentieth-century trilogy on Japanese [End Page 495] Confucianism as a major contribution, minted at the University of Tokyo, to more in-depth, multidimensional understandings of early modern and modern Japanese political thinking and the intrinsically intimate relationships of the latter to various and often multifaceted expressions of Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought. Watanabe studied at the University of Tokyo during Maruyama’s heyday and was shaped, though hardly slavishly, by the latter’s own ever-evolving appraisals of Japanese political thought and its ties to Confucianism. Yet, the interpretive strategies of an earlier student of Maruyama’s, Matsumoto Sannosuke, reverberate in Watanabe’s work far more than those of Maruyama. Rather than following European theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Watanabe also builds on hermeneutic sensibilities developed by American interpreters of Confucianism and East Asian thinking, especially those advanced by Tu Wei-ming at Harvard and Wm. Theodore de Bary at Columbia. The result is an impressively wide-ranging, innovative survey of Japanese political thought from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth. The unifying thread is Watanabe’s philosophically perceptive readiness to recognize in seminal themes and notions of Japanese Confucianism the axial sources in the evolution of Japanese political thinking en route to Meiji’s modernity. Without grandiose philosophical drama echoing Hegelian or Marxian dialectics, Watanabe crafts a calmer, cosmopolitan narrative offering erudite analyses unfolding like an elegant zuihitsu of intellectual history. In his text, profound thinkers and praxis are examined; absent are farfetched impositions that would force onto the flow of ideas and their practical expressions the mechanical theoretics that distort the often meandering courses of ideological currents in political thinking. With David Noble’s exceptionally well-done and highly readable English translation, Watanabe’s study should be on any list of readings, undergraduate and graduate, relevant to Japanese intellectual history. Explored alongside Maruyama’s Studies, Watanabe’s innovative interpretations of political thought from the Tokugawa through the mid-Meiji period appear in high relief. Many might well conclude that Ma ru yama’s Studies—seminal, thought provoking, and politically poignant as it is—has been effectively displaced by Watanabe’s incisive interpretations.

Watanabe’s book is entitled, in Japanese, Nihon seiji shisōshi, Ma ruyama’s is Nihon seiji shisōshi no kenkyū. As Watanabe’s subtitle, Jūshichi jūku seiki (The seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) indicates, his text reaches into the Meiji period, with discussions of Fukuzawa Yukichi and Nakae Chōmin, much as Maruyama’s Studies explores Meiji thought and Fukuzawa’s relation to it. Partly based on lectures to undergraduates, Watanabe’s book also draws on his previously published scholarship. This is noted in the Japanese edition’s afterword but unfortunately is not mentioned in the English translation. Maruyama’s Studies similarly first appeared as a [End Page 496] succession of articles in the early 1940s, then was republished by the University of Tokyo Press in 1952 as a monograph. In addition to publishing with its press, Maruyama and Watanabe served the university as respected members of the Faculty of Law. Their common focus on early modern and modern intellectual giants—Itō Jinsai, Ogyū Sorai, Motoori Norinaga, Andō Shōeki, and Fukuzawa Yukichi—reflects their shared understanding of the contours of Tokugawa intellectual history and its segue to the Meiji Restoration (or Revolution, as Watanabe calls it) and important currents of political thought issuing from it.

Watanabe’s work shares a weakness with Maruyama’s Studies: while contextualizing Japanese Confucianism relative to that of Song China (and doing so oversimplistically), the real short shrift goes to Korean texts and Korean interpretations of Chinese Confucianism and their impact on Japanese Confucian thinking. In his “Author’s Introduction to the English Edition,” Maruyama acknowledged this problem, stating, “no study of...


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