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  • In Search of the Way: Thought and Religion in Early-Modern Japan, 1582–1860 by Richard Bowring
  • Mark T. McNally
In Search of the Way: Thought and Religion in Early-Modern Japan, 1582–1860. By Richard Bowring. Oxford University Press, 2017. 352 pages. Hardcover £75.00/ $115.00.

The field of Tokugawa intellectual history outside of Japan has grown and matured over the last several decades. The various forms of Confucianism that developed during the Edo period, as well as the scholarly reactions against them, dominated the field during the 1970s and 1980s, but other areas have come under scrutiny since then, enriching it in important ways as a result. The complexity and diversity that have emerged have now been encapsulated in a single volume with Richard Bowring's In Search of the Way: Thought and Religion in Early-Modern Japan, 1582–1860. By [End Page 317] bringing together the various thinkers and intellectual movements in this book, which he describes as a continuation of his previous work, The Religious Traditions of Japan, 500–1600, Bowring provides his readers with the analytical juxtaposition needed to appreciate the rich variety of intellectual traditions of the time and to see where they cohere with, or diverge from, one another.

A volume of this kind is essentially impossible to summarize. For those with only a passing familiarity with the subject, the major figures and their ideas are covered, with analytical descriptions that readers will likely find both interesting and useful. As one would expect, Bowring devotes much of his book to canonical figures such as Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), Yamaga Sokō (1622–1685), Itō Jinsai (1627–1705), Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728), Nakae Tōju (1608–1648), Kumazawa Banzan (1619–1691), Arai Hakuseki (1657–1725), Yamazaki Ansai (1619–1682), Ishida Baigan (1685–1744), Kamo no Mabuchi (1697–1769), Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801), and Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843), among many others. Those with more experience in Tokugawa intellectual history will welcome the discussion of subjects that usually receive treatments outside of the field, such as Buddhist and Shinto scholarship.

The discussion of Buddhist scholarship is perhaps surprisingly detailed for an era known mostly for developments within Confucianism. Despite the best efforts of seventeenth-century Buddhist scholars to maintain the intellectual relevance of Buddhism to Tokugawa society, its academic decline created the context within which Confucianism began its rise to prominence (p. 59). This intellectual decline accompanied a general stagnation in the development of Buddhist doctrine, under the strict direction of the bakufu (p. 181). However, as Bowring argues, japanologists might forget that the division between Sōtō and Rinzai Zen that historians commonly associate with the Kamakura period was, in fact, a product of the Edo period (p. 188).

Despite the rise of Confucianism, especially what japanologists commonly refer to as Neo-Confucianism—namely, the teachings associated with the Song-dynasty scholars Cheng Yi (1033–1107), Cheng Hao (1032–1085), and Zhu Xi (1130–1200)—Bowring observes that the academic institution associated with the bakufu and administered by the Hayashi family did not become "official" until 1802, only sixty-six years before the overthrow of the Tokugawa (p. 241). By "official," Bow-ring likely means the imposition of an intellectual orthodoxy that, in the absence of a civil service examination system, had less significance in Japan than it did in China, Korea, or Vietnam. He notes that for the century and a half or so prior to that the Hayashi Academy was "private" (p. 63), an admittedly odd word to signify the lack of a Confucian orthodoxy. Razan, the founder of the line of scholars who supervised the academy, was never more than a "librarian" (p. 108) who, although "occasionally indulged," was "never allowed to forget [his] status" (p. 63). Thus, much of what he and his son Gahō (1618–1680) asserted in their writings as proof of their own claims to the orthodox mantle of Neo-Confucianism was bluster and hyperbole, bearing very little resemblance to the realities of the seventeenth century. With the exception of Arai Hakuseki, perhaps the only Tokugawa intellectual who wielded "considerable authority" as shogunal adviser during the early years of the [End Page 318] eighteenth century, the...


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